Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death, Disease, and the Divine in the Ancient World

As we lay the Iliad to rest (at least for the moment), what can we say about death, disease, and dying in the poem? The Iliad opens with a devastating plague, a poison rain of arrows loosened by the god Apollo in revenge for the mistreatment of his priest Chryses at the hands of Agamemnon. For nine days, Greek men, mules, and dogs die and are burnt on huge funeral pyres by grim survivors. So to whom can our Achaeans turn for relief? Not, seemingly, to their regimental healers and fellow warriors, Machaon and Podalirius, but rather to Calchas, a seer, an interpreter of the whims of the gods. As we know, the revelations of Calchas lead directly to the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, and unleash the misery, resentment, and rage that will animate our heroes and inspire Homer’s art. Such notions of epidemic disease as divine punishment crop up across the ancient world. For Hesiod in his Works and Days, Zeus allows disease, famine, and misery to stalk the world cutting down the cruel and violent. For the authors of the Hebrew bible, God sends disease as punishment for covenant breaking, or, in the case of Job, as a test of the covenant itself. As we will see with the writings of Hippocrates of Cos in the 5th century BCE, pre-Socratic philosophers will challenge a view of the world that invokes divine causation for natural events. Instead they will argue that explanations about the world should be explanations of the world: all phenomena no matter how difficult or terrifying have natural explanations, explanations able to be uncovered through painstaking observation and philosophical inquiry.

Most of the death and dying described by the Iliad is not the outcome of disease, of course, but rather the result of bloody combat with bronze weapons, barbed arrows, and crushing stones. Injuries are described graphically and gruesomely. Limbs and organs are literally butchered to become meat for birds and dogs, while the armor that defines and embodies the glory of our warriors "clangs" and "clatters" to the ground like so much metal. Those wounds that are survived are attended to by fellow soldiers or, as in the case of the more senior Greeks, by the iatroi (healers). Machaon, for instance, will carefully pluck the arrow from king Menelaus, suck out the poisoned blood, and apply healing ointments. The actions of the healer here are "natural" (not supernatural); no gods are invoked or required. Nonetheless, Machaon is divinely inspired. His father, Asclepius, was the partly divine son of Apollo—known by the Greeks as Apollo ‘the healer’ in large part because he was able to divert plague (and indeed, he does, eventually, take away the plague from the Greeks in Book One of the Iliad). But Machaon is also inspired by the natural world. It was after all, from the centaur (half-man, half-horse) Chiron that Asclepius ultimately learnt the intricacies of the healing craft. So can we make any general conclusions about the relationship between death, disease, and the divine in the Iliad?
Let’s think back to our poem’s wonderful opening line: “Sing, goddess, Achilles' rage.” The bard, like the healer, invokes the divine to practice his art, and yet the art is ultimately his, and ultimately of this world. Like Homer, Machaon draws his knowledge both from divine but also from the earth and her creatures. Like Homer, Machaon’s knowledge of nature serves human society. Indeed, in time, medicine, like art, will become a defining part of society—of what it means to be civilized, peaceful, and free as human beings. 
Helen Valier


  1. :D I love your blogs Prof. Valier!


  2. I think the explanation of divine causation for misfortune, particularly disease and death, was prevalent throughout the ancient world because of their lack of knowledge of the true nature of things. When horrible things happen for mysterious reasons,it is quite simple to put the blame on a higher being with perhaps a higher purpose. This not only provides some source of order in a chaotic mortal's life but also instills a pious fear of the gods, which can be beneficial to the polis as a whole. However, as science progresses as a field, people can then use observation to provide an order to things that is much more predictable than the whims of the gods, thus giving people even more security and a greater sense of control.