The greek myths



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Hylas is the handsome young friend and companion in adventure to Heracles, who was lost on the Argonautic expedition to Colchis at the far end of the Euxine Sea when water nymphs drowned him out of love for his beauty. Heracles stayed at Mysia looking for him, a cult of Hylas was established there at a sacred spring, in which ritual he is incorporated in the life-rhythms of plants, water and nature.
The Apples of the Hesperides, listed as the eleventh labor of Heracles, seem to be an exotic fruit coming from the far West, possibly from Spain. We are not able to identify this fruit from the myth, although one thinks immediately of the modern Spanish orange trade. Importation of fresh fruit from any western point to Greece would imply relatively fast naval transport, considering the short life of fresh fruit, but if the fruit were citric, its shelf life would be relatively long, while its color and smell, whether orange, lemon or any other member of the same family, would be arresting. We should remember that citric fruit are a primary source of Vitamin C, which is the immediate cure for the disabling disease we call scurvy, so the "Apples" may have had a medical use in Greece, although this is not insinuated in the myth. In any case, an imported fruit of some distinctive form or probably coloration seems to have come to the attention of the Greeks, who could not produce it at home.
Ceres is the Roman goddess of grain, identified by the Romans as the counterpart of the Greek deity Demeter. There is an basic connection of both goddesses with the production of grain, which is still the staple of diet for the greater part of humanity. Having the ten grains at hand, we forget that the production of the "grains" as such, which was only effected by millennia of purposeful hybridizing of some of the natural grasses, took place only after the last glacial period, and was the main factor which made possible the sudden rise of human population. Conversely, when grain became a major harvested comestible, large numbers of people were required for sowing the seed and reaping the harvest, so increasing populations went hand in hand with grain production. Civilization as we know it owes more to the development of the grains than to any single factor beyond human genetics. Grain deities are always to be treated with respect. Note that the Greek name 'Demeter" is analyzable into the rare 'de', meaning "earth" according to Hesychios' gloss, and the common noun 'meter" "mother". It is reasonable that an agricultural deity should be so named.
The rare Latin adjective 'cerritus' means "frenzied, possessed by Ceres, mad" , and is found in only six Latin texts, three in Plautus, one from Cicero and one each from Horace and Suetonius. All the uses clearly point to a state of insanity. It has been known for a hundred years now that "ergota" (or Secale cornutum) is a stage of the fungus Claviceps Purpurea, found in the pistils of many grasses, but predominantly growing on rye (Secale Cereale). The drug ergot was extracted and purified during the l9th c. and used intravenously as well as orally as a hemostatic agent, since it is a powerful vaso-constrictor. In the last thousand years various epidemics of "ergotism" have been attested, especially among poor peasants who subsisted mainly on bread products. The fungus progressively takes over the structure of rye, so that the more that people eat to assuage their hunger, the more of the ergot they ingest, which leads to itching, loss of sensation, amblyopia, loss of hearing, finally involuntary spasms, mental failure and even death. (Enc. Brit. llth ed. IX 737 f. Anon.)
No such symptomatology occurs in the words associated with the Greek divinity Demeter, but when she revealed her divinity at Eleusis, she instituted the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were characterized by trances and hallucinopathic states of mind, from the earliest period on through Roman times. Gordon Wasson thought that the active hallucinogen involved in these Mysteries may have been mushrooms of the Amanita family, basing his views on parallel developments in modern and ancient Mexican drug cults. However the Eleusinian Mysteries turned out, their origin may have been based on ingestion of ergot, since this is related to grain and hence to the grain-goddess Demeter. Selective doses of this fungus as an essential reagent in a hallucinogenic-religious cult could account for the trance-like states associated with the developed Eleusinian Mysteries. Peyotism among the American Indians assumed a similar role, and persisted in and alongside of the society without ill effects, much as did the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Two facts emerge from this discussion: First that ergot and ergotism poisoning were already known in the ancient world of the first millennium B.C., and second that the use of ergot could easily be incorporated in a religious rite. This means either that the fungus was less pronounced in its effects than in l8l6, when the last general European "poisoning" occurred, or that a way was found to administer selective doses, in such a manner as to produce religious illusions without the possibility of lethal effects.
