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The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

McEvilley (SAT:15-16) – The Medical Profession

Diffusion Channels in the Pre-Alexandrian Period

segunda-feira 4 de setembro de 2023, por Cardoso de Castro


The specialized profession of “physician” had not yet separated itself out from the larger profession of shaman   or “medicine man,” which included functions of magic, mythmaking, protophilosophy, and song or poetry, along with healing. Some of those whom we now regard as Greek philosophers would have appeared in the eyes of the Persian kings as “physicians.”


In antiquity the custom of the “‘market place,’ a neutral territory, in which the parties coming from various regions … exchange or sell the products of their countries,” extended to other than material goods. Both medical lore and religious lore were considered “products” of this type. The Persian kings were eager to collect physicians to protect the health of the royal family. Herodotus tells us (III.) that on one occasion before 530 B.C. the pharaoh Amasis sent an Egyptian eye specialist to tend to Cyrus. Egyptian doctors had long been prominent, but in the archaic period the Greeks were also becoming well   known in the medical profession. The names of several Greek physicians who resided at different times at the Persian court are known: Democedes, who spend two years there as “personal physician to Darius I”; Apollonides, an Asklepiad of Cos, who was there a generation later as physician to Artaxerxes I and seduced the king’s sister, for which he was buried alive (Ctesias, Pers. 72–73); Ctesias, an Asklepiad of Cnidos, who spent seventeen years there at the end of the fifth century as doctor to Artaxerxes II; and Polykritos of Mende, who was at the Persian court in the same role when Ctesias left. Though the Indian tradition   that would later be known as Ayurvedic medicine may already have been underway, it is not clear whether Indian physicians were summoned to court. Nevertheless, the fact that an Indian tradition of physiology was diffused into Greece by the time of Plato at the latest suggests that they might have been.

But there is more involved than medical lore. The specialized profession of “physician” had not yet separated itself out from the larger profession of shaman   or “medicine man,” which included functions of magic, mythmaking, protophilosophy, and song or poetry, along with healing. Some of those whom we now regard as Greek philosophers would have appeared in the eyes of the Persian kings as “physicians.”

Empedocles  , for example, was a philosopher to whom monumental achievements of pure thought are attributed; at the same time, he was a magician who claimed the ability to control winds and storms, and, perhaps most famously in his own day, a healer or “physician.” He himself said that some came to him “seeking prophecies, while others, for many a day stabbed by grievous pains, beg to hear the word that heals all manner of illness” (DK 31B112,–12). As wild, by repute at least, as any shape-changing shaman, he is reported to have died by leaping into the active volcano of Mount Aetna, believing that he would thus pass from the human to the divine realm. A believer in reincarnation, Empedocles said that a nearly perfected soul, in the last incarnation before it returns to godhood, may be a prophet, a poet, a physician, or a prince. Somewhere in the combination of these four categories lay the protoprofession of philosopher.

In a famous passage of Homer’s Odyssey (17.–386) the swineherd Eumaeus discusses the categories of foreigners that communities would invite to join them:

Who ever goes and calls a stranger from abroad? Unless indeed the stranger is a master of some craft, a prophet, healer of disease, or builder, or else a wondrous bard who pleases by his song; for these are welcomed by mankind the wide world through.

Prophet, healer, poet: the philosopher Empedocles would have qualified in three of the four categories. So would others of the pre-Socratics   and members of comparable professions from India and elsewhere.

“There is,” as Burkert   says, “evidence of the mobility of magic-wielding seers already in the ancient Orient” — meaning not that they could roam freely but that they were sent from one country to another at a government’s request. About 1500 B.C. a king of Cyprus who previously had bought from Egypt such luxuries as “a bed of rare wood all goldplated, women’s dresses [and] jars of oil of fine quality … requests an Egyptian specialty … a sorcerer [who] had to be an expert with eagles.” Similarly, “King Muwatallis of Hattusas ordered a conjuror from Babylon.” A famous Greek case occurred in 600 B.C. when Athens sent for Epimenides of Crete to purify the city from a plague brought about by the sacrilege associated with Cylon (FrGrHist 47s). Burkert adds that “we find religious practice directly imported [into Greece] from the East along with the skilled craft of foreign specialists.” This tradition lasted at least until the Mauryan dynasty, when king Bindusara wrote to Antiochus I asking to be sent several commodities including a philosopher. The philosopher, in other words, was among the “craftsmen of the sacred,” as Burkert calls them, alongside “seers and doctors,” professions which were “closely connected.”

The ancient physician had not only remedies and therapies to purvey but also doctrines and spells. People came to Empedocles, he said, for “the word that heals all manner of illness.” The “physicians” of all nations whom the Persian kings gathered at their courts must have been carriers of pre- and protophilosophical doctrines, and no doubt had their presentations of them professionally worked out, rehearsed, and ready to expound. A story in Herodotus (III., 129 ff.) shows the type of diffusion event that could have brought Indian traditions through the Persian court and into the center of a Greek philosophical school with lightning-like speed and suddenness. The Greek “physician” Democedes, who had been the doctor to Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, was taken back to the Persian court in about 520, when that tyrant was eliminated by the Persians. He became, according to Herodotus, a favorite (in fact a dinner companion) of the Persian king Darius after he treated Darius’s dislocated ankle, and was not allowed to leave the Persian court, where he remained for two years. In this period it was common for skilled craftspeople to be kept under control by Near Eastern rulers and not allowed to move about at will. “A Hittite treaty expressly stipulates that fugitive craftsmen are to be extradited.” The same may have applied to medical practitioners such as Democedes, who was not permitted to leave the Persian court.

After curing Queen Atossa’s swollen bosom, however, Democedes obtained from her the favor of being sent on a sailing mission to reconnoitre Greece and coastal South Italy. There he escaped with a Persian entourage and went to Croton, where Pythagoras   had recently founded his school. The Pythagoreans were “physicians” themselves, and the school at Croton was a center of medical research. Democedes was a member of the Crotonian medical school and may have been a Pythagorean. In any case, he must have been in communication with the Pythagorean medical school in his own town. “Perhaps Pythagoras knew Polycrates’ physician Democedes, a member of the famous Crotoniate ‘school’ of doctors,” a modern notes. A seemingly Indian physiology which Plato knew was also known to Pythagoreans, and was exactly the type of thing they sought after. Democedes—or someone else in a roughly comparable situation—may have brought it back with him.

Ver online : Thomas McEvilley