The Greek Body

The Ancient Greeks are thought to have had rather short lifespans, often ending in their 20s and 30s due to the chaos that was Ancient Greece. Yet, we know that many Greek philosophers lived into their 90s. Whether reaching their final days or the third-way mark, like us they suffered the multitude of physiological ailments that become upsettingly apparent by our 30s.

The Great Hippocrates of Kos, crackerjack of Western medicine. (Image by Wellcome Library)

The Great Hippocrates of Kos, crackerjack of Western medicine. (Image by Wellcome Library)

The Greeks focused their medicine on balance of hot, cold, wet, and dry, and of the four humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. Hippocrates of Kos (460-377 BCE), the Grand Poobah of Modern Medicine, introduced some illuminative concepts to the world, such as the idea that diseases were caused by natural origins, not spiritual. How could he believe such heresy? A pox on him!

Hygieia, as daisy-fresh as the day she was born. (Image by  Alexander Handyside Ritchie)

Hygieia, as daisy-fresh as the day she was born. Image by Alexander Handyside Ritchie.

Hygiene comes from the Greek term hygieine techne, meaning ‘healthful art.’ The art is based on the discovery that keeping your parts clean is vital for health. Hygieia was the Greek goddess of health and cleanliness, but I’m sure even she had her moments where she let things ride in the same underwear for a few days. As we get older we ponder more about whether or not we should be licking doorknobs and subway poles, and whether to eat something off the floor (in front of someone). Hand sanitizer becomes something we purchase instead of just using a pump-full for free at the doctor’s reception desk.

Greek physician cutting to the chase. (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Greek physician cutting to the chase. (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Cholesterol comes from the ancient Greek terms chole, meaning ‘bile,’ and stereos, meaning ‘solid,’ describing the state of cholesterol first discovered in gallstones. The lipid cell is fundamental for biosynthesis in all animals. It builds membranes and maintains their fluidity. The issue that causes concerns is hyper- or hypocholesterolemia, an imbalance of cholesterol levels. In our 30s we begin to pay attention to conditions that affect cardiovascular health because we know our tickers’ days are numbered. Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, HDL and LDL—which is which? Elevated LDL basically jams your arteries with fat and hardens them into pink strips of rebar. The Greeks used flaxseed to lower the bad cholesterol, and the guys in the Whole Foods HABA aisle will tell you to do the same thing.

Just let your blood flow like a mountain stream. (From England or Netherlands, 12th century.)

Just let your blood flow like a mountain stream. (From England or Netherlands, 12th century.)

Hemorrhoids, from the Greek haimorrhoides, meaning ‘flowing blood’ (also known as piles, which is actually from the Latin pila, meaning ‘balls’), are a delightful condition your aging body will get to know eventually. ‘Rhoids are the most common anal pathology and they love to make jokes about you—their favorite being, “Rectum? Damn near killed him!” Dear readers, I know it feels like the hemorrhoids are trying to kill you, but rest easy. They are now with you for the long haul. If they really bother you, you can traipse down to the druggist and have him do a loud-speaker stock check for Preparation-H, Tucks pads, or Anusol. Or you could opt for the Hippocratic method of treatment, burning, cutting, and drying with a hot iron.

Ring it proud! (Leper with a bell circa 1400.)

Ring it proud! (Leper with a bell circa 1400.)

Psoriasis, Greek for ‘itching condition,’ is an itchy, scaly rash that will drive you mad for the rest of your days, and may be one of mankind’s oldest skin diseases. However, this chronic, non-contagious, and usually genetic condition remains difficult to treat. Most people who are going to have it show signs by their 30s. Hippocrates introduced the usage of pine tar and topical arsenic to treat the unbearable itching. Prominent Greek physician Galen (133-200 CE) opted for a broth of boiled vipers—and I say, to each his own. Historically psoriasis was often confused for many other conditions. We now know that most biblical accounts of leprosy were actually psoriasis, but treated with the further stigma of shame. Patients believed to be lepers were forced to ring a bell or clapper to announce their unclean arrival, speak in only a whisper, and avoid touching anyone else. The good Ol’ Testament, spreading truth once again! It actually took hundreds of years to sort out the distinctions between the signs and symptoms of psoriasis and leprosy. If you are stricken with this malady, get yourself a good bell anyway. It’s your way of taking back the ailment and saying, “I’m here, I’m itchy, get used to it!” Cousin to our friend psoriasis is the illustrious Eczema, Greek for ‘something thrown out by heat’ or ‘to boil over’ referring to the boiling bubbling blisters. Eczema is another chronic, noncontagious skin condition characterized by itching, oozing vesicular lesions. Oh, the weeping!

Hippocrates also believed that sex cured diseases. Orgy for the cure!

Hippocrates also believed that sex cured diseases. Orgy for the cure!

Gonorrhea is a condition that may be more likely to strike you in your 20s when all caution and clothing are tossed to the wind, but still a formidable disease for 30-some-odds. The word comes from the Greek terms gonos (seed) and rhein (to flow), back when the copious flow of mucus was believed to be excess semen. So the next time you or your mate excretes a copious flow, you can exclaim, “Gonorrhea!” As one of the two ‘rrhea’ ailments we will discuss today, gonorrhea, (or ‘the Clap’ from the Old French clapoire, meaning ‘brothel’) can be treated with an antibiotic offensive. You may choose to do as the Greeks did and treat with liquid alum, dried figs, and wine, but please, research the ancient texts for dosage before self-medicating. Also worth a mention are Herpes and Chlamydia, the two Greek characters in the theatrical production of your genital tragedy. Herpes, a Greek word meaning ‘to creep,’ is an inflammatory viral condition that skulks through your body until a weakened immune response allows it to erupt. What a creep! Chlamydia, Greek for ‘mantle,’ cloaks all kinds of beasts with all kinds of infections.

It's just a shame, that's all. (John Arderne, circa 1425)

It’s just a shame, that’s all. (John Arderne, circa 1425)

Last, but certainly not least, we have diarrhea, the most common ‘rrhea’ of them all. Hippocrates is credited for coining the term diarrhoia, meaning ‘flowing through.’ Gastrointestinal conditions are just the tip of the malady iceberg that will give you grief in your 30s. You may find yourself pondering, what is “being regular” and how do I achieve it? If you have diarrhea, it could be the result of a number of health factors, as it is a symptom of numerous diseases and a byproduct of the guilty pleasure diet. Hippocrates recommended spontaneous vomiting to cease the fecal flow. Imodium is another route, albeit less dramatic. Either way, please wait a couple weeks before entering a public pool.

What about all the other oozing bodily fluids? (Image by Suzanne Alexander)

What about all the other oozing bodily fluids? (Image by Suzanne Alexander)

What else can we do but embrace our bodies’ imperfections and deterioration. As we breach the period of ‘middle age’ we learn that some of these horrid Greek disorders are here to stay. Proudly purchase your salves and creams and know in your hearts that Hippocrates would have wanted it that way. And whatever you do, do not image search any of the aforementioned conditions.

 

 

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