An intimate view of what a thriving Mycenean agricultural community was like can be drawn from the story of Aeacos. Aeacus is son of Zeus (the older sun-god, cf Skt 'dyaus') and Aegina, a nymph who is eponymous with the island Aegina which lies in the Saronic Gulf. Aegina is of triangular shape, with only about 4l square miles of area, apparently a well developed Mycenean site, which may have retained its old Mycenean culture for a while after the Dorians invaded, according to Evans' interpretation of the archaeological evidence (A.J.Evans JHS l3, l95). Under Aeacus' rule the population was decimated by a plague, but quickly repopulated, in fact so fast that the myth arose that people (after that called Myrmidones), were actually created like ants (murmekes), which is the ethnic name for the island's inhabitants used by Homer.
The highly social behavior of ant colonies would not be ignored by clever and imaginative people living close to the land, and the use of this insect appellation implies that the island of Aegina was heavily populated before and after the plague, which was probably the result of invasion of foreigners carrying new pathogens. Aegina is described early in the present century as free from marshes and hence from malaria, the healthiest climate in Greece. A ridge divides it down the middle with very fertile plains on either side. The plains were well cultivated and produced "luxuriant crops of grain, of some cotton, vines, almonds and figs" (Enc. Brit ll ed., l, 25l, a description which although modern is valuable since it antedates the economic developments and resultant polluting changes of climate which the later part of this century has produced).
The situation resulting from isolation of the island, lack of malaria and fertile croplands would be the ideal setting for a dense population;which is what the "ant metaphor" connotes. We can thus outline an early chapter of Aegina's history, on the basis of increasing population becoming active with agriculture, rather than through trading and shipping across the Aegean Sea in typical Mycenean fashion..
Chapter 5
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Medicine and Pharmacopoeia
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A surprising number of Greek myths show some connection with medicine. Some refer to common pathological conditions, others describe psychological disabilities, and still others are concerned with genetics and the problems which can arise from inbreeding. This is not surprising, considering the later Greeks' special interest in the medical arts from the fifth century on well into the Christian period. The Greek pharmacopeia as listed by Dioscorides must have had millennia of experimental antecedents, and some of these seem couched in the ancient stories. The older cults of Apollo the Healer, and his son-apprentice Asclepios, are from a far earlier level than Hippocratic medicine and present a different roster of medical preoccupations, but even these seem to have been concerned with outlining the range of what medicine could, and possibly could not do.
Asclepios, the Father of Medicine, has a strange background. Apollo begot him by a woman named Coronis, whom he killed when he found she had been unfaithful to him. (The Greek noun 'korone' refers to a seabird, possibly the puffin, but also to the crow'; how this enters the storyline is not clear. One thinks of Penelope being derived from 'penelops' "duck"; wild waterfowl are monogamous.) Sorry for what he had done, Apollo decided to save the child Asclepios, and entrusted him to the care of the wise centaur, Chiron, from whom he learned the art of medicine. At the wish of Artemis. Asclepios restored Hippolytos to life, angering Zeus who slew him (a sad setback for medical art!), upon which Apollo killed the Cyclops who were the volcano-smiths of Zeus' weaponry. For this crime he was forced to do ritual penance as servant to a local king Admetos, who was slated to die unless he could find someone else to take his place. (From this point on the extant play of Euripides provides us with the basic facts.) Alcestis, the wife of the king elects to die for him, and does so, but Heracles, an unexpected and rather riotous guest in in the house,dives down to hell and brings her back, thus usurping the role of Asclepius to some degree.
From this exaggerated melange of inconsistent story -telling, we can abstract these facts: Apollo is the original medical healer, but when his role shifts to new areas (forgiveness for sin at Delphi, archery, justice, music, literature and so forth), Asclepius is invented to take over his purely medical functions. The connection with the centaur, who is a stock nursemaid and instructor to various young heroes, is interesting and probably has further meaning. But Asclepios can not save himself, and dies by violence, which is a symbolic way of stating the truth that no medicine is proof against death. Yet his name persists in Greece as the curator of medicine, his great temple at Epidauros was for centuries a center for healing, and he lives on through the ages in Greco-Roman society as the ultimate medical authority.
