Medicine In Homer

The earliest source of Greek medical knowledge and descriptions of ancient Greek medical practices is Homer. The two epic poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, date to around the eighth century BCE. Of these two works the Iliad contains the more information concerning the treatment of injuries.

The Iliad chronicles part of the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Within the text of this poem, Homer mentions nearly 150 different wounds. Most of these wounds are described with surprising anatomical accuracy. For instance, in the Iliad, Harpalion, a prince allied with the Trojans, is struck from behind by an enemy arrow. Homer explains that this was a fatal wound, for although the arrow entered near the right buttock, it sliced through the body, missed the pelvic and pubic bones, and hit the bladder (Il. XIII. 640-653). Wound after wound is described in a similar fashion in the Iliad. Spears and arrows strike specific internal organs according to their point of entry and trajectory. Homer also seems to have had an appreciation of which kinds of wounds were lethal. In the Iliad, wounds to the arms and legs are painful but not deadly (the story of Achilles' and his famous heel is not mentioned in the poem). On the other hand, all of the 31 different head wounds were lethal.

Beyond the description of wounds, to a lesser extent Homer also recorded the care given to an injured warrior. Generally speaking, medical care focused on the comfort of the wounded man and not on treating the wound itself. Among the warriors, however, there were a few who were considered to be specialists in the art of healing through means of herbal remedies and bandaging. One of these doctors was Machaon, the son of the legendary healer Asclepius who later became deified. When Machaon was wounded himself, however, he was treated by being given a cup of hot wine sprinkled with grated goat cheese and barley (Iliad XI. 638). From these meager beginnings, Greek medicine rapidly developed over the course of the next several centuries.

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