We now know that epilepsy is a neurological disease caused by an electrical abnormality in the brain. Yet, there was time when patients were treated for the disease by forcing them to drink human blood, eat human liver, or commit other forms of cannibalism.
For thousands of years epilepsy was a mysterious condition that led to patients being victimized. Their symptoms were sometimes attributed to possession by demons and they could be anathematized, sterilized and even prescribed a plate of human flesh.
[Image Source: Pixabay]
Sacred or anathematized?
The earliest account of epilepsy was found on a Babylonian tablet that dates back to 1067 BC. Because the only visible symptom of the disease is seizures, diagnosis throughout much of history has been influenced by the dominant religious, scientific and cultural ideas of the of the time.
[Image Source: British Museum]
Epilepsy: the Sacred Disease
According to historical records, the Greeks believed that epilepsy was the result of a curse of the goddess Selene. Accordingly, they called it the Sacred Disease. They believed that the only way to get rid of the curse was to spend a night in the temple of Selene. She would visit the afflicted in a dream and tell them how to break the curse.
In 400 B.C. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, changed the way epilepsy was viewed. He was the first to consider that it is just another disease that could be cured through natural techniques. Hippocrates used medicine and a controlled diet in order to cure epilepsy and would be the only person to apply these principles for centuries.
Treating epilepsy by cannibalism
After the Greeks, the Romans took a radical approach to treating epilepsy using cannibalism. The Romans thought that epilepsy was caused by demons and would be spread by them if the sufferer was breathed on or touched. As a result, epileptics were isolated and shunned.
When a Roman slave was suspected of having epilepsy, they were given a piece of jet stone to smell. If they didn’t pass out, they were considered ‘free of the falling sickness’ and worth buying.
Romans treated epilepsy using the blood of murder victims or gladiators. Roman philosophers also suggested that it might be helpful for the sufferer to ingest human body parts such as the liver. Forcing epileptic patients to drink blood and eat human flesh was still practiced in some place up to 1908.
Thanks to British neurologist Dr. John Hughlings Jackson, these horrific ways to diagnose and treat epilepsy are now in the past. In the early 1900s he discovered epilepsy’s true nature. Without that research, we might still be giving epileptics a macabre menu of treatments or – for the lucky ones – just locking them away somewhere until we have died.
Source: Oxford University