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Saturday, September 20, 2014

5000 B.C.: Gods were the first physicians

It was because of this strong belief in the gods that dissecting the human body was not even thought of by most people.  To cut open a relative or friend to learn about why he died, or how the organs were laid out and how they functioned, was unheard of.  To even think of such a thing was morbid and sacrosanct: it simply was not done.  And for this reason most knowledge of anatomy came from three basic observations:
  1. Wounds obtained in battle
  2. Animals cut up for food
  3. Inspection of sacrificial animals
There was actually a fourth method that could be added to this list: embalming or mummification.  This was a method of preserving the human body mainly so that the person could utilize it in the after life.  The society most famous for doing this were the Egyptians, although they were not the only ones, and may not have been the first.  Yet to cut open the human body and inspect it more so than was necessary to get the job done was  not just sacrosanct and unheard of, it was strictly prohibited.  If you did so you would be severely punished, and you would always be caught because the gods, after all, were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  

Although, there obviously were people who surreptitiously inspected the human body, and these few individuals are responsible for advancing physiology (yet they were also responsible for the wrath of the gods).  Since they would have had no knowledge about these internal workings, they created theories of how they worked.  These theories would generally be associated with what they learned and observed about life.  So, as life was associated with hot and cold, moisture and dryness, so to would the internal workings of the body.

And so theories evolved. And somewhere along the way one person would gain enough power, and he would be given credit for this accumulated wisdom. He would be given credit whether or not he had anything to do with it.  He may have been a famous speaker, a famous medicine man, a famous priest, a famous physician, or a famous ruler.  Or, better yet, he may have been all of the above.

And, as time went by, this knowledge migrated around the world with the traders, or with people looking to find better places of food.  So the myths and legends inculcated in their minds wended their way around the world, and so perhaps it is for this reason that the gods were the physicians for nearly every tribe, and every society, that existed in the primitive and ancient worlds.  

Through it all, these gods were responsible for all knowledge.  These gods were responsible for life and death. These gods were responsible for health and healing.  If you were sick with dyspnea for example, you did not wonder what was wrong inside your body to cause these symptoms: it was simply understood that these symptoms were the result of the desire of a god.  If you wanted any chance at healing, you were at the whims of this god.  In this way, the gods were the first physicians. This was true in nearly every ancient civilization regardless of where that civilization was.  It was true in Mesopotamia, it was true in Egypt, it was true in Greece, it was true in Rome, it was true in Mesoamerica, it was true in North America.  

Now surely the medicine man was the first human physician, yet as far as the first societies were concerned, people had no knowledge of the medicine man.  They also had no knowledge of the origins of the legends, and therefore the gods became the first physicians.  When the first civilizations came to be, and when the first written languages were invented, these legends were written down as known at that time.  The scribes, priests, physicians, princesses, princes, queens and kings had access to these writings, and they made sure the people were told these stories in order to keep them in line with the desires of the ruling classes.

The temples, shrines, and even churches were places of healing, places where the gods made their appearances and shared their wisdom for health and healing.  In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome temples were places of healing, where the sick slept at night, and visions appeared to them that were interpreted by the priests, who were the mediators between the sick and the gods (the physicians). Yet while the gods were viewed as the physicians, the real physicians were the priests. They were the ones who learned at the schools at the temples, and who learned of the knowledge of medicine.

Yet the populace did not know this, as they were kept ignorant.  To them, these priest were merely mediators who so happened to interpret omens of the gods. These ancient priests had the ability to read messages sent from the gods by the placement of the planets and stars in the sky, and hence this is why astrology was a specialization in most ancient civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica.

Through this and other practices of divination (hepatoscopy being another), the priests were able to read the thoughts of the gods, and they were able to use these omens to provide hope to both the healthy and the sick.  Or, if the wishes of the gods were inauspicious, then perhaps gloom in the form of plagues would spread through a family or perhaps through the entire civilization.

If you had asthma, if you suffered from shortness of breath, no matter where you lived in the world, the best way to prevent future attacks, and the best road to healing, was to pay special attention to the legends, and to worship the gods as instructed.  If you were sick it was your fault, and if you became healthy it was your doing, because whether your guardian god was happy or sad was your doing.

Although, the happiness of the god was also an accumulative effort of the entire society, and so the job of keeping the gods happy on behalf of the society became the job of the priests.

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