Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Swimming with Eels

Rogueclassicism asks whether there is any truth to the claim that the ancient Romans treated brain disorders or headaches with electric eels.

For example, in a timeline of bipolar mania, the makers of the drug Risperdal tell us:
After the fall of the Roman Empire, manic-depressive patients were thought to be possessed by the devil and had to be restrained and chained. Treatments also included euthanasia, exotic potions, bloodletting, and electric eels applied to the skull.
(Euthanasia would cure any ailment. Permanently!)

Similarly, an article on Parkinson's disease says:
Scoff if you will at the ancient Romans who made patients with brain disorders swim with electric eels.
I may be mistaken, but I thought that electric eels were native to South America. If so, they could not have been known to the ancient Romans. Some other fish also produce electric current. Electric catfish are native to Africa, and electric rays live in tropical waters.

As for ordinary eels, Pliny the Elder (32.49.138) says that two eels dissolved in wine will cure alcoholism (taedium vini adfert). Take two eels and call me in the morning. He also says (31.32.6) that muddy rivers are unhealthy, unless they're full of eels. Celsus apparently doesn't mention eels. I see nothing on this subject in the index of Ralph Jackson, Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

Eel in Latin is anguilla, in Greek ἔγχελυς.

Update: Michael Hendry at Curculio has solved the mystery. Scribonius Largus says that the electric ray (torpedo in Latin), topically applied, cures headache. I should try it, since nothing else seems to help. For other medicinal uses of the electric ray, see Pliny, Natural History 32.32.102, 32.33.105, 32.46.133, 32.47.135, and 32.49.139.

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