When I first began my research for this I, somewhat naively, did not expect the topic to be as big as it seems to be. I’ve felt for a while that an article about epilepsy needed writing, partly because it is often mentioned in connection to the gods, shamanism and witchcraft (I use ‘witchcraft’ here as it would have been used by people merrily accusing others of it in the witch-craze period. Sorry if that offends you but it makes writing this a whole lot easier), but also because I am epileptic and I, well I just wanted to.
This article will be split into three parts: part one gives an overview of the condition and looks at the belief of epilepsy as caused by the divine. Part two will look at epilepsy as caused by dark forces, and part three will look at epilepsy as a sign of shamanic talent. To keep this as objective as possible I will be drawing on the experiences of other epileptics (thank you to everyone who has contributed) but if I have made any errors please tell me and I shall amend where appropriate.
So What is Epilepsy?
To fully discuss epilepsy in a historical context we need to have an understanding of what epilepsy actually is: a neurological disorder where the sufferer will have a tendency towards having recurrent seizures. A seizure is caused by a burst of electrical activity in the brain which prevents it from functioning normally for a period of time (definition from epilepsy action).
There are many different types of seizures and these generally fall into two groups: partial seizures and generalised seizures.
Partial seizures, as the name suggests, affect only one part of the brain. They can have a wide range of symptoms, generally connected to the part of the brain that is being affected. For instance, the frontal lobes deal a lot with movement, language and social behaviour so seizures affecting this part of the brain may have symptoms such as uncontrolled movements, difficulties with speech and understanding, sexual feelings or behaviours and screaming or swearing. Some partial seizures have only recently been understood as being forms of epilepsy as they have symptoms that are much more subtle in nature (for instance, one symptom of temporal lobe seizures is an intense feeling of déjà vu).
Generalised seizures affect the whole brain. The most well known kind of generalised seizure is a tonic clonic seizure (these are also among the most blatantly obvious seizures). During a tonic clonic seizure the epileptic will go through a tonic phase where they lose consciousness an generally fall to the floor. After this there is the clonic phase, which involves jerking of the limbs. Another kind of generalised seizure is the absence seizure where the person will fall unconscious for a small amount of time and appear to be daydreaming.
Obviously there are many more different types of seizures- if you would like more information, I highly recommend the website for epilepsy action.
Epilepsy and the Gods
In the past it would have been impossible to learn more about epilepsy. Today we have neurology, MRI, EEG and a number of other things that can tell us what is going on when a person has a seizure. Our ancestors did not have these things.
Epilepsy, to them, would have been a mysterious illness and in a world where the gods had power over pretty much everything divinity would have been the only possible source. Babylonian sources give us incredibly accurate descriptions of a number of seizures (including Jacksonian, tonic clonic, absence and even some partial seizures) but rather than attributing the cause of these to the brain, they thought they were caused by demons. However, one of the most interesting aspects of epilepsy in the ancient Middle East is the names that people gave the condition. A person with epilepsy was called An.ta.s?ub.ba which means fallen from heaven, clearly hinting at the illness being more divine in origin than others. Another name, bennu, was mentioned in a medical text: “If a man is quivering all the time when lying down, shouts like the shouting of a goat, roars, is apprehensive, shouts a lot all the time, then it is the hand of bennu, the demon (sedu), the deputy of Sin” (Sin was a god of the moon). This phrase ‘the deputy of Sin’ suggests that epilepsy, or the demons associated with it, were sent by Him.
This was followed by the Ancient Greek idea of epilepsy as the sacred disease. For the Greeks, epilepsy was a sign that the sufferer had sinned in some way, most likely against Selene the goddess of the moon (another link of the Mesopotamian ideas of the condition). Someone with a history of epilepsy was advised to avoid things connected with Selene and the moon- if you saw any of Her animals in your dreams it could be an omen of seizures. The taboos an epileptic should avoid range from foodstuffs to baths to birds. Many of these taboos were sacred to Hekate, another deity connected to the moon. Particularly interesting here is the connection between Hekate and goats- many ancient texts liken the shouting of an epileptic mid seizures to the shouting of a goat. It is probably not unreasonable to suggest that this is why they might have connected the disease with Her, if we take the sound of a goat to be an indication of Hekate’s presence.
The epileptics of ancient times were outcasts and to be avoided, lest their curse spread to you. In Mesopotamia one of the few valid reasons for returning a slave was the ‘defect’ of him/her having epilepsy (this is one of the main reasons for why we have such good documentation from that time- a detailed symptom description would have been necessary to prevent cheating). Both the Greeks and Romans shared the belief that prolonged contact with epileptics could lead to spreading of the curse; Pliny the Elder wrote that ‘We spit on epileptics in a fit, that is, we throw back infection’. This act of spitting was a common thing to do in Roman times to rid yourself of demonic, or unwanted supernatural presences. A seizure was a sign of the curse’s presence and a very bad omen. It is easy to understand why they might have thought of epilepsy as specifically being a punishment for sin; tonic clonic seizures are not a pretty sight and sometimes during a seizure the epileptic will be incontinent of urine which would be incredibly shameful- especially if it occurred in public. It is unknown whether the epileptics of the past covered their heads in shame for the disease, or fear of the gods (likely both, let’s face it).
One thing I think is very important is to note the difficulties that epileptics of the past would have had to deal with- it would have been a very lonely condition to have; the fear of contagion meant that epileptics would have lived alone and their reputation as outcasts from society would have forbidden them from marriage or family. When I first began researching this, I noticed that a lot of neopagan sources suggested that the ancients made epileptics their prophets which might have been true in certain cases (this will also be discussed in more depth later) but for the most part this idea would have been false. Ancient sources deal most with tonic clonic, Jacksonian and myoclonic seizures which don’t exactly suggest prophetic capability in their appearance.
Owsei Tempkin, The Falling Sickness, John Hopkins University Press, Second ed.
J. V. Kinnier Wilson, E. H. Reynolds, Texts and Documents translations and analyisis of a cuneiform text forming part of a Babylonian treatise on epilepsy, Medical History, 1990, vol.34
O. Carter Snead III, On the Sacred Disease: the Neurochemistry of Epilepsy, International Review of Neurobiology, vol. 24
M. J. Eadie, P. F. Bladin, A Disease Once Sacred: A History of the Medical Understanding of Epilepsy, John Libbey and Company Ltd., 2001