Monday, April 14, 2014

Sacred Psychiatry in Ancient Greece - Georgios Tzeferakos & Douzenis Athanasios

This open access article from the Annals of General Psychiatry offers an interesting glimpse into the role of the psychological healer in ancient Greece, and to surprise, the role that shamanism played in their healing model. Cool stuff.

Full Citation:
Tzeferakos, G, and Athanasios, D. (2014, Apr 12). 'Sacred psychiatry in ancient Greece. Annals of General Psychiatry; 13:11. doi:10.1186/1744-859X-13-11

'Sacred psychiatry in ancient Greece'

Georgios Tzeferakos and Douzenis Athanasios
Author Affiliations
Published: 12 April 2014

Abstract (provisional)

From the ancient times, there are three basic approaches for the interpretation of the different psychic phenomena: the organic, the psychological, and the sacred approach. The sacred approach forms the primordial foundation for any psychopathological development, innate to the prelogical human mind. Until the second millennium B.C., the Great Mother ruled the Universe and shamans cured the different mental disorders. But, around 1500 B.C., the predominance of the Hellenic civilization over the Pelasgic brought great changes in the theological and psychopathological fields. The Hellenes eliminated the cult of the Great Mother and worshiped Dias, a male deity, the father of gods and humans. With the Father's help and divinatory powers, the warrior-hero made diagnoses and found the right therapies for mental illness; in this way, sacerdotal psychiatry was born.

The complete article is available as a provisional PDF. The fully formatted PDF and HTML versions are in production. 


Three basic trends in psychiatric thought can be traced back to earliest times: (a) organic approach, the attempt to explain diseases of the mind in physical terms; (b) psychological approach, the attempt to find a psychological explanation for mental disturbances; and (c) sacred or magical approach, which can be further divided into the animistic, mythological and demonological models [1]. The origin of the word ‘magic’ leads us back to the Persian religion. The prophet Zoroaster (sixth century B.C.) helped man in his struggle against evil. Aiding Zoroaster in his proselytization of the right road were the priests known as Mah (pronounced Mag), which meant ‘the greatest ones’. In subsequent years, the great Magi lost their high reputation and became known as charlatans and tricksters, hence, the connotation to the word ‘magic’ [2].

The magical sacred approach forms the primordial foundation for any psychopathological development because it reflects a modality of interpretation of reality that is innate to the prelogical human mind. The animistic model is based on prelogical, emotional reasoning, originating from certain historical conditions. Primitive man lived in deep communion with nature and perceived all phenomena to be connected by mysterious forces. Chance does not exist, and everything that happens has a precise meaning because the world is inhabited by animated entities that support every single event. Different feelings and emotions, psychosensorial disturbances, and delusions are the work of obscure and ineffable forces that people the world of nature and can act on a man's mind and soul [3].

Greek thought in the middle of the second millennium B.C. transformed the animistic conception into a naturalistic, anthropomorphic theology, in which indistinct and fluid forces were materialized in myths. Every symptom was thought to be caused by a certain deity, which could, if implored, benevolently cure it. The human passions, the emotional suffering from endopsychic conflicts, and the different psychiatric symptoms were projected and concentrated in a divine symbol. The myth was a form of knowledge that took place by symbolizing in concrete divine shapes the phenomena of nature and the complex life of the soul and mind. The ‘anthropomorphism’ of the Greek mythology, where even gods have feelings and emotions, is a historical breakthrough [4].

The genesis and the evolvement of the more elaborate mythological comprehension of the man and the universe are in a direct relationship with the historical dynamic process of an increasing complexity of the social structure. During the pre-Homeric era, in the Minoan and the Mycenaean societies, citizens were divided according to their financial status, to their position in the administrative hierarchy, and to their relationship with the kings. The king in these primitive societies was the sole judicial, legislative, and administrative authority. Another important criterion for the social position and integration in the different groups and ‘fratrias’, in the pre-Homeric and Homeric societies, was the genealogical lineage. Noble families claiming to have descended from mythological heroes gained social power and prestige.

The extensive colonization of the Mediterranean coast by the Greeks led to the emergence of new social groups. The merchants gained wealth and power and also became the bearers of new cultural, scientific, and political ideas taken from the neighboring nations. Gradually and through turbulent strife, the mainstay of the social structure in the ancient Greek world, the city-state (‘polis’) became the cradle of democracy. In the classical era, although the old noble families still held much of their power, the new wealthy aristocracy and the middle social clashes gained access to legislative, administrative, and judicial institutions. This social ‘democratization’ allowed and supported the great scientific and cultural changes that took place in this historical period.


Primitive man cured his minor troubles through various intuitive, empirical techniques. The first attempts to explain illness were equally intuitive: sometimes simple phenomena having a cause-and-effect relationship were easily understood (overeating and drinking may cause discomfort and thus purgatives will cure it); but that was not always the case. When the causes of an ailment were not obvious, primitive man ascribed them to the malignant influences of either other humans or divine beings and dealt with the former by magic or sorcery and the latter through magico-religious practices.