Asclepius' two most striking symbols are the snake and the dog. The snake may have purely symbolic value, but it has been suggested that snakes tied to a stick (the famous caduceus of medical art) may have been a way of inoculating patients with non-lethal doses of snake venom, actually a primitive hypodermic injection device. Snake venom is chemically similar to bee venom, which has been studied for fifty years now (Charles Mraz of Middlebury has been a leader in this research), and seems to be an important material in treating of various kinds of arthritis. If bee venom proves effective as medicine in arthritic cases, and if snake venom is similar enough to bee venom to come into the picture, then the snakes of Asclepius may turn out to have had a non-symbolic, medical value. Of the dog, who appears often in graphic representation of the master, less seems to be known.
The story of Admetus is told in detail in Euripides' play, which is the main source for this myth. Since Apollo is "father" to Asclepios, the god of healing, and Asclepios had just been killed, the role of Apollo in "healing Admetus from death" is apparent. We are dealing with a well developed medical cult which has at least two generations, first Apollo and then and his successor, who died. The core of the original story must have been how Apollo alone could save a man from death, even resuscitate the wife who died in his place. But when his apprentice Asclepios takes over, and then as doctor cannot even save himself, the story verges back toward the basic truth that we all know: People do die.
Recall that the religious-medical motif was still effective in public eyes in the first century A.D. when Jesus in some respects takes the place of Apollo, even finally healing himself from death, although in a complicated and unorthodox manner. Death cults are pervasive, persistent and very ancient, since they have to do with answering the one mystery which cannot be answered at all from a human point of view.
In the ancient tradition Heracles became insane, the play of Euripedes treats this matter in an odd and disconnected manner, which easily puzzles the modern reader. The fit of insanity is sent upon him by his ancient enemy Hera, he kills his own children under the illusion that they are the children of Eurystheus, and also his wife. Recognizing his act, he is only saved from suicide by the intervention of Theseus (whom he had previously saved from Hades), whereupon he goes to Athens to be purified and freed from guilt. The parallels with the madness of Ajax are obvious: Ajax killed sheep thinking that they were Greeks, Heracles killed his children thinking they were the "children" of Eurystheus, who controlled the wild horses of Diomedes which Heracles had previously tamed! The confusion of a present person with a past agent who is totally unrelated, define this kind of illusion as a true schizophrenia.
Under the unimportant name of Phineus, king of Salmydessus on the Black Sea, comes the opportunity to bring together for review the various occurrences of blindness mentioned in Greek myths, so we may see if there is any sort of a common basis. Phineus' two children by a first marriage were blinded by a second wife's instigation, but the remainder of the story seems insignificant.
Homer was blind according to tradition, this is easy to understand in modern terms, since the blind often exhibit remarkable memory and sensitivity, two things which a poet of the stature of a Homer would certainly require. But recall that the name Homer (Gr.' homeros') is a common noun meaning "hostage", and the possibility of hostages being blinded as a precaution against escape, as well as spying, seems plausible. The Cyclops Polyphemus is blinded by Odysseus, we take this as a clever trick on the part of Odysseus to escape, or perhaps as the blind eye of a red-rimmed volcano about to erupt, but there may be other explanations. It is curious that the monster-volcano is named Polyphemus (Gr. 'poly + phem-', "much speaking"), from such an appellation one might rather think of a poet or raconteur, than a gigantic monster. Of course the most notable example of blindness is the self-inflicted punishment of Oedipous at the moment when he discovers that he is guilty of incest. Recalling that Oedipous was exposed as a child, and that the story about his having pins driven through his feet may actually be a periphrasis for his being genetically club-footed, one might wonder if he had defective vision also (whether blind, legally blind, or highly amaurotic), in which case he could easily kill a man on the road without knowing who he was, go on to marry a woman twice his age without a protest, and when criminally arraigned, point to his blindness. If, from a medical point of view, genetic foot deformity is in any way related to sight impairment, we might well be dealing with the case of a man, himself inbred to the point of turning up unfavorable characteristics, who continues with the process of inbreeding. In that case the Oedipous myth would begin to make sense on various levels: genetic, error of judgment, error of perception, and "blind" fate. Tiresias, known later as a seer and prophet in the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, was temporarily turned into a woman as punishment for killing a female snake. Whether this represents a sexual, phallic symbol, or is to be connected with the Indic nagas which are beneficial snake dieties, or to both, is unclear, but in his female state he was asked by Zeus and Hera which sex enjoyed lovemaking more. Answering that it was the male, he was instantly blinded by Hera in fury, but Zeus compensated as best he could by giving him another gift of "seeing", which is prophecy. Clearly his blindness has something to do with sexual matters, and the views of modern clinicians on this are important.
