Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Hippokrátēs' internal physician
Ancient Hellas is often lauded as the birth place of modern science and philosophy. Certainly in the arts of medicine and healing, this is true. Hippokrátēs of Kos (Ἱπποκράτης) is seen by many as the founding father of medicine, and today--seeing as I'm a little sick with the flue--I wanted to talk about one of his basic understandings about the human body: the internal physician; the body's own ability to determine its illness and cure it where possible.
Hippokrátēs was alive from 460 BC to about 370 BC. In his lifetime, he set about to advancing the systematic study of clinical medicine, summing up the medical knowledge of previous schools, and prescribing practices for physicians through the Hippocratic Corpus and other works (although he Corpus itself was most likely not written by him, but assembled in and slightly after his time). Hippokrátēs separated the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the Theoi but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits. Much of his theories came from his very basic understanding of the human body: in Hippokrátēs' time, it was forbidden to cut into a corpse, even for research.
Before we get to the inner physician, I must speak about two of Hippokrátēs's most famous ideas about illness: humoralism and the concept of crisis. Humoralism is a now discredited theory of the makeup and workings of the human body, positing that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person directly influences their temperament and health. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile (melan chole), yellow bile (chole), phlegm (phlegma), and blood (haima), and each corresponds to one of the traditional four elements.
A person suffering from fever and sweats, for example, was diagnosed with an excess of blood, and was treated with instruments that were considered dry and cold. Herbalism was of great importance in these treatments, as well as diet and environmental factors. Hippokrátēs believed that summer, a notorious hot season, caused an increase in bile, which would--in turn--increase the risk of heat stroke. The theory was discredited late on the 1800's; before then it was the primary understanding of the human body.
A crisis is a point in the progression of disease at which either the illness would begin to triumph and the patient would most likely die, or the opposite would occur and natural processes would make the patient recover. A crisis was said to occur on critical days, which were set days from the point of contraction. Relapses would come with a crisis day of their own, and could be predicted when a crisis did not fall on the predicted crisis day.
With this knowledge in mind, it's time to look at the inner physician. Hippokrátēs is credited with the following quote, which gives us a basic understanding of this physician, which is not he result of an applied theory like humoralism or crisis, but more a basic understanding of the body's limitless abilities:
"Everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work."
Hippokrátēs understood haling as the restoration of balance within the body. That is also the foundation of humoralism: restoring balance to the four humors, so the patient is healed. Hippokrátēs realized that everything in the human body was connected, that an imbalance could--and would--affect the whole of the body. His theories may have been discredited, but the basic foundation of balance still hold true to this day. As for the inner physician, it tells us what we need when we are sick. It is a voice we often ignore: usually it tells us to rest, to drink plenty of water, to get either warm or cold; the inner physician manifests in desires of the body when ill. If we listen to these desires, we are healed swiftly from the more common illnesses. A good physician listens to the patient's inner physician and helps it in its work. This is at the core of humoralism as well: a diagnosis was made by descriptions given by the patient and a basic understanding of humors, and the physician attempted to provide what the inner body desired.
The above quote continues as follows:
Food was an important part of humoralism: warm foods caused an increased in yellow bile, while cold foods caused an increase in phlegm. Various herbs caused various rises and falls of humors. Most likely, each food was understood to influence all four of the humors in some way, even if their greatest influence was on one of the four. As such, it makes sense to fast when ill: in that way, any symptom or description of the illness the patient can describe comes from the imbalance caused by the illness, not by environmental and dietary factors. This makes a diagnosis easier to make, and it means the body can start working towards repairing the underlying imbalance without having to deal with temporary fluctuations.
While the theory of humoralism has since been disproven, the inner physician remains a power voice in our healing. Personally, I still put stock in humoralism, as it manifests in some of the basic of 'grandmother's cures' that are passed down through many family lines. My mother always told me that 'the body knows what it needs when ill', and I was trained to listen to it. So when I fell ill, I tended to sleep. When ?I got hungry, my mom asked me what 'my tummy told me it wanted to eat', and she would go out and get that for me. It could have been a placebo effect, of course, but eating what my body told me to eat instantly made me feel better. Whenever I am ill, I apply basic herbalism to assist my body, and rarely take medication.
Of course, this applies to the garden variety cold, fever, and other minor illnesses. If your inner physician tells you that you need to see a doctor, visit one. If that doctor describes medication, take it. Personally, I feel that the current medical field is less interested in health than profit, but one should never reject a cure when one is available and desired.
I try to help my inner physician in another way: watching my diet. Although this includes taking care of my body and not eating at McDonalds, it also includes being aware of the crap that is in processed foods, and limiting my intake of preservatives, genetically modified foods, and other 'healthy modification' to my food like anti-oxidants and probiotics. I try to buy organic foods, prepare my own food, and keep a balanced diet.
It's impossible to prevent illness. Unlike Hippokrátēs, we know that viruses and bacteria get transferred from person to person, and once an illness is introduced to you living environment or your circle of close contacts, the chances of getting in increase greatly. When you become ill, the body's inner physician can help you heal quickly and with the least amount of discomfort. Trusting in your inner physician is something we are rarely trained to do by our parents, but it can prevent much suffering over the years, so take a cue from Hippokrátēs, and listen to that voice inside the next time you fall ill: you will be grad you did.
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