In these primitive societies, the typical witch, doctor, or shaman was a person capable of transcending into an ecstatic state, with the help of aromatic herbs, alcohol, seeds, and music. While being in ecstasy, he was able to communicate with the pathogenic spirits, drive them away, and thus cure the patient. In hunting societies, shamans acquire their healing powers from animal spirits [5]. A shaman was able to communicate with the beasts, travel through time and space, sink deep into the world of the spirits, and change his psychic and physical form.

When the Greeks colonized the Black Sea, during the seventh century B.C., they came in contact with shamanic rituals and beliefs. A key figure of shamanism was Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.). He was, in today's terms, a mathematician, astronomer, psychologist, psychiatrist, physician, musicologist, mystic, and philosopher. He gathered excessive wisdom by living through 10 or 20 human generations [6], and he believed in reincarnation (‘metempsychosis’). Through an indefinite cycle of psychic reincarnations, one could achieve immortality, a privilege seized only by the gods. Pythagoras could be considered the ‘father’ of Psychology since, as Porphyrios says, ‘He was the first one to define with precision the anthropocentric science, which teaches us the nature of an individual’ [7]. He was the founder of the encephalocentric doctrine which considered the brain as the seat of human consciousness, sensation, and knowledge and claimed that the psychic organ has a tripartite division, closely resembling the structural theory of Freud: (1) reason, which was the innate category of truth, (2) intelligence, which carried out the synthesis of sensory sensations, and (3) impulse, which derived from the soma. The rational part had its seat in the brain and the irrational one in the heart. Pythagoras considered the mental life to be a harmony supported by the relationship between antithetical forms: love-hate, good-bad, etc. Life itself was regulated according to this theory by opposite rhythmic movements, e.g., sleep-wakefulness, and mental symptoms originated from a disequilibrium of this basic harmony. The work of Pythagoras and Empedocles, originator of the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements (fire, earth, air, and water), formed the basis for the humoral theory of Hippocrates [8]. Pythagoras stressed the value of group psychotherapy, medical herbs (opium for anxiety, cauliflower and scilla against depression, anis against epilepsy), and music for the treatment of emotionally ill patients [9]. On the other hand, the Pythagoreans avoided cauterizations and incisions [10]. According to Edebstein [11], the ‘Hippocratic oath’ is of Pythagorean origin because some of its main principles are the rejection of assisted suicide and abortion, the prohibition of surgical procedures, and public disclosure of medical cases. Hippocrates and his followers performed surgeries, administered drugs for abortion, and publicly discussed case reports, with direct reference to the patients' names [12].

The psychic immortality was a common belief between the Pythagoreans and the Orphic religious cult, which, according to Herodotus, originated from the Egyptian religion [13]. Fundamental feature of Orphism was the psychic ‘catharsis’ or cleansing, from somatic impulses and passions, through shamanic-like rituals, music, strict dietary practices, and exorcisms [14]. Psychically depressed patients were stimulated with Phrygian music, while the excited ones were sedated with the Doric tonalities. Orphic mysteries mainly practiced in Thrace descended to the Hellenic world from Northern Europe and Siberia [15].

Between legend and history: Melampus and Asclepius

Ancient Greek medicine was a complex practice perceived as something between myth and reality, as an expression of a magical divinatory, hieratic, and empirical technical practice. Examples of such interrelationship are the myths of Melampus, a priest-psychiatrist who allegedly lived in Argos 200 years before the Trojan War [16], and Asclepius who was considered to be the ‘god of medicine’ by the ancient Greeks [17].

Until the second millennium B.C., a female deity governed the Universe, according to the archaic Pelasgic religion. She was the Great Mother Earth, named Cybele or Selene or Hecate, who dominated man and predated other deities. She gave birth to all things, fertilized not by any male opposite but by symbolic seeds in the form of the wind, beans, or insects [18]. The Great Mother regulated the sexual and affective life and if angered could unleash malevolent influences that brought about zoopathic psychoses. The place of origin of her following is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular followings in Thrace. Her most important sanctuary was Lagina, a theocratic city-state in which the goddess was served by eunuchs, called Dactyls [19].

The predominance of the Hellenic civilization, in the second millennium B.C., over the Pelasgic, modified the psychopathological interpretation. This fundamental change almost led to a civil war, with lots of killings, especially in the Delphi temple. The Hellenes eliminated the cult of Hecate and worshiped Dias, a male deity, the father of gods and humans. The warrior cult of the hero replaced that of the Mother earth. It was the hero who set himself up as a physician and priest against the forces of evil. With the Father's help and divinatory powers, he made diagnoses and found the right therapies for mental illness; in this way, sacerdotal psychiatry was born around 1500 B.C. [1].

Read the whole article by downloading the PDF from the link above.
Post a Comment