Epilepsy: A way from Herodotus to Hippocrates

      The term “Epilepsy” is derived from a Greek verb epilambanein (επιλαμβάνειν), meaning to seize, take hold of, or attack. Epilepsy therefore means “a condition of getting over, seized, or attacked.” People in Homeric Era used to believe that Epilepsy was induced by gods, and it is therefore a sacred disease. In Homeric times, medicine and religion gradually were established in the temples of Aesculapius, which became centres of faith healing. Alcmaeon of Croton (6th B.C.) was the first of the Greek physicians to ascertain that the brain is the organ of ‘hegemonicon’ (ηγεμονικόν), the source of mental faculties, and that epilepsy is a brain's disease. Democritus of Abdera (5th B.C.) wrote a book on epilepsy (Περί επιληψίας) insisting that the brain is the centre of the soul and cognition is a capacity of the brain. Herodotus, the “Father of History,” used to travel during his lifetime, describing the different people and cultures he met. He worked for many years on his History, which was the first true history of the ancient world. In the third book (Thalia) of his nine-volume History, Herodotus described in many details the epileptic phenomena of the Persian King Cambysis the II, son of Cyrus, who suffered from the “Sacred illness” and behaved as a mentally ill tyrannical despot with much cruelty and impiety.Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” and the predominant physician of the Greek classical period (480–323 BC), believed that diseases are derived from nature as opposed to from the gods. For Hippocrates, Nature was “the teacher of all teachers”. Hippocrates dissociated facts from myths, histories from tales, healing art from philosophy. The attitude of Hippocrates towards his patients was dictated by human concepts and by the ethical principle “benefit and do no harm to the patient.” Hippocrates denied that epilepsy is a sacred disease, stating that he did not believe that the sacred disease is any more divine or sacred than any other disease but, on the contrary, just as other diseases have a nature from which they arise, so epilepsy has a nature and a definite cause. Thus, this so-called sacred disease is due to the same causes as all other diseases, each disease having its own nature. In all forms of epilepsy, it is the brain which suffers. There are signs of the onset of a seizure, which only the patient is aware of: the aura. Men believe only that it is a divine disease because of their ignorance and amazement. The physician should understand and distinguish the real cause of epileptic phenomena in order to treat the patients properly and efficiently. Hippocrates, by stating that epilepsy was a brain's disease and not a sacred one, made one of the most important and original contributions to the history of medicine. Associating the real medical knowledge with ethics, Hippocrates shaped the very existence of the scientific and humanistic profile of Medicine.
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