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The Ancient Greek Remedy for Depression Still Used Today

ancient greek traditional medicine Hippocrates
Hippocrates is considered the father of traditional Ancient Greek medicine, and his oath is taken by doctors upon graduating all over the world. Credit: Raed Mansour/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Medicine played a central role in Ancient Greek culture, as it did in history at large. The oath of Hippocrates is still taken by young medicine students internationally today.

Ancient Greek medical practices date back to the very early Mycenean eras of which we have archaeological evidence. Medicine developed a great deal from the 5th century B.C. to the first centuries A.D. But how did Greek medicine advance so rapidly compared to other cultures?

While Egyptian medicine was quite advanced, it was a holy type of knowledge that could only be practiced by high priests. Greeks, on the other other hand, thought this was a science to which one could be initiated.

While they did consider medicine to be of the Greek god Asclepius, doctors consistently sought remedies wherever they could and recorded these findings. The noteworthy thing about Greek medicine was that it was conceptual. Greeks turned medicine into a science rather than a practice.

Mania, Melancholia, and Paranoia: The Three Ancient Faces of Depression

Hippocrates was among the first doctors in medical history to classify mental illnesses in the 4th century B.C. The classification separated the diseases into “melancholia,” “mania,” and “paranoia,” which are the same categories Western psychiatry has used since the 1800s.

The doctors of these centuries would go on to influence medicine with esotericism. They also influenced Arab medicine in terms of the doctrine of the four humors.

According to Hippocrates, the origin of melancholia was an excess of black bile, correlated to autumn and Earth (Greek: μέλαινα χολή, mélaina chole).

Mania was thought of as an excess of yellow bile (Greek: ξανθη χολή, xanthe chole), associated to summer and fire. Neurological illnesses, such as epilepsy, were included in the classification.

Talking Therapy and Lithium, the Gold Standard

Ancient Greek doctors looked for inspiration in popular knowledge, as well as their own scientific experiments and noted every lesson learned in the process.

One such story is of a farmer, who saved his own life after a deadly snake bite. He immediately tightly tied the affected limb, cutting off blood circulation, and chopped it off at the first joint. He then burned it with fire.

Around the 5th century, Greek doctors began seriously considering the plight of mentally ill individuals and looking for solutions. These included physical contention (mostly for epilepsy) and talking therapy, both of which are treatments still practiced today.

Dioscorides Pedanium, active in Asia Minor between 40 and 60 A.D., was a military surgeon who would go on to influence Galen (129-212 A.D.).

As far as manuals dating back to the 5th century B.C., a listed treatment for mania is natural mineral water from alkaline sources, among others. There were also reports of treatments bordering on exorcism. Certain rituals involved seeds being burned under the nose of the possessed with a chant.

Ancient Greek medicine
Credit: Wellcome Images/ Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0

“Circam ripam fluminis quod Gange appellatur

Dioscores reported that, in India, close to the Ganges, the water “alleviates unjustified fears, resists demons and evil spells and preserves the innocence of girls.”

He himself used hundreds of vegetables, animals, and mineral remedies. The remedies in his repertoire were classified according to functions—purging, inflammation, diuretic, or narcotic. Dioscores was known to not hold back on the latter (including opioids) as painkillers, exactly as medicine preaches today.

In recent times, lithium was rediscovered as a remedy. Today, it is the gold standard of depression prevention and bipolar depression. In 1817, Swedish scientist Arfwedson managed to isolate the alkaline metal, which he called lithium. The mineral was briefly in fashion, with bottled lithium drinks having been all the rage.

The term “lithium” (Greek: Λίθος, Lithos) means stone. It is the third element of the Greek periodic table under alkalines.

It was only around the 20th century that the world fully understood the importance of lithium for bipolar and suicide prevention in the population.

Psychiatrist John F. Cade, who experimented on Australian veterans in Melbourne, found that the urine of mentally ill soldiers had more toxins, and lithium helped. He published in 1949 in The Medical Journal of Australia, writing the article “Lithium salts in the treatment of psychotic excitement.”

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