Gladiator’s blood as a cure for epilepsy

I just stumbled across this fascinating article from the Journal of the History of Neurosciences about the use of gladiators’ blood as a cure for epilepsy in Ancient Rome. Surprisingly, the practice continued into modern times.

Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine.

J Hist Neurosci. 2003 Jun;12(2):137-43.

Moog FP, Karenberg A.

Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics. The origins of the sacred or apoplectic properties of blood of a slain gladiator, likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the influence of this religious background faded during the Roman Republic, the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator. Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.

The article has some amazing reports of how the practice continued into the last century:

In his autobiography, the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen reported a striking observation in 1823: ‘‘I saw a pitiful poor person made to drink by his superstitious parents a cup of the blood of an executed person, in an attempt to cure him from epilepsy.’’ At the public execution of a murderer in the provincial town of Hanau near Frankfurt in 1861, a crowd of women had to be prevented by police from dipping rags into the freshly-spilled blood. At about the same time executioners in Berlin were paid two taler per blood-drenched handkerchief.

A last and final dramatic report of this kind was published in a Saxon newspaper in 1908 after the execution of a murderess: ‘‘On the day of the execution an old woman from a neighbouring village pushed her way through the crowds around the court buildings to request a small amount of the delinquent’s blood from the security officials. She wanted to help a young girl related to her who suffered from epilepsy, as the blood of an executed person was believed to have great healing power against this disease’’ (quoted from Seyfarth, 1913, p. 279).

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to DOI entry for same.

One Comment

  1. Romeo Vitelli
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Considering the various blood-borne pathogens some of these executed criminals might have had in their blood (including syphilis), it’s hard to believe anyone didn’t see the dangers involved.


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