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Epilepsy As Sacred- Part Two

Epilepsy as caused by dark forces

In general, this falls into two categories: epilepsy due to possession, or epilepsy as a sign that there is a witch working black magic. Again, the seizures mentioned here will mostly be in reference to tonic clonic seizures.

The idea of epilepsy and seizures being caused by malevolent beings is widespread across many cultures; to the Anglo Saxons it might be a sign that the sufferer had been afflicted by elves – a short Saxon charm for use in exorcism goes “I conjure you demons and thieves, elves and the falling sickness”- and the Norse held similar beliefs. Many childhood illnesses common at the time would have had seizures as symptoms so frequently it was explained away as the child being stolen by elves. Christians in Medieval Europe declared epilepsy to have been caused by demons. In some areas of modern day rural Africa seizures will be assumed to have been caused by some kind of demonic possession or witchcraft.

When we think of a person who has been possessed there are certain things that often spring to mind: deepening voice, spastic motion of the limbs, perhaps frothing at the mouth, possible telekinetic powers and similar. With the exception of gaining super powers these can all be attributed to epilepsy. During a seizure the patient may yell out and scream and in The Exorcist one of Regan’s first symptoms when initially possessed is tonic clonic seizures (for a while the doctors actually diagnose her with a form of childhood epilepsy). Even today we still have that basic idea of what a possession looks like. Even though we now know the difference between epilepsy and something that has a supernatural cause, when we create images of that supernatural thing it has that more… traditional, shall we say, appearance.

The biggest issue with modern societies still attributing demonic possession as a cause of epilepsy is that the patient will go to a priest or some other person in a similar role rather than seek medical help (or the patient may be unable to do so). In a study on Voodoo possession (E. Carrazana et al, 1999) cases some were found where the priests’ methods had an adverse effect on the patient. While it is difficult to say how many cases are caused by an actual possession it is generally better to assume that the seizures have a natural root cause as opposed to supernatural.

“But there is no bodily infirmity, not even leprosy or epilepsy, which cannot be caused by witches…. For we have often found that certain people have been visited with epilepsy or the falling sickness by means of eggs which have been buried with dead bodies, especially the dead bodies of witches, together with other ceremonies of which we cannot speak, particularly when these eggs have been given to a person either in food or drink.”

Quote from the Malleus Maleficarum.

During the time of witch hunts (and unfortunately still in some rural areas) a seizure could be taken as the sign that the patient had been cursed. During the Salem witch trials the supposedly cursed girls exhibited convulsions and during the major period of witch hunts a person experiencing seizures might herald the start of hunts in that area. As with divine punishment and demonic possession it is not surprising that people without today’s understanding of neurology would leap to these kinds of conclusions, though it should be noted that many physicians of the time did recognise that epilepsy was caused by processes within the person’s body. Back then- as it is even today- it was the villages where this belief was most prevalent.

However, it should be noted that the majority of modern prejudices against epileptics and people who suffer from seizures appear based more on the misunderstanding that epilepsy may be contagious rather than reasons of witchcraft or demons- we can hope, then, that with further education on the topic epilepsy will become less of a stigma in the future.

References

Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Boydell Press, 2007

Daniel Anlezark, Myths, Legends, and Heroes: Essays on Old Norse and Old English Literature, University of Toronto Press, 2011

Louise Jilek-Aall, Morbus Sacer in Africa: Some Religious Aspects of Epilepsy In Traditional Cultures, Epilepsia volume 40, 1999

The Exorcist, William Friedkin, 1973

E. Carrazana, J. DeToledo, W. Tatum, R. Rivas-Vasquez, G. Rey, S. Wheeler, Epilepsy And Religious Experiences: Voodoo Possession, epilepsia, volume 40, 1999

Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, 1486

Bernice Wissler, Epilepsy and Witchcraft: a Brief History, epilepsy.com, September 15th 2003

A. K. Njamnshi, S. A. Angwafor, P. Jallon, and W. F. T. Muna, Secondary school students’ knowledge, attitudes, and practice toward epilepsy in the Batibo Health District—Cameroon, epilepsia, volume 50, 2009

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Epilepsy as Sacred- Part One

Introduction

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.

References:

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