Thamyris seems to be another appearance, beside Homer, of a blind, or blinded poet. He contested in poetry with the Muses, who harmed (blinded?) him and blocked his musical gifts, out of a spirit of rivalry. He seems to another Homer type who had not made it into immortality via literary history.
Since the concept of micro-biological life was only introduced by the microscope of Van Leuwenhoeck in the l7 th. century, and established in the world of Pasteur and Lister two centuries later, we have no reason to expect the ancient Greeks to have a clear idea of microorganisms which can cause disease. But there are clues in one myth which imply an intuitive sense of where disease comes from and how it is transmitted:
Prometheus first men humans out of clay, when Zeus was wroth and denied them fire, Prometheus stole it for them. He later taught the gods which were the "best " parts of animal sacrifices offered up to them, tricking them into taking the bad parts and leaving the best for men to eat. The story has been ingeniously reversed from its more probable first script: A clever priest teaches men to eat the "worst" parts, leaving the best for the gods, the "worst" actually being the best. Zeus is naturally enraged.
As punishment Zeus ordered Hephaistos to fabricate out of clay, which was actually Prometheus' original medium rather than his own, a woman into whom the gods would breathe every necessary charm and skill, including Hermes' gift of lying and flattery. She was sardonically destined not to be a wife for Prometheus but for his brother Epimetheus. Her name was Pandora (Gr. 'pan + dora' "all gifts") and she brought to her mate the infamous box which contained all mankind's' ills, flying like insects from the box as soon as it was opened. Hope alone remained in the container as the sole, sad solace for mankind. What is interesting is the very early anticipation of something like bacteria in the image of flying insects, an opinion which was not be be bettered until the invention of the microscope and the biology laboratory. People in general still speak of contagious cold infection as carried by "bugs", no wiser in their speech than the men of antiquity.
The Cretan leader Idomeneus was returning from Troy when he was caught in a storm. Vowing to kill sacrificially the first thing he met upon reaching home safely, the first person he saw was his own son. As he prepared to fulfill this vow, a plague broke out, which the people attributed to this evil action, and drove him from the island into exile. (The killing of the son as a result of a vow seems to be a part of an entirely different story, it is like the biblical son-sacrifice in its bare fact, and not an essential part of this myth.) We are obviously dealing with the transmission of a viral pathogen of some unidentifiable sort, carried by a man who had been away for ten years in a foreign country. Bringing this back with him, he finds that his son falls sick first, and then it spreads to the community, which acts in partial hindsight trying to quarantine the disease by removing the carrier.
Considering the disease to actually be a curse, the story falls into the error which Hippocrates inveighs against in the preface to his treatise On the Sacred Disease (epilepsy), when he states that there are no sacred diseases, that diseases are of an entirely different origin and nature, and they are treatable by the medical art. It is strange that in this story of Idomeneus we have all the elements which would be necessary to posit the appearance of a contagious disease, all the necessary information is there, lying just beneath the surface, but the Greeks of the pre-Hippocratic period do not have the required mental preparation to make connections which would lead to seeing disease as disease. Just so early astronomers in the l7th century made drawings of Saturn which were directly based on their observations of the planet as seen in their telescopes. The drawings lack some bit of critical mental assessment, and come out terrible distorted, looking like a disc with a dot or a circular bracket on each side. Lacking an "object-hypothesis" of the ring of Saturn, they fail to draw what they actually saw, although today a grade-schooler can easily deduce the true form from a telescopic photograph. (The example is taken from R.L. Gregory: The Intelligent Eye, l970 p l22-4) Lacking an "object-hypothesis" for disease, the Cretans distortedly assume a curse.
