I picked up a fun book tracing a historical perspective on the advancement of medicine, and it naturally included a section about the Hippocratic Oath (400 B.C.). Hippocrates was the ancient Greek physician credited as being the father of Western Medicine. He is famous for dismissing beliefs, more ancient than he was, that advocated the supernatural origin of disease.
The oath, which has frequently been summed up as “first do no harm” is actually quite lengthy. It has been modified multiple times over the centuries and, as it turns out, was not, most probably, written by Hippocrates.
Another irony is that, while Hippocrates disavowed supernatural origins of disease, the original oath translated from Greek, begins by invoking supernatural beings: “I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius [God of Medicine], by Hygieia [Goddess of health and cleanliness], by Panacea [Goddess of remedies], and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.”
The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of texts associated with Hippocrates’ teachings, only part of which was authored by Hippocrates. And perhaps in another irony, the Paneth Codex, another medical text that was completed long after Hippocrates had passed, contains some of his writings while using depictions of demons as metaphors for disease.
It seems that it was hard for even the most objective early practitioners of medicine to fully eliminate the supernatural from the corners of their medicine cabinets. And maybe for good reason. For the supernatural, once identified and defined, can become quite natural.
So just what is the supernatural and what is natural or normal when it comes to defining illness?
My background and careers are largely based upon science and logical reasoning. Yet, I’m still willing to keep an open mind and recognize that science and human genius can’t always explain things. As most people would attest, we’ve seen or experienced things that simply don’t fit neatly into the boxes and shelves of the “normal.”
To say it differently, I believe in the metaphysical realm. I also believe in mind-body connections and what’s happening in the mind can find ways of manifesting itself in the body.
While I was working at a major research hospital, the doctors and nurses frequently described and linked personality types with specific diseases. And not always in the most positive terms. A more neutral example might be that “Type A” personalities were more likely to have heart attacks than “Type B” personalities.
Which brings me to today’s pondering.
Is every so called “unnatural” or “abnormal” condition truly an “illness?” What’s the interplay between mental and physical illness?” And what if instead of an illness that required treatment, people were really, in some instances, going through an evolution that should be allowed to progress?
And I guess before I dive in too deeply here, I should clarify that I’m not a mental health professional, nor am I a medical doctor. If you’re needing a medical opinion, consult your primary care physician, and if you wish to learn more about mental health from a real professional, check out the site of my blogging friend Dr. Perry.
That disclaimer aside, most illnesses would fall outside the definition of normal and some seem relatively simple to diagnose and identify their causes. Some are genetically related and some follow the pathogen-induced pathway. Sounds simple, you’re born with the genetic makeup that can be expressed as a physical ailment or you encounter a virus or bacterium and you contract a disease.
But many people have “bad genes” or have close encounters with pathogens and they don’t become ill. Why? They are usually said to have healthier immune systems. What makes a healthy immune system? Besides good nutrition and exercise there are plenty of correlations to good mental health, positive thinking, and being happy to having a healthy immune system and healthy body.
The idea of illness originating in the mind, or from a body being out of balance might coincide more with some Eastern medical practices, while germ theory most follows Western medicine. Although I will give Western medicine credit for having researched some things like meditation and meridians and finding scientific bases to support traditional Eastern or more holistic approaches to treatment. And many Western pharmaceutical treatments come directly from old-fashioned herbal remedies from the Shamans of old.
So if one is encountering an illness, or deviation from normal physical or mental health, something not occurring naturally, then, despite Hippocrates’ claims, could there be a “supernatural” cause, and just what would that mean?
The definition of “supernatural” doesn’t only include references to spiritual entities, but it more basically means transcending the laws of nature or being attributable to an invisible agent. So, before the advent of the microscope, a simple bacterium or a virus would not have been visible in the observable universe and an illness caused by such would have been a supernatural occurrence. Consequently, depending on the limits of scientific measurement at any point in time, many causes of diseases could, by simple definition, be supernaturally caused.
And when referring to the supernatural, does it have to be an external source? What about the person’s own spirit? Can’t a damaged soul be expressed as a physical ailment?
Or maybe an enlightened soul is causing a physical evolution?
My daughter sent me an interesting article the other day called, “Shamans Believe Mental Illness Is Something Else Entirely.” The article focused on a West African Shaman of the Dagara people who proposes that some mental ailments, like depression and schizophrenia may actually be a step towards transformation – even meaning the birth of a healer.
The Dagara believe that some of what we in the West call mental illness is really what happens when people encounter, and don’t how to deal with, psychic phenomena and the spiritual world. In their tradition, these individuals are seen as a bridge between physical and spiritual worlds.
This Shaman is said to have taken an 18-year-old suffering from hallucinations and depression back to his village. After 8 months of healing rituals this person was acting quite “normal” and returned to U.S. society to earn a degree in Psychology at Harvard.
While this may be an isolated example, it’s an amazing concept to contemplate. And I’m not saying that such non-traditional approaches would be a panacea for mental health treatments. I’m just saying there is still more unknown than there is known.
Given our acculturation, if we were undergoing a positive physical, mental, or spiritual transition we might very well be totally confused as to what was happening and think we were ill. Our doctors might be unable to come up with a definitive diagnosis and resort to traditional treatments or try to repress the evolution. You might be labeled as being mentally ill, which could, in turn, send you down medical corridors forever obscuring the inner butterfly emerging from the cocoon.
As more advances are made, and as more ways to measure the currently unmeasurable become available, finer distinctions may emerge as to what constitutes good or “normal” health. For the supernatural may be commonplace and just another source for healthy growth and development.
Photo: The book I picked up is titled: “The Medical Book” and it was written by Clifford A. Pickover. This picture is a portion of a photo used in the book and comes from the Paneth Codex, completed in Bologna in 1326 A.D. The book begins in the time frame of 10,000 B.C. moving through medical advances until 2008. Medicine, indeed, has come a long way from bloodletting starting in 1500 B.C., and I believe it still has a long way to go.
I can personally attest to the advances made in the treatment of asthma since the 1960s when many doctors believed that asthma was a mental illness. I had many a scary trip to the emergency room as a child, and when in full respiratory distress was even administered Thorazine, an antipsychotic medication, and knocked unconscious. Oh, the many things we’ve been fortunate enough to survive:-)
Hypocrite: I feel compelled to mention that the word “hypocrite” does not originate from “Hippocrates,” even though it sort of sounds like it does. Hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypokrites, meaning “an actor,” and translating more literally to “an interpreter from underneath” because actors at the time traditionally wore masks. Figuratively, it meant someone who wears a mask to pretend to be someone they are not. In early religious texts, its appears as “ypocrite” referring to those acting like they are morally good to deceive others. Today, of course, we accept the meaning that it’s a person acting contrary to their stated beliefs. In a loose sense, that could apply to Hippocrates – denouncing supernatural causes of disease while swearing to supernatural beings to practice good medicine 🙂
Update December 1, 2018: I stumbled upon another article today about this same subject and the Dagara. “A Mental Disease by Any Other Name.”
Link Rot Warning: No one can guarantee how long a link on the Net will last. The US Supreme Court got into trouble over this. One of the judges quoted from an Internet site, but after a couple of months the site was no longer there for reference. I also once went to check out a link promoted on our local TV weather channel only to discover it had been hijacked by a porn site – Yikes!