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Archive for the tag “symbols”

The Origins of Health

1_imgsize.aspThere is nothing better in life than good health,” wrote the poet Menander (4th century BC) and rhetorician Lucian (2nd century AD) agreed that “there is no benefit in possessing every good if health is absent”. Ever since the dawn of its existence, humanity has strived to achieve and maintain good health, while seeking to understand the causes of illnesses and searching for solutions to treat them. This remains one of mankind’s primary concerns – just consider the most common drinking toast (“to good health”). In an exquisite archaeological exhibition entitled HYGIEIA: Health, Illness and Treatment from Homer to Galen, The Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece, offers an unrivalled journey through the evolution of medical practices from 1200 BC to the 3rd century AD, with the aid of 282 artefacts from 41 museums in 7 European countries. But it is not just the artefacts that matter here, it is the knowledge residing behind them.

2_AsklipiosIn his epics, Homer refers to Asklepios as a mortal King of Trikke in Thessaly and a peerless physician. However, according to ancient myth, Asklepios was the son of god Apollo. He is later referred to as a demi-god, one who possessed the unique ability to grant health. From the 5th century BC onwards, his cult as the foremost healing god spread rapidly and endured even past the advent of Christianity to approximately 500 BC. Asklepios was that tall, mature, bearded man often figured clad in a long robe, leaning on a snake-entwined staff. A snake is a “chthonic” element, it crawls on the ground and is well aware of the herbs and nutrients the earth breeds; thus, also capable of distinguishing between the good and bad – in fact, in Greek the word for medicine (φάρμακο) is just an intonation away from the word for poison (φαρμάκι). The snake, however, is also the symbol of renewal because of its ability to shed its skin. It therefore became the sacred animal of the healing god and today is the international symbol of medical doctors.

Such symbolism is abundant: in the Ancient era, the trademark for physicians was an ancient medical cupping vessel, named “Sikya” because of its resemblance to the tubular fruits of the sikya plant. Trefoil juglets that stored opium resembled inverted poppy capsules (the ones that when slit leak out opium-bearing latex), while they also featured a snake on their handle, cautioning that opium may be used in small doses as an anaesthetic and for soothing pain, but in larger doses can cause damage due to its hallucinatory effect.

4_AsklepieioIn the ancient healing sanctuaries dedicated to the healing god and thus known as Asklipieia, patients seeking divine cure would be bathed and aromatized (a purgatory ritual to ensure good health and ethical purity). They would then sleep in the sanctuary (incubation), experiencing a divinely-inspired dream, where Asklepios would appear and offer advice. In the morning this would be interpreted by the sanctuary’s priests and the illness would be physically treated.5_ Hygieia

The incubation process was inspired by another symbol: one that depicts Sleep – the brother of Death – as a winged child at the feet of Hygieia found at the very entrance of this exhibition. Hygieia (Health) is one of the daughters of Asklepios and the goddess of good health. It is from her name that the name (and concept) of “hygiene” arises. Asklepios’ entire family was related to the health-treatment process: his wife Epione was the comforter of pain; his two sons Machaon and Podaleirios took care of injured Achaeans in the Trojan War; while there were also the daughters Acesó (goddess of the healing process); Iasó (goddess of healing); Panacea (the all-healing goddess); and a younger son Telesphóros (he who brings fulfillment and protected coalescing patients).

This “theurgic medicine” was so widespread because prevalent belief had it that the gods inflicted illnesses upon humans as a punishment for impious acts. 6_Anathima STATUE-570And since the cure of every illness was similarly godsent, people tried to appease the gods with prayers, magnificent sacrifices, and purifications. These also included votive offerings either before or after treatment, which took the form of objects (or ailing body parts) as a supplication to the gods. Centuries would pass before the divine provenance of disease was challenged and treatment dissociated from divine intervention. This occurred with the teachings of the Pre-Socratic philosophers (6th c. BC), which served as the foundation for rational scientific medicine. However, votive offerings still remain an integral part of Christian belief, especially in Greek Orthodox Churches.

Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC), today considered as the Father of Scientific Medicine, recorded about 60 ancient treatises in what is known as the Hippocratic Corpus. The medicinal use of healing herbs still used today, originated from thousands of years ago. For example, laurel as an antiseptic, emollient and cathartic; Crocus (or saffron) used for eye inflammation; Lykion (or Goji Berry) extremely well-known for its healing properties; Mandrake used as anaesthetic in surgeries (today is the emblem of the Hellenic Society of Anaesthesiology); and Mastic used, among others, to clean teeth and as a regenerative factor for a radiant complexion.7_ Iasis 1

Hippocratic physicians also emphasized the importance of diet in maintaining health as well as in treating disease. In antiquity, the word diet was not limited strictly to food, as it is nowadays; it expressed a broader concept, which also encompassed – and always in moderation – drink, physical exercise, baths, massages, sleep, sexuality, and a person’s habits and way of life in general.

According to Hippocrates, the human body encompasses four fluids or humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). The balanced proportion of all four fluids, known as Eukrasia (good mix), is a main characteristic of good health, while the disruption of this balance (Dyskrasia) leads to the onset of various diseases.

