Epilepsy—The Ancient Sacred Disease

(The Scream (cropped) painted by Edvard Munch  (1863–1944), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The ancient Babylonians are thought to have been the first people to mention epilepsy, or at least a disease with similar symptoms, in a written language. The Babylonians told of violent seizures they thought were caused in man by the influences of demons, or other dark deities. The ancient Greeks, to an extent, agreed with this belief. Epilepsy, or as the ancient Greeks called it, the Sacred Disease, was the go-to illness used by the gods to punish humans who drew the unforgiving ire of heaven.

Around 400 BCE, Hippocrates dealt the first blow against this ancient perception of epilepsy. Hippocrates, rather than agreeing that the disease was caused by the wrath of the gods, instead proposed that the disease was a natural illness and suggested that it should be addressed like any other disease. Nevertheless, despite Hippocrates’ best efforts, the perception of epilepsy as a divine punishment persisted in Greek culture.

The Romans, too, often believed epilepsy to be a ‘Sacred Disease.’ Yet, there seemed to be a dualistic view of the disease, at times seemingly based on social status. In the case of the commoners, epilepsy was usually considered a punishment. Yet, for oracles or nobility, the occurrence of epilepsy could sometimes be seen as a positive sign of a prophetic gift.

Even during the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, many countries still believed epileptic seizures to be a sign of demonic possession. Fortunately, with modern improvements in medicine and research, epilepsy has begun to be truly deciphered and understood.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


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