“I [Hippocrates] said, “Know that you should explain the reason for your laughter.” And [Democritus], after glaring at me for a bit, said, “you believe that there are two reasons for my laughter, good things and bad things. But I laugh for one reason: the human being. Humans are full of ignorance but empty of correct affairs, acting like babies in their little plots, and also laboring over endless toil without winning any profit.
Humans travel to the ends of the earth and over the uncharted wilds with unchecked desires, minting silver and gold and never stopping in the pursuit of possession, but always throwing a fit for more, so that there’s never one bit less than others have. And then, they are not at all ashamed to call themselves happy.”
Apollonius Paradoxographus, Historiae Mirabiles 49
“These things are worth knowing. Theophrastos has explained them in is work On Enthusiasm. For he says that music heals when suffering afflicts the soul and the body such as desperation, phobias, and the madnesses of belief which are more serious. For instrumental flute music, he continues, heals both hip pain and epilepsy.
Similarly is the power attributed to Aristoxenos the musician when he came—for he was getting a prophecy from the prophet of his sister Pasiphilê—for resuscitated a person in Thebes who was bewitched by the sound of a trumpet. For when he heard it he yelled out so much that he behaved indecently. If someone at any point even in war should blow the trumpet, then he should suffer much worse in his madness. So, he exposed him bit by bit to the flute—and, as one might say, he used this as an introduction for him to endure the trumpet as well.
The flute heals even if some part of the body is in pain. When the body is subject to flute music, let the instrumental music persist for five days at least. The toil will be surprisingly less on the first day and the second. This application of the flute treatment is common even elsewhere, but especially so in Thebes up to this day.”
There are similar accounts from Pythagorean Traditions
Porphyry, On the Life of Pythagoras
30. “[Pythagoras] healed psychic and bodily sufferings with rhythm, songs, and incantations. He adapted these treatments to his companions, while he himself heard the harmony of everything because he could understand the unity of the spheres and the harmonies of the stars moving with them. It is not our nature to hear this in the least.”
32. “Diogenes says that Pythagoras encouraged all men to avoid ambition and lust for fame, because they especially inculcate envy, and also to stay away from large crowds. He used to convene gatherings at his house at dawn himself, accompanying his singing to the lyre and singing some ancient songs of Thales. And he also sang the songs of Hesiod and Homer, as many as appeared to calm his spirit. He would also dance some dances which he believed brought good mobility and health to the body. He used to take walks himself but not with a crowd, taking only two or three companions to shrines or groves, finding the most peaceful and beautiful places.”
33. “He loved his friends overmuch and was the first to declare that friends possessions are common and that a friend is another self. When they were healthy, he always talked to them; when they were sick, he took care of their bodies. If they were mentally ill, he consoled them, as we said before, some with incantations and spells, others by music. He had songs and paeans for physical ailments: when he sang them, he relieved fatigue. He also could cause forgetfulness of grief, calming of anger, and redirection of desire.”
“Pythagoras believed that music produced great benefits for health, should someone apply it in the appropriate manner. For he was known to use this kind of cleansing and not carelessly. And he also called the healing from music that very thing, a purification. And he used a melody as follows during the spring season. He sat in the middle someone who could play the lyre and settled around him in a circle people who could sing. They would sing certain paeans as he played and through this they seemed to become happy, unified, and directed.
At another time they used music in the place of medicine, and there were certain songs composed against sufferings of the mind, especially despair and bitterness—songs which were created as the greatest aids. He also composed others against rage, desires, and every type of wandering of the soul. There was also another kind of performance he discovered for troubles: he also used dancing.
He used the lyre as an instrument since he considered flutes to induce arrogance as a dramatic sound which had no type of freeing resonance. He also used selected words from Homer and Hesiod for the correction of the soul.”
“The best sweat is one that breaks a fever on the necessary day, but one that brings relief is also useful. A cold sweat developing only around the head and neck is not good and also indicates limited time and danger.”
“Let’s talk first concerning the disease which is called sacred and paralyzed people and the many anxieties which frighten people seriously enough that they lose their minds and believe that they see evil spirits by night or even at times by die or sometimes on all hours. Many have hanged themselves before because of this kind of vision, more often women than men.
For a woman’s nature is more depressed and sorrowful. And young women, when they are at the age of marriage and without a husband, suffer terribly at the time of their menstruation, which they did not suffer earlier in life. For blood collects later in their uterus so that it may flow out. When, then, the mouth of the exit does not create an opening, the blood pools up more because of food and the body’s growth. When the blood has nowhere to flow, it rises up toward the heart and the diaphragm. When these organs are filled, the heart is desensitized and from this transformation it becomes numb. Madness overtakes women because of this numbness.”
“A sacred rite to the spirits of the dead. To Julia Saturnina, age 45, an incomparable wife, the best doctor, the most noble woman. Gaius Philippus, her husband, (made this) for her merits. She is buried here. May the earth be light on you.”
Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. CW: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.
Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10
“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.
When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”
Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.
“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”
In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:
Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.
If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.
There is an earlier account of breast cancer in Herodotus:
“A little while later following these events, some other things happened. Cyrus’ daughter and Dareios’ wife, Atossa, developed a swelling in her breast. It burst out and expanded. As long as it was rather small, she hid it and told no one because she was ashamed. But when it became worse, she summoned Democedes and showed him. He told her that he could make her healthy again but had her swear to him that she would reward him with whatever he asked from her, but that he would request nothing which would bring shame on her.”
“In Larissa, Dyseris’ servant, when she was still young, experienced severe pain whenever she had intercourse. But she was without pain otherwise. She was never pregnant. When she was sixty, she started feeling pan at midday as if she were in severe labor pains. Before midday, she had eaten many leeks and when the pain overcame her and was the strongest of all, she rose up and felt something rough-edged near the entrance to her womb. Then, because she had already fainted, another woman inserted her hand and withdrew a stone which was as big as a spindle top and very rough. After that she was immediately healthy.”
“Nerios’ beautiful virgin daughter was twenty years old when she was struck on the forehead by a flat hand when she was playing with a young woman friend. When it happened, she became blind and out of breath; when she went home, a fever came over her right away. Her head hurt; she was flushed all over her face. By the seventh day, a bad-smelling pus flowed out of her right ear—it was red colored and there was more than a fifth of a cup of it. She seemed to feel better and was relieved. But she was stretched out again later because of a fever. She was feeling badly and was speechless. The right part of her face was contracted and she breathed with difficulty. She also had spasms of trembling. Her tongue stopped working. Her eye was affected. She died on the ninth day.”
“I guess I’ve talked about milk and wine for a little longer than is strictly needed. Really, it is better, once someone has said what benefit the elderly get from these drinks, to indicate what has already been taught about the selection of the material and how diluted each of them should be and especially on the differences of each—once we’ve established that the warmer and more urine-producing wines are better for the elderly and that we shouldn’t give milk to everyone, but only those who can digest well and don’t sense any problem with their right hypochondrium.
But thanks to the lack of effort of those who are too lazy to read the books where more is written about the substance of cures we sometimes have to drag out our explanations. So, hopefully someone will pardon my style of teaching, that I am not precise and brief in the approaches I have generally taken.”
“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”