Hippocrates much later remarks that Asians (i.e. Near Easterners) use goats extensively for food and their skins to sleep on, whereas Greeks do not use goats, and so lack certain diseases characteristic of the Asian populace. Informed medical opinion suggests that Hippocrates may have been speaking of goat-carried anthrax, which we know to have been prevalent in the ancient world, and since Idomeneus was returning from Asia Minor, is it possible that he was carrying anthrax with him on his person and clothing. Anthrax can be dormant for a period up to fifty years and is carried on skins and clothing in the dormant state. Medical history depends on the searching out of just such details, although documentation is always difficult.
One of the most remarkable medical myths concerns a problem associated with antisepsis, and demonstrates ancient knowledge of an area which we have never suspected. Heracles' son Telephos, ruler of the kingdom of Mysia, was wounded by the spear of Achilles when the Greeks invaded his country. The wound did not heal, but an oracle told him he must seek the one that wounded him to be healed. It turned out, as the myth tell it, that it was not Achilles that the oracle meant, but the actual spear which inflicted the wound.
In this story we have an early study in the effects of chemical reagents on wounds. If we assume that the spearpoint was of iron, then the active ingredient must be iron oxide or iron rust, which would have no special curative properties. But the spearpoint were made of bronze, we would be dealing with a copper based oxide. It is well known that copper sulphate (CuSo4) occurs naturally in cupriferous mine waters, and since Cyprus was mined extensively for copper all through the historical period, we may assume that the strikingly blue solution of copper sulfate would have been well known in Homer's world. In applying solution to iron, the copper is readily replaced by iron, so that if one dipped an iron knife blade or spearpoint into a saturated solution, the iron would immediately be coated by a deposit of bright reddish copper. (Early in this century this process was well known to mechanics, who used a saturated solution of copper sulphate to mark and identify tools and machine parts, the letters and numbers being masked off before immersion.)
If we can hypothetically assume for the moment that Achilles used this decorative treatment on his spearpoint, coloring his iron point with a bright copper plate, would it have any another use beyond the decorative color, which would incidentally prevent surface iron rust? We find that copper sulfate was used in pharmacy in the l9th century (Enc. Brit. ll ed. Vol VII, 110 b, unsigned) as a not very good emetic, but as a fairly effective superficial caustic and antiseptic. If Telephos were to follow his oracular response carefully, he would wend his way back to Achilles, find out what superficial chemical treatment his spearpoint had undergone, and then treat his wound with that same material. Copper mine-water (or CuSo4) will actually disinfect his suppurating wound. This argument makes good chemical and medical sense, and answers fairly the problem of how to cure Telephos' festering wound. More important, since we know very little about the ancients' use of antiseptics in the complicated surgical processes of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, we might well search for later use of this compound in medical texts, and for its general availability in the Greco-Roman world.
Various chapters of Greek medical history are concerned with the use of hallucinogens. Ergotism and the cults at Eleusis have been discussed under the grain deity Ceres or Demeter. The lotus-eaters of the Odyssey are clearly being drugged, possibly with opium or a form of cannabis, which have both been associated with central Asia Minor and India since early historical times. The views of Gordon Wasson about the Greeks' use of mushrooms as hallucinogens are interesting, especially in light of the prevalence of mushrooms in Greece, extending perhaps even to the name of the city Myc-enae (Gr. 'mycos' "mushroom"). The priestesses of the old temple of Athene on the north edge of the acropolis wended their way down to the lower town each day to bring up a carefully wrapped secret object, which is usually thought to be a cult-statue; it seems possible that they went down each day to get a fresh supply of some addicting vegetable material, which would incidentally reinforce their habit-forming ritual.



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