5 Bizarre Ways Our Ancestors Explained Disease

Feeling out of sorts? Might want to check to see if your humors are balanced.

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Anyone who has ever had a bad head cold can certainly relate to this spell found in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text:

“May you flow out, catarrh, son of catarrh, who breaks the bones, who destroys the skull, who hacks in the marrow, who causes the seven openings in the head to ache.”

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The Egyptians, like many other ancient cultures, thought that illness was caused by an angry deity or perhaps was a supernatural punishment for one’s actions. Spells, incantations, and magic were typically used to cure disease.

Fortunately, today’s doctors rely on science and modern medicine, but our ancestors believed diseases were caused by some pretty bizarre stuff.

1. Where’s your sense of humor?

The humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—aren’t the worst team of superhero names you’ve ever heard. As early as the third century, people believed these four physical qualities controlled the body.

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Hippocrates (you know, the reason doctors take the Hippocratic Oath) rejected the then-pervasive notion that disease and illness were caused by deities and magic. Hippocrates was on the right track, because he believed that disease started within the body. His theory of humoral balance, however, definitely missed the mark.

He proposed that the body was balanced by four fluids, or humors. The humors were associated with both the fundamental elements of earth, wind, fire, and air as well as the four seasons. Disease, Hippocrates proposed, occurred when the humors were out of whack.

The humors were also the original personality test. Each humor was associated with a certain temperament that defined a person’s personality. If you had too much black bile in your body, for example, you were thought to be extremely melancholy. Since black bile was associated with cold, dry weather and the earth element, melancholy individuals might have been sent to the seaside (a warm, wet climate) to cheer up and restore bodily balance.

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“Quinta Essentia” by Leonhart Thurneisser zum Thurn

This idea of the humors persisted well into the 19th century. Even Shakespeare relied heavily on humoral theory for character development in his plays. It was only in the late 1800s, as scientists discovered the bacteria and germs that caused certain diseases, that humoral theory fell out of favor.

2. Feeling sick? Blame Santa’s helpers.

Modern-day depictions show elves as being childlike, mischievous creatures like Santa’s helpers. Most early European cultures would disagree with this cute depiction. Instead, they saw elves as godlike creatures who had the power both to cause disease and restore health.

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In particular, elves were thought to cause sudden illness by shooting invisible arrows into people and cattle, commonly called “elfshot.” Understandably, it’s pretty hard to protect against invisible arrows. In Scotland, people wore amulets and arrow charms to protect themselves from elfshot.

Elves were also largely thought responsible for infant illness. Ancient Europeans believed that elves would steal healthy babies, replacing them with an identical elf child, or changeling. When the baby became sick, parents suspected their child was a changeling.

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To confirm their suspicions, parents would boil eggs in the presence of the baby, and if the baby laughed, cooed, or startled in surprise, their true changeling nature was revealed. Often, the parents would try to get their human baby back, but if they failed, they’d “give” the changeling back to the elves.

3. Ladies, beware the wandering womb.

I’ve never been happier to be a modern woman. As early as Plato’s day, doctors (all men, of course) believed the cause of most women’s illnesses to be a pesky case of wandering womb, which is exactly what it sounds like.

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L. Alma Tadema 1869 / Bruxelles

Our ancestors believed that the barren uterus would roam all over the body, causing any number of pains and diseases. These ailments were tidily summed up in one word: hysteria, derived from the Greek word for womb.

To recover from hysteria, women were advised to “lure the womb” back to its place in the body with fragrant scents, or better yet, by giving the womb a job to do and getting pregnant.

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By the Middle Ages, doctors agreed that the womb did not, in fact, wander around the body. But they still believed hysteria to be an exclusively female disease. The most common cure was for ladies to receive specially administered “massages” to relieve the nervousness associated with hysteria. No wonder women back in the day loved going to the doctor!

4. Divine intervention isn’t always a good thing.

Ever wondered why we say “bless you” after a sneeze? Our ancestors believed that even the benign act of sneezing was something much more sinister.

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A common belief was that sneezing could accidentally release your soul from your body. Others believed that the devil or other evil spirits could enter the body after a sneeze and steal your soul. And still others believed that the heart actually stopped beating for a moment during a sneeze.

The cure?

Saying “bless you” as quickly as possible to provide divine protection after a sneeze.

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In addition to sneezes, our ancestors believed divinities were responsible for all kinds of illnesses. Mental illness, for example, was thought to be the result of demonic possession across several different cultures.

Starting in biblical times, our ancestors believed that physical skin disorders, like leprosy, were divine punishment for sin and bad behavior. During the Middle Ages, especially, people with leprosy were thought to be contagious, and were outcasts in society. They were made to give up their possessions, wear special clothing, and ring bells announcing their presence.

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Treatment for leprosy was varied. Because people believed they were being punished by God, many sought a cure in the Church, while others turned to the modern (for the time) practice of humoral balance to cure the disease.

On the flipside, in ancient Greek culture seizures and epilepsy were thought to be the result of divine visitation and were often associated with being powerful. Although it has long been thought that Julius Caesar had epilepsy, historians now think he may have suffered from a genetic condition or mini-strokes and played up the epilepsy to make himself more powerful. Unfortunately, that plan really backfired for Caesar.

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By the Middle Ages, feelings had changed, and people who suffered epileptic seizures were treated as outcasts, similar to people with leprosy.

There was one sure way to cure disease caused by the divine: the royal touch.

Throughout history, people have believed that royalty were divinely ordained to be leaders. As such, they had the power to heal with just the touch of their hand.

5. Blame it on Saturn.

In the 1300s, the Black Death ravaged Europe, reducing the total population by a third. The devastating plague that affected Europe was actually a result of bacterial infection from fleas and rats, but medieval scholars believed that the planets were to blame.

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Normally, astrology foretold omens and predicted the future but was rarely believed to be the cause of disease. In the case of the Black Death, however, contemporary scholars thought that a perfect alignment of Saturn, Jupiter, and Uranus caused the outbreak.

Unlike the commoners who believed the plague to be a caused by God, these scholars were attempting to explain the deadly outbreak scientifically. The planetary alignment, scholars theorized, basically caused a perfect storm of widespread humoral imbalance.

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You’d think that 300 years later, scholars and doctors would have made some medical breakthroughs to prevent another plague outbreak.

But things hadn’t changed much by the 1600s, when the plague once again spread like wildfire throughout Europe. This time, Saturn got a pass, and instead deadly vapors in the air were blamed for the epidemic.

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Our ancestors still may not have understood why the plague made a comeback, but the second time around, doctors had a treatment plan: collecting farts in a jar.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Martin
Katie Martin
Contributing Writer