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Volume 8, Number 1



The long evolution from primitive man's medicine to the Hippocratic physician reveals innumerable follies, frauds, fictions, myths, evil divinities (spirits or demons), exorcisms, miraculous cures, medico-religious principles, philosophical concepts and theories, which are the nature of mankind and contributed to the first rational and scientific medical system.

The human mind always seeks to lift the veil of mystery, to find protection and defence, to flee from threats and dangers and to achieve happiness, even instinctively.1 Early man was convinced that external, supernatural forces exercised a determining action, either favourable or harmful, on his life. Because supernatural forces were more threatening than natural phenomena, the caregiver was first a priest and secondarily a physician.

Magic belongs to all times and to all people, and magicians constitute the oldest professional class in the evolution of human society. Because primitive man was extraordinarily suggestible, he had a strong orientation to magic, such as spells, charms or talismans, amulets or phylacteria, relics, power of the evil eye, and innumerable other forms of "folk" medicine. To defend against the evil eye, almost all the children in Egypt and the ancient East wear around their necks a cross - usually gold with a blue stone in the middle. Until recently, Egyptians used the magic eye (Eye of Horus) as an amulet to guard against diseases and for healing the sick. Today, many of us wear birth-stones, failing to notice that they are a kind of talisman.

Religious ideas differ from magical beliefs essentially in their means: religion does not aim to constrain supernatural beings but may invoke their favour through prayer, invocations, pious acts, and numerous other miraculous means. However, the will or the decision of the conscious and willing divinity cannot be constrained in any way. The Greeks had many gods, and most of them played a role in producing and curing disease. Thus an extensive part of ancient Greek medicine was closely connected with religion.

Primitive peoples did not make a distinction between organic, functional and mental disease. Thus the holistic or unitary approach to the patient was an outstanding element of primitive medicine. In primitive societies, the roles of doctor, witch doctor and priest were (and are) commonly united in the same person.2 A shaman is that inspirational type of medicine man, who voluntarily is possessed and through whom the spirit speaks, exorcises and prophesizes, as in present-day Siberia, Chile and South Africa. The medicine man, on the other hand, is not possessed; the guardian spirit speaks to him (not through him) as to the medicine man of the American Indian, the aborigine of Australia and tribesman of New Guinea.

Orpheus was probably the first Greek shaman. He was a healer, he loved music, he prophesized and, above all, he fulfilled the best traditions of shamanism: he was sent by God to protect man from diseases. As an inspired bard, seer and healer, Orpheus wandered over Greece, and the power of his words, sung to the strains of his lyre, bewitched men, beasts and plants and moved even the rocks, while the rivers halted in their courses to listen to him.3 Here is a clear indication of supernatural orientation, which was the fundamental element in primitive medicine.

The Emergence of Hippocratic Medicine

Ancient Greek medicine illustrates the coexistence of medicine and religion before the Christian era.
  • Medicine had its origin largely in magic and priestly practices. Religion and medicine, priest and doctor, both worked towards the same aim: the defence of the individual against evil forces.

  • Sorcerers, a separate caste, used animal masks and other special clothing to command the trust of their patients and to frighten away the demon causing the illness.

  • In Homeric times, medicine and religion gradually became established in temples, sanctuaries and other priestly retreats. The temples of the Greek god of medicine, Aesculapius, around the Mediterranean Sea were centres of faith healing (Aesculapian centres or Asclepieia). Religion was a poetic myth, and priests were never a dogmatic caste. The physicians were independent and respected craftsmen.

  • Aesculapius was the father of a large family, most of whom had health and medical functions: his wife, Epione, soothed pain; his daughter, Panacea, had a cure for everything; Hygeia, another daughter, whose domain was public health and the prevention of disease, fed the temple serpents; Telesphorus, always represented as a child, cared for convalescents; Podalirius was the army surgeon and psychiatrist, and lastly Machaon was the famous surgeon of whom Homer writes in a famous line of the Iliad (II. XI: 514): "A doctor is a man worth many others."

