#5 The Four Humors in Disease: Early Greek Medicine

The concept of disease and nature’s role in that had begun changing in Greece for some time around 2700-3000 years back. No more was disease a Divine punishment as decreed by Egyptian priests.

The Greek medical thinking was built on the concept of an imbalance of the four humors – earth, air, fire and water described by Empedocles.

Humorism stated that the body was made of four fluids: blood; yellow bile; black bile; and phlegm. A health body was where these humors were calm. And well balanced. Diseases were a result of imbalance of these humors.

And based on Empedocles’s philosophy, these humors were all linked to the four elements.

Blood was associated with air; the liver; Spring; warmth; and moisture.

Yellow bile was associated with fire; the spleen; Summer; heat; and dryness.

Black bile was associated with earth; the Gall Bladder; Fall; cold and dryness.

Phlegm was associated with water; the Lungs; the Brain; winter; cold; and dryness.

 To illustrate, a standard treatment for fever would be to bleed the patient to reduce the quantity of concerned humor blood. Because only if blood was excessive and imbalanced the body did the body become warm. Moist with redness, perspiration, rapid pulse and rapid breathing.

Other treatments to balance humor included prescribing herbs and food associated with specific humors. The use of emetics and purges.

To end this note I would like to speak two lines about the Philosopher Empedocles.

Little is known of him except that he is the proponent of the theory of our body being controlled by the four humors; He has two more credits. One he described how these four elements come together – by Love and how they are separated – by strife (or hatred). But what is perhaps more impo9rtant is that he was ne of the first few who spoke of light and darkness in an unscientific manner. He described light to originate from our eyes and be reflected upon objects. Flawed. But flaws too contribute to imaginations. And imaginations to thinking. For many believe that Euclid was moved by this idea and his geometric principles may have traversed the path of flaw-imagination-thinking-scientific principles.

Empedocles wrote in verse. Poems.

Those were times when men and women wanted to be immortal in minds of citizens. So did Empedocles. As the fable, story, myth lives. He jumped in full senses into a crater in Mount Etna in Sicily. To be with elements of Nature forever. A volcanic crater. That threw back his bronze sandals.

And many years later Mathew Arnold wrote thus imagining of Empedocles’s prediction minutes before he jumped into the crater:

To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.

Reference: A Short History of Medicine by Steve Parker; Encyclopedia Britannica

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