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Homeric Medicine And Its Contribution To Essay

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Kelsey Simpson

Kristen M. Gentile

Ancient Medicine CLAS303

17 April 2011

Homeric Medicine
And Its Contribution to Hippocratic Medicine

The Iliad and the Odyssey are traditionally seen as works of literature, but students and

researchers of ancient medicine and the classics see beyond that label. These Homeric ἔπος [1]

which were referred to as ἐπικός,[2] were much more than just stories in the ancient world. In

fact, studies show that the medical descriptions featured in Homeric literature provided pre—

Hippocratic medicinal knowledge.[3] While both the Iliad and the Odyssey are good evidence of

Homeric medicine, the Iliad provides plentiful information regarding not only the treatment and

descriptions of illnesses, but battle wounds as well. While Homer's Iliad documents the horrors

of war and the mortality of humans, there is an underlying benefit hiding between the lines.

There is a strong probability that the ancient world looked to the works of Homer as resources

for ancient medicine. The inclusion of the bloody descriptions of the injuries which occurred

during the final stages of the Trojan War is what provided pre—Hippocratic medicinal

knowledge and instigated curiosity for further anatomical and physiological exploration. In this

paper, I will examine how the knowledge of literary ailments helped the people of the ancient

world to better understand the human body and provided a smoother transition into the realm of

rational Hippocratic medicine.

The Iliad is like a guide to pre—Hippocratic medicine and the treatment of wounds. Of

Homer's epics, the Iliad contains the most information regarding the treatment of injuries.

Extensive in length, this ἔπος spans over 15,000 lines, and has countless different editions and

versions available today. The original Iliad was Considered one of the oldest surviving Greek

poems, but more importantly, it is believed to be one of the earliest literary sources of ancient

medicine,[4] thought to be composed around 750 B.C.

What makes the Iliad a perfect source for this study as opposed to other ancient epics,

such as the Odyssey, or the works of Hesiod, is that it provided the people of the Bronze Age

in—depth information about early anatomy and physiology prior to medical discoveries or

studies and the Hippocratic Corpus. Throughout the poem, Homer uses detailed, gory

descriptions of the battle wounds. These descriptions provided people of the ancient world

medicinal, anatomical, and physiological knowledge through the imagery. The descriptions of

these wounds are so detailed that most of the major abdominal organs and innards are observed.

In the Iliad, Homer mentions one hundred and forty—seven different injuries,[5] most of

which are described with surprising anatomical accuracy for the given era. Hermann Frölich, a

German surgeon constructed a table that summarized all of the wounds mentioned in the Iliad

while studying medicine on the Homeric Battlefield.[6] The table is organized by anatomical

location, the type of weapon used, whether the wound was fatal or non—fatal, and how many

of each wound there was. By studying Frölich's Table of Homeric Wounds,[7] ancient medicine students can conclude which wounds were fatal and which were non—fatal, and also should try

to approach the information from the perspective of an aspiring ancient ἰατρός.[8] The fatality

rate, depending on the type and location of the wound, helped the people of the ancient world

understand what would happen after someone was wounded in say, his neck. It was important to

know if it was fatal, if that fatality was preventable, or if it was curable with roots, salves, and

or a process of medical treatments.

According to the Table, there were a total of thirty--one head injuries in the poem and all

of them were fatal. Four of these wounds were stone--inflicted injuries, eight were sword-

inflicted, seventeen were by spear, and two were by bow and arrow. After being exposed to

Homer's Iliad, an ancient physician would gather that a patient wounded in the head was not

likely to live, since according to Frölich and the descriptions provided by Homer, head trauma

injuries had a one hundred percent mortality rate.

A total of sixteen injuries to the neck were mentioned within the Iliad. Of these sixteen

wounds, thirteen cases were fatal, one instance was non—fatal, and two cases were recorded

as unspecified. Two injuries were stone—inflicted, four of them were sword related, nine were

by spear, and one was by bow and arrow. For example, the death of Hector a result of a neck

brandished high in his right hand, bent on Hector's death,
scanning his splendid body—where to pierce it best?
The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor,
burnished, brazen—Achilles' armor that Hector stripped
from strong Patroclus when he killed him—true,
but one spot lay exposed,
where collarbones lift the neckbone off the shoulders,
the open throat, where the end of life comes quickest—there
as Hector charged in fury brilliant Achilles drove his spear
and the point went stabbing clean through the tender neck
but the heavy bronze weapon failed to slash the windpipe—
Hector could still gasp out some words, some last reply . . .
he crashed in the dust—”[9]

In addition to the above passage, the data proves that survival of a neck wound is rare.

According to the data, there was an 81.2% mortality rate if wounded in the neck, because the

two sets of jugular veins which, when wounded, spill out an enormous amount of blood since it

relays deoxygenated blood from the cranium back to the heart via the superior vena cava. The

windpipe, also located in the neck, (refer to the above passage) was another reason for death due

to neck wound.

Another factor is decapitation. There are many instances in which the head is severed

from the neck and body on the Trojan battlefield. Basic knowledge is that decapitation is

impossible to survive. There are six decapitations within the Iliad, and all of them tended to be

quite detailed, like the death of Illioneus.

“...the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes' roots and scooped an eyebrow out—
the spear cut clean ...

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