A Brief Cultual History of Epilepsy-How Society Perceived us, and still do!

I like history, always have, but when you look deeper into how epilepsy was perceived (and still do)…we have along way to go, as regards to changing the perceptions of society as a whole.

Some historical/’public figures as Alexander the Great, Frederick Handel, Vincent Van Gogh, Alfred Nobel, Lewis Carroll, and the US sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner (1988 Olympics) had epilepsy.

The Egyptians referred to epilepsy as the ‘falling sickness’ and the earliest recorded writings about epilepsy are dated from 2000 B.C. The code of Hammurabi (Babylonian Law Code) stated that anyone who has a slave can be returned, within one month of purchase, if they have a seizure. This was also the practice of slave owners in the 18/19th centuries in the US.

The ancient Greek leader,Hippocrates, stated in the text, that epilepsy was a physical possession and was considered demonic. The Greek gods of epilepsy Pan, were associated with fertility rites, known for suddenness of appearances, swiftness of attack,fear. Hecate, was associated with the underworld and a dog headed appearance, he was also associated with the fear and anxiety of epilepsy. Seizures are thus associated with an apprehension of evil and connected to the supernatural.

This view lasted into the middle ages when the church preached the view that persons with epilepsy were possessed. The order of Jesus refused since 1540, entry for anyone with epilepsy into the Jesuit religious order. The Salem witch trials of 1692, the chief accuser, 9 year old Elizabeth Parris, had seizures. The infamous  Bedlam,psychiatric hospital in the 19th century.located in London over a third of the inmates had epilepsy. Hence the coining of the term, Bedlam, for an uproar or confusion. The choices then were Bedlam or castration.

The same can be said for other cultures. Traditional healers in Zimbabwe,Africa  believed epilepsy was caused by an angry or disturbed ancestor, as did the Youba tribe in Nigeria. The Navajo tribe in Arizona, believed that seizures were caused by incest , witchcraft or hand trembling.

In fact it wasn’t until the late 1800’s did medical doctors begin to recognize that epilepsy was a neurological condition. One of the first anti epileptic drugs were Paraldehyde (1882) and Phenobarbital (1912). Still society even now in recent times are mystified about the epilepsy condition. It wasn’t until 1965, that  people with the epilepsy condition were denied access of entry to the US. Many states discouraged marriage and having children, when at least one partner had epilepsy, as it could be inherited, this was  finally repealed in the 1980’s. They also  enacted involuntary sterilization laws.

We have come along way in the last 100years…but there is still along way to go.


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