This FFFF is a selection of passages from Ancient Classical Literature, which make reference to Emergency Medicine.
The true definition of what Ancient Literature is has been hotly debated by those standing nearest to the dip at parties, but on the whole seems to be agreed upon to be any literature written prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, or approximately 400 AD. It is quite beautiful to see some of these descriptions, and realise they saw many of the same injuries and illness that we do now, just without quite so many evidence based treatments, not to mention drug company provided research and pens.
So, let’s put pen to papyrus, and look at Emergency Medicine in Ancient Classical Literature.
Who wrote this?
But as he drew back, Meriones let fly at him a bronze-tipped arrow, and smote him on the right buttock, and the arrow passed clean through even to the bladder beneath the bone. And sitting down where he was in the arms of his dear comrades he breathed forth his life, and lay stretched out like a worm on the earth;  and the black blood flowed forth and wetted the ground.
- Homer from The Iliad (Homer. Iliad xiii 640-655)
- There are a great many references to wounds, both lethal, and recoverable within the epic poems of Homer, all sustained on the battlefield of the Trojan War. The Iliad is the celebration of the tenth and final year of the war, reputedly over one woman, written in the 8th century BC.
- Homer also describes some fairly rudimentary and unusual treatment regimes for such battle wounds, including grated goat cheese and barley sprinkled in hot wine. You may recall though that the greatest teacher of medicine and healing in Homer’s writing was, in fact, Chiron, who taught both Achilles and his Lover, Patroclus, the art of healing. He was a centaur.
What text is this passage from?
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean. And this shall be his uncleanness in regard to his discharge…’
- Of course – it’s from that tremendous ancient bestseller, the Bible (Leviticus 15: 1-33).
- This particular verse comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus, which has many references to unclean habits and living, and has some excellent advice about things such as incest and bestiality, amongst other health related matters
- The bible is also scattered with evidence of medical cures, some holy, others more down to earth – such as Numbers 19:18 – ’18 A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, the slain, the dead, or a grave.’ where hyssop has been shown to have a high level of anti fungal and anti bacterial properties.
- There is unlimited discussion about the relevance of medical references in the Scriptures and their significance to modern day practices – some scholarly, and others, well, just crackpot. There is no question, however, that the multitude of health references within the Bible show that the authors of the time knew that physical health was linked to spiritual health, a holistic approach we still struggle with today.
Who wrote this?
King Darius in hunting beasts lept from a horse and was sprained in his foot. And it was sprained somehow rather violently; for his ankle-bone went out of its socket. Then, because he was accustomed even earlier to have those of the Egyptians who were thought to be first in the physician’s art round him, he made use of those. But they by twisting and forcing the foot worked a greater evil.
- This piece is from Herodotus — Histories (volume 1 and volume 2).
- These were extraordinary volumes of work which covered the mostly factual account of the colossal confrontation between the Greeks and the Persians. They examined the huge geo-political issues of the the times, but also described minutia of every day. The passage quoted describes the fracture dislocation of the ankle of King Darius following a fall from his horse, and the initial botched relocation.
- Herodotus spends some time paying accolades to the great Physician, Democodes, who Herodotus describes as the most skilful Physician of his time. Democodes goes on to heal the ankle without further trauma, and was rewarded with the pleasure of dining with the King.
Who wrote this?
At first – oh wretched man! – he prayed in calm
of mind, rejoicing in his lovely garment;
but when the gory flame began to blaze
up from the offerings on the sappy pine,
sweat covered all his body, and the robe
clung to his sides as if glued by a craftsman
to every joint; and from his very bones
shot up spasmodic, stinging pangs: the poison,
like some detested, bloody snake’s, devoured him
- Sophocles — from his lesser known play Trachiniae, also known as ‘The Women of Trachis’ or ‘The Trachinian Maidens‘, written in 430 BCE.
- The actual passage is long and describes the death of Heracles, who sits high among the many Greek heroes. Heracles is given the gift of a coat, via his wronged wife, which has been strewn through with a poison taken from the blood of an animal killed by a toxic spear. It is thought by most academics to be a description of the zoonotic disease, anthrax.
- Virgil, in his Georgic poems, written in 29 BCE, also describes anthrax in book III (which, oddly enough, is a tome mostly dedicated to the poetry of animal husbandry). He describes a fatal disease, transmitted on a garment, coming from sheep, cattle and horses.
Who wrote this?
And ready-witted Prometheus he bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long- winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver; but by night the liver grew as much again everyway as the long-winged bird devoured in the whole day.
- Hesiod, from his poem Theogony, is the first documented author of the myth of Prometheus (one of my all time favourites, the original saviour of the underdogs aka the human race — and who you may remember from FFFF 060). (Hesiod. Theogony Lines 507-616)
- Written sometime in the 8th century BCE, it explores the story of Prometheus, who disobeyed his brother Zeus, and gave the gift of fire to humanity. For this crime he was sentenced by Zeus to be strung up on a cliff face and have his liver devoured by and eagle nightly, whereby it would regrow each morning. It is the earliest record that the liver could, in fact, regenerate, a property well utilised by our current god-like surgeons
- Many ancient authors have had a go at the legend of Prometheus, including Ovid (around 8 AD) (the alpha poet of all things Greek mythological, and a great influencer of Shakespeare by all accounts (but there’s another FFFF)), Aeschylus (5th century BCE), also found in Plato and Aesop. Apparently Ridley Scott’s about to give it a go.
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