Monday, October 27, 2014

Lycanthropy (Werewolves) in Byzantine Times

What I find interesting about the contents of the article below was the advanced methods of psychiatry in Late Roman (Byzantine) times which treated symptoms of lycanthropy as a mental disorder, while in the West centuries later, following the Fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, it was often seen as a symptom of demonic possession.

"Lycanthropy in Byzantine Times (AD 330—1453)", 
History of Psychiatry, Vol. 20, No. 4, 468-479 (2009).

By E. Poulakou-Rebelakou, C. Tsiamis, G. Panteleakos, D. Ploumpidis 
(all from the University of Athens)


In this paper, the original Greek language texts of the Byzantine medical literature about lycanthropy are reviewed. The transformation of a human being into a wolf and the adoption of animal-like behavior, which were already known from mythology and had been presented in the scientific works of ancient Greek and Roman physicians, were examined by six Byzantine physicians and explained as a type of melancholic depression or mania. In spite of the influence of Byzantine medicine, its rationality in the interpretation of lycanthropy was forgotten in medieval and Renaissance times when it was replaced by explanations based on demonic possession and witchcraft. More recently psychiatry has treated the phenomenon as a subject of medical inquiry and has again explained the condition in terms of a mental disorder.

A new article explores how Byzantine doctors treated people suffering from lycanthropy, a mental disorder where a patient believes he or she is, or has transformed into, a wolf and behaves like one. This disease is the basis for the legendary werewolves.

In "Lycanthropy in Byzantine Times (AD 330–1453)", four scholars from the University of Athens examine the writings of six Byzantine physicians to see what they believed lycanthropy was and how it should be treated.

Oribasius, a fourth century physician to Emperor Julian the Apostate, described lycanthropy in his work Synagogae Medicae as follows:

"On Lycanthropy. Persons affected by lycanthropy go out at night time and wander among the tombs. You can recognize them from the following signs: they are pale with dry, dull and hollow eyes, without tears, the tongue extremely dry and without saliva. They are very thirsty and their legs are covered with scars from frequent stumbling. You must know that lycanthropy is a type of melancholy that must be treated by bloodletting until fainting, and offering an appropriate diet and baths with sweet water. Purgation by the hiera of colocynth must be applied twice or three times, and then use the viper theriaca and the other healing methods for melancholy. When the disease is approaching, you must sedate the patient by the use of wet compresses and administration of opium, rubbing the ears and the nostrils, a somniferous method."

Other medical writers also give similar symptoms to this disorder. Michael Psellus, an important 11th century Byzantine philosopher and historian, briefly describes the illness in verse in his work Carmen de Re Medica:

"Lycanthropy is a status of melancholy
Meaning at the same time misanthropy.
You recognize the affected man
Running around the tombs at night time
Pale, dry, sad and careless of his appearance."

Even the 14th century writer Johannes Actuarius has a similar description of the disease:

"Lycanthropy is a kind of melancholy making the affected persons wander at night-time, visiting the tombs and the deserts like wolves, and come back in the morning as their human figure and stay at home. In any case, they have ulcerated legs and feet because of falls on stones and thorns; they have dry eyes and tongue and feeble vision. Some patients fear death while others desire it. Some patients avoid speaking and remain silent and sad while others try to converse with people."

The writers of the article note that these Byzantine physicians saw lycanthropy as a type of melancholy or mania, and that change into an animal was the patient's delusional fantasy. Byzantine medical writers often dealt with mental disorders in their works, including epilepsy, frenzy, dementia, melancholy, mania, lethargy, insomnia, depression and paranoia.

The article also compared these views with those from Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods, where it was seen as some kind of divine curse or demonic possession, and reacted by killing people who acted like wolves. Others believed they were heretics like witches, leading some authorities to go on campaigns to arrest and execute them. One sixteenth century French judge was responsible for burning over 600 witches and werewolves.

The article notes that a Byzantine emperor, Justin II (AD 565–578), may have suffered from this mental disorder. From the first years of his reign, Justin showed signs of a severe psychiatric illness, which included walking around the palace barking or mewing, and imitating dogs’ and cats’ behavior. The emperor also threw objects out of the palace windows during his explosions of wrath and on one occasion demanded that the Orthodox Patriarch wear a woman’s hat.

The article "Lycanthropy in Byzantine Times (AD 330–1453)", by E. Poulakou-Rebelakou, C. Tsiamis, G. Panteleakosi and D. Ploumpidis, is found in Volume 20, Issue 4 of the journal History of Psychiatry (2009).