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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

Medicine in Ancient Times

An article recently posted on biblicalarchaeology.com contemplated the use of medicinal plants and curative techniques in the ancient world. This is a subject I find fascinating, and one I explored in the historical subplot of The Tenth Saint.

How did the ancients combat and prevent disease? And how much of that survives to this day? The answer is surprising.

The article references the Greek god Asklepios as an example of the role of spirituality in healing. The ancients built temples to Asklepios and undertook pilgrimages on foot, despite the distance, to worship and make offerings such as small anatomical votives (the anatomy representing the ailing body part). Asklepian worship was replaced by rudimentary techniques like lancing and cupping, introduced by Hippocrates in the fifth century BCE and his contemporaries. That was also when herbs made their debut.

I did quite a bit of research on healing herbs and techniques when telling the fourth-century story of the tenth saint, who lived among the Bedouins of the Empty Quarter. For example, the use of horse manure to stop bleeding has been in practice since antiquity. Indian hemp had anesthetic properties, and certain resins, including frankincense from Somalia and Ethiopia, were hallucinogens. These were used widely, both for medicinal purposes and spiritual practice.

In the early centuries of the Common Era, medical techniques were surprisingly advanced. In the second century, for example, the Roman medic Galen practiced cataract surgery by inserting a needle behind the lens of the eye. The Romans also were using gold as dental fillings as early as the second century. Even before that, in approximately 200 B.C.E., the Jews had discovered the art of dental work, as proven by archaeologists’ discovery of a mass grave in the Negev.

Remarkably, parts of these practices are used to this day. Modern Greeks, for example, still undertake barefoot journeys to temples of healing (namely, the church of the Madonna in the island of Tinos) and make offerings. Small bronze carvings in the likeness of the ailing body part are placed in the churches by the icons.

And though needles have been replaced by lasers, the concept behind cataract surgery remains the same as it did in ancient times. As for horse manure? To this day in the backcountry, where a doctor or hospital may be miles away, many a woodsman turns to it in a pinch.

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