  • Ancient Greek medicine derived knowledge from many older sources. Because of their geographical location, the Greeks were exposed to the influence of Egyptian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Phoenician and Minoan (Cretan) civilizations. Greeks also learned much from ancient Jewish medicine, especially in the fields of hygiene, prevention and prophylaxis. The Bible records cases of leprosy and epilepsy and the most ancient prophylactic-hygienic legislation.

  • The philosopher-physicians of ancient Greece were a bridge between the medicine of the Homeric Age and Hippocratic medicine, which developed in close company with philosophy. According to Hippocrates, the philosopher-physician "is equal to the Gods."

  • The most important difference between Homeric and Hippocratic physicians was that the former was solely a respected craftsman4 but the latter was both a craftsman and philosopher-physician. The title "physician" derives from the Greek word, physis (?'s??), meaning nature, emphasizing that the physician has his roots in the understanding of natural phenomena, one of them being disease.

The Golden Age

The name Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," is connected with the first creative period of scientific medicine. For centuries, his diagnostic system, based on observation and logical reasoning, provided the fundamental principles of medical practice. Believing in "the healing power of Nature," he denied religious or supernatural explanations and removed the art of medicine from the realm of superstition and magic.

For Hippocrates, Nature was "the teacher of all teachers" and "the physician of our diseases"; he viewed the doctor as "Nature s helper." He observed diseases with the eye of a naturalist and established rules by which the physician would know what to expect and what to do at the right time. He had a profound understanding of human suffering and emphasized on many occasions that "the place of the physician is at the bedside of his patient." Hippocrates dissociated facts from fiction, histories from lies, healing art from philosophy, and Gods from men. The relationship between Hippocrates and his patients was dictated by human, rather than religious, concepts and by the ethical principle "benefit and do no harm to the patient."

The Hippocratic physician practised in accordance with scientific laws and felt himself bound by ethical and humane precepts of his profession.5

Hippocrates, throughout his long life, tirelessly observed, compared and recorded his experience. A prime example of his thought and his genius is his first monumental aphorism:

Life is short; and the art long; and the right time an instant; and treatment precarious; and the judgement difficult. It is necessary for the physician not only to provide the needed treatment but provide for the patient himself and for those beside him and to provide for his outside affairs.


The long evolution from the primitive man's medicine to the Hippocratic physician reveals the innumerable follies, frauds, fictions, myths, evil divinities (spirits or demons), exorcisms, miraculous cures, medicoreligious principles, philosophical concepts and theories as to the nature of mankind, which contributed to the first rational and scientific medical system.

The many valuable lessons of that period may be summarized as follows:
  • There is no discovery in medical science that does not have some roots in ancient Greek medicine. Modern medicine still can learn from the medicine of ancient Greece.

  • Empirical, magic and religious medicine, still practised today mainly in primitive or isolated communities, provides a prelude to the triumphs of scientific medicine.

  • A humane education is nowhere so important and necessary as in scientific medicine. Medicine today no less than in the past must combine the humanities with science.

  • A cultural education is as important as scientific methodology for a comprehensive medical practice. Medical scientists and technologists should pay more attention to the human and social implications of their work, for where there is the love of man "there is also love of the (medical) art.

  • The chronicles of the healing arts show clearly the social development and the scientific progress of human communities and thus epitomize the history of civilization.


  • Castiglioni A: Adventures of the Mind, Knopf, New York, 1946: 7
  • Eliade M: Shamanisme, Hatzinikoli, Athens, 1978: 29
  • Sigerist H: A History of Medicine, vol 2, Oxford U Pr, New York, 1961: 49
  • Horstmanshoff HFJ: The ancient physician, craftsman or scientist? J Hist Med Appl Sci 1990; 45: 176-197
  • Miller GL: Literacy and the Hippocratic art: reading, writing and epistemology in ancient Greek medicine. Ibid: 11-40
From the University of Athens Medical School, Athens, Greece

Correspondence to: Dr. Spyros G. Marketos, Medical School, University of Athens, 6, Vasileos Herakleiou Str., Athens, Greece