Galen (129-216 AD), a prolific Physician from Pergamon whose theories dominated and influenced Western medicine up to the 17thcentury, tried to explain human behavior according to the fluid that prevailed in each human being. So, for example, a Sanguine person, in whom blood prevails, is sociable; a Phlegmatic person, in whom phlegm prevails, is relaxed and quiet; a Choleric person, in whom yellow bile prevails, is tense and aggressive; and a Melancholic person, in whom black bile (melaina cholé in Greek) prevails, is moody and introverted.

9_760374_Iasis_Installation_3In the ancient era, physicians were seen as the “healers of evil” and were greatly respected in society. They enjoyed an elevated status because of their specific skills. They were considered craftsmen, as well as “demiourgoi”, i.e. workers who labored for deme, the public good. Physicians were considered servants of mankind in general and travelled from place to place to practice their craft and offer their services to community. This is also what today’s doctors vow to do through their Hippocratic Oath. To continue practicing medicine, whose origins, as is evident, stem from centuries ago. And despite the fact that people – in their majority – no longer believe diseases are godsent punishes for irreverent human actions – deep down we all hope that someone can find a way to reverse them, to treat even the most incurable ones, and soothe the suffering for all.

 

* The exhibition “HYGIEIA. Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen” runs from 19/11/2014 until 31/5/2015 and a short video can be found here.

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Regal at heart

Crown of King of SpainWith the proclamation of a new King in Europe, the question of monarchy or republic is once again brought to the forefront. But truth is, people like these royal traditions and pompous ceremonies. They bring an air of glamour, of majestic pride, of fascination and of elegance to an otherwise dull, boring and sometimes even pessimistic routine.

Kings and Queens in the modern world are more of a symbol. One of national pride, which also provides a sense of stability and continuity in times of political and social change. The system of constitutional monarchy is seen to bridge the discontinuity of party politics. And despite the corruption scandals of both democratically elected politicians and hereditary monarchs, people love to fondle over where the royals go on vacation, what they are wearing, and where they live. In essence, you would be more interested in a glimpse in the life of a queen for example, than of a Member of Parliament. The former simply has more prestige attached to it, if only by title.

Nonetheless, we are often left to wonder what the point of a monarchy is nowadays.

It is all about the symbolism.

And the innate desire of every human to have a bit of royal in themselves. We all wish to be king or queen (or even prince or princesses) of something. Getting some ideas out of the lives of people who officially bear the title never did any harm.

“In the past, people were born royal. Nowadays, royalty comes from what you do.”
– Gianni Versace

Life in colour

emotions1Have you ever thought why when you’re sad you’re feeling blue, or when you’re jealous you turn green with envy?  And why is love painted red? Why is it that every time our emotions change, we become chameleons changing colours?

Colours are often associated with emotions, because, obviously, our world is not black and white. We see colours all around us, and these constitute an important aspect of our visual experience. Colours are not only detected by the eye, but by the brain and can thus affect various systems of the body. Dubbed as colour psychology, research has shown that we indeed associate various colours and the emotion they cause with the relevant physiological or psychological state of a person. For example, blue is perhaps the world’s favourite colour. Seen all around us in the sky and sea, blue symbolises openness, while it also soothes, calms and relaxes. Blue is also intrinsically linked to low blood pressure due to the deoxygenised colour of the veins and for this reason it is very often linked to sadness and depression. Contrary, red is the colour of passion. Associated with high blood pressure and heat, red is linked to vitality, ambition, and anger. It is actually linked to all emotions that cause your heart to race and stimulate an increase in adrenaline. In its lighter shade, pink is the colour of related to feminism, comfort, warmth and tender affection.

When you think of green what comes to mind? The environment, plants, recycling, eco-friendly activities. A calmness perhaps and a serene environment. Green creates feelings of comfort, laziness and relaxation; however, dark olive green is associated with illness – and thus we often see ill-stricken cartoon characters turning green. Yet, green also describes envy. In fact the Ancient Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a yellowish-green pallor to the victim’s complexion. In the seventh century B.C., the poetess Sappho used the word “green” to describe the face of a stricken lover. After that, the word was used freely by other poets to denote jealousy or envy. The most famous such reference and the origin of the term “green-eyed monster” is Iago’s speech in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Other colours are intrinsically linked to the physiological state the emotion incurs, explaining for example why we turn white with fear due to the presence of all colours causing a rush of emotions, or why white symbolises purity and peace. Yet, colours such as yellow although on the one hand are reminiscent of sunshine and cheerfulness, on the other also symbolise cowardice and fear, probably because it causes more eye fatigue than any other colour!

Did you know that orange is lonely? Literally lonely? Because nothing actually rhymes with orange! Yet the colour itself is psychologically warm, welcoming and vital. Purple is majestic in its own right, while it is also associated with combating shock and fear. Having been used in the care of nervous disorders, this colour has shown to help balance the mind and transform obsessions and fears. Additionally purple is also linked to the right side of the brain stimulating intuition and imagination. Brown, an earthly colour reminds us of home. It arouses feelings of stability and security, as well as credibility and reassurance. Black on the other hand, entails a negative feeling, often of loss, void, emptiness, insecurity and mystery, given that this is caused by the absence of colour.  So there seems to be a colour for every mood, every emotion, every physiological and psychological state. Even for the indecisive and ambiguous, there is grey, for it is neither white nor black!

Colours are our way of experiencing the world. It is why “adding colour to your life” has become such an important expression. Because in order to experience life in its fullest we ought to live out its every colour and every emotion that comes along with it!

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