Tuesday, February 06, 2007



Among the Greek warriors in Homer's Iliad are "two sons of Asklepios, good healers both themselves, Podaleirios and Machaon" (2.731-2, tr. Richmond Lattimore). The word for healer is ἰατήρ (iatér), a poetical form of ἰατρός (iatrós), root of many English words, such as podiatrist (foot doctor), pediatrician (doctor specializing in children), etc. A psychiatrist, from an etymological point of view, is a "soul healer."

These Greek doctors are good at healing battle wounds, but when plague strikes the Greek army in the first book of the Iliad, no one thinks of consulting them. What is needed in time of plague is a seer or prophet, to tell the Greeks who offended what god, and how the offense can be expiated. Here the Greeks call upon the seer Calchas, who reveals that the offense is Agamemnon's harsh treatment of Apollo's priest, when he came to ransom his captive daughter. Agamemnon refused his plea and drove him away. The priest prayed to Apollo, who brought plague on the Greeks. Expiation takes place when the Greeks return the priest's daughter and offer sacrifice to Apollo.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King, like the Iliad, opens with a plague, this one afflicting the city of Thebes. Here too a seer, Tiresias, reveals the cause of the plague, which is the pollution brought on the city by its king, Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, despite being warned by an oracle of Apollo. Oedipus must leave the territory of Thebes to end the plague.

It was not just in old myths that the Greeks sought a divine explanation of plagues. During the plague that attacked Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians had recourse to both science and religion, according to Thucydides 2.47.4 (tr. Charles Forster Smith):
For neither were physicians able to cope with the disease, since they at first had to treat it without knowing its nature, the mortality among them being the greatest because they were the most exposed to it, nor did any other human art avail. And the supplications made at sanctuaries, or appeals to oracles and the like, were all futile, and at last men desisted from them, overcome by the calamity.

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