Macedonia and the origins of Medicine
For several years now Macedonia has been my destination of choice for a summer holiday with my wife. We had visited already Ohrid and Prespa, and this year we spent a few days in Skopje too. Macedonia is a peaceful and beautiful country, we spend a lot of time exploring mountain trails in the wonderful nature parks. But it wasn’t only nature that this country has to offer to a foreign tourist – its rich cultural heritage can be observed everywhere – ancient temples, churches and castles. In one of the museums I saw some peculiar medical tools which were more than a thousand years old. I am a quite curious person and when we got back home I did a small research on the subject: it turned out that the origins of modern medicine are in ancient Greece and Macedonia.
From Balkan folklore I know that people used to make no difference between spirits or demons and diseases. According to the understandings of Slavic folklore, for an example, when somebody is seriously ill, people would say that he is possessed by a Dragon (Zmey) or a Samovilla. Treatment of all diseases was related to deep knowledge of herbs and their use, often in a combination with specific rituals.
One interesting example of the association of mythological demons with diseases are the vampires, which are part of the folklore of almost all Balkan nations (and have nothing to do with what you see in the movies).
Vampires are known to avoid Garlic and this is because it has been used for centuries as a treatment for fevers and many other diseases; garlic is extremely effective because it is one of the richest in Vitamin C foods.
In ancient Macedonia medicine was far more advanced than in any other place at that time. We know that some of the philosophers have dissected animals to study the structure of their bodies – they were trying to understand the functions of organs and in the same time classified the different species for the first time. Unfortunately the autopsy the human body was taboo for spiritual reasons. Because of this the knowledge and understanding of human anatomy had significant differences among the philosophers. For an example Aristotle believed, just like the ancient Egyptians, that the rational soul or the consciousness is located in heart and not the head.
The understandings of medicine in the ancient world were alike and Macedonia and the Hellenic states were not an exception. One theory which was accepted by most philosophers and physicians: the theory of the four humors. They used to think that human health is dependent on the social class, the place where you live, the favor of the gods and balance of the four humors. What was understood as humors, basically, were the main fluids in the human body – Blood, Black bile, Yellow bile and Phlegm, which were also directly related to the human temperaments by the ancients. I read someplace that this theory was introduced by Hippocrates, and it probably originated from the earliest known forms of medicine, from Ancient Egypt.
Now I should say a bit more about Hippocrates – he was one of the most influential philosophers of the ancient world and is considered to be the father of modern medicine. Many would ask why, if he was indeed understanding some basic functions of the human body in such a wrong way.
Well, the fact is that the Humorism theory was widely accepted until the 18th century and even then physicians were treating patients with the goal of achieving balance of the four humors: practices like bloodletting and applying hot cups to a patient were common.
If I have to Illustrate the significance of Hippocrates to modern medicine, I would start with the fact that all physicians today take a Hippocratic oath as an inauguration in the profession. But his oath is just the tip of the iceberg! Hippocrates was actually the first professional physician and doctors today are still following his guidelines and ethics about the treatment of patients.
A funny important fact: although the original Hippocratic oath is an oath to the Greek gods of medicine, Apollo and Asclepius, Hippocrates was actually the first to deny the divine nature of illnesses and to claim they are caused by environmental factors.
As a physician Hippocrates did a profound research on all diseases, while treating them both surgically and with medicine. He was the first person to categorize the different types of diseases, the stages of their development.
In his teachings, many of which are still relevant today, he said that the purpose of the physicians is to help the body of the patient heal in a natural way. We also know that in this period surgery was far more advanced than in any other part of the world. This is well documented in the manuscripts, but it is always amazing to see medical tools which are a few thousand years old, and these have been found in archaeological sites all over the Balkans and the territories of Ancient Macedonia. On the right you can see a tool with a still unknown purpose.
Someone would say: He was Greek. Yes, indeed, but he lived in Thessaly, a city at the border of Ancient Macedonia and his students just a few decades later lived and worked in the Macedonian empire and spread this advanced medical knowledge. (By the way, at least half of the writings that have been attributed to Hippocrates are not originally written by him, but by his students).
Macedonia in that period was rapidly expanding and many of the most influential philosophers and physicians have lived under the Sovereignty of Macedonia. Alexander’s empire was a significant factor in the unification of the Hellenic world and its development, spreading education and medical knowledge throughout the large empire.