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Having courses to take for my teaching certification, working full-time, along with trying to be a good husband and father sometimes leaves me with little time for writing new articles for the site. While this is not a new article, it just may be new for you.
In light of events that have recently taken place at my workplace, I thought we should revisit The Falling Sickness.
Unlike some people, I was not born with this condition. I was initially diagnosed when I was 18 years old.
The reason I mention this is because recently a co-worker of mine had a seizure at the end of the school day. It was a big thing since it was her first seizure and, from what I could tell, the first at the school.
It got me thinking about when my primary care doctor sent me to see a neurologist about my condition. At first I was a bit down about it, well a lot down actually.
Just like my co-worker now, my life was turned upside down. When you grow up not having seizures, or any traumatic injuries, the first time it happens is a really big deal.
Your drivers license gets taken away. Depending upon the severity of the condition, you may miss quite a lot of work or school, and you have an almost endless succession of doctors appointments to attend.
Back when this started for me, my passion for all things Roman had not yet developed into what it is today. I had always loved history though, and recalled hearing that the great and powerful Gaius Julius Caesar had seizures.
I thought to myself that if this man could conquer and rule such a large portion of the known world, while having seizures, why could I not do great things too? Why could I not live the life I wanted, without the diagnosis of epilepsy weighing me down?
It was then that I decided having epilepsy did not mean my life was done. Big things could still await me.
Epilepsy dates back to prehistoric times, roughly 2000 BC. It is also known as the “Sacred Disease” since it was believed seizures were “thought to be an illness sent by the gods”.
Because of this, animal sacrifices would be made before priest-doctors in or near temples. Just to let you know, I have never tried this to ease or cure my epilepsy.
Found in an ancient Mesopotamian text an “unknown author describes some symptoms of a patient mid-seizure: sporadic, jerky movements and muscle rigidity.” This is actually a very accurate description, and is basically how modern experts would describe it.
Sticking with the illness being brought on by the gods, the Mesopotamians believed the vengeful god of the moon caused this to happen.
The oldest known detailed record of the disease itself is in the Sakikku, a Babylonian cuneiform medical text from 1067–1046 BC. This text gives signs and symptoms, details treatment and likely outcomes, and describes many features of the different seizure types.
When ancient Greece rose to power a larger number of accounts of epilepsy and seizures were recorded. The majority of the Greek population associated the condition with genius and the divine, and believed that seizures were brought about by gods, in particular the goddess Selene.
These people believed that if the afflicted spent the night in Selene’s temple the goddess would come to you in a dream, thus removing the illness. There was obviously something about the moon bringing on seizures in the eyes of ancient people.
In all honesty, most of my seizures have come on in the later part of the evening. If you had not already realized it, epilepsy is called “The Falling Sickness” since people typically fall down while having a seizure.
Hippocrates, a well-respected Greek physician, looked at the illness differently however. He believed everything had a natural cause to it, hence why he is considered “The Father of Western Medicine”.
Hippocrates believed that diet, lifestyle and medicine (many of which were herbal) was how to treat the sick. Again, this sounds very similar to modern medicine.
When the Romans rose to power those having seizures were shunned and looked down upon. This is probably a solid reason for Julius Caesar not wanting to make his illness known to the public.
In Ancient Rome people did not eat or drink with the same pottery as that used by someone who was affected. People of the time would spit on their chest believing that this would keep the problem from affected them.
According to Apuleius and other ancient physicians, in order detect epilepsy it was common to light a piece of gagates, whose smoke would trigger the seizure. Occasionally a spinning potter’s wheel was used, perhaps a reference to photosensitive epilepsy.
Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus, he is referred in history by both names, came to describe epilepsy accurately in his writings Medical Definitions. Galen was a Greek philosopher living in the Roman Empire.
He “was able to discern 3 forms of epilepsy: 1) Idiopathic, attributed to primary brain disorder (an analogue to grand mal epilepsies); 2) Secondary forms, attributed to disturbance of cardiac function transmitted through the flow of liquids secondarily to the brain (epilepsy by sympathy); and 3) a third type attributed to disturbance of another part of human body which is secondarily transmitted to the brain”.
He also noted the tendency of seizures to recur, once established, and the phenomenon of epileptic insanity. After the fall of the epileptic to the ground, Aretaeus, distinguished three main periods: manifestation, abatement, cessation.
Thought to cure cancer, remove warts or repel insects, Rue was also used for treating epilepsy.
In a modern study done with Rue and its effects on the central nervous system (CNS) of mice, it was found that Rue “induces a depressant activity on the CNS” thus helping reduce seizures. This also supports the Romans use of the herb.
Medical evidence suggests that epileptic seizures are usually not a random event. Seizures are often brought on by factors such as stress, alcohol abuse, flickering light, or a lack of sleep, among others.
The Falling Sickness has been around for quite some time, and has afflicted many people across the planet. From then till now the cause has not truly ever been known but a variety of remedies has been used.
It really just depends on how the culture at the time which one lives helps to determine the treatment. Those that had epilepsy that came before me did not give up, and hopefully those that come after me will not even have to ever live with the illness.
One thing is for certain, though, seizures should only serve as a hiccup in a person’s life, depending on their frequency that is. I wish others like me will use it as a challenge to live life to its fullest.
As for my co-worker, her life is about to change but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. The course she is now on is simply a new road, not totally new to anyone, just for her.
We are doing our best to help her during this adjustment. We here at RAE are also doing our best to keep people aware of various medical conditions that seem to have a stigma attached to them.
Thank you for allowing me to take the time and share a little about myself within the context of history. Remember to come on back to see what journey we’ll be onto next.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Chang BS, Lowenstein DH. “Epilepsy”. New England Journal of Medicine. 349 (13), 2003. doi:10.1056/NEJMra022308.
Eadie, Mervyn J.; Bladin, Peter F. A Disease Once Sacred: A History of the Medical Understanding of Epilepsy. John Libbey Eurotext, 2001. ISBN 978-0-86196-607-3.
Magiorkinis, E; Kalliopi, S; Diamantis, A. “Hallmarks in the history of epilepsy: epilepsy in antiquity”. Epilepsy & behavior : E&B. 17 (1), Jan 2010. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.
Michael, GE; O’Connor, RE. “The diagnosis and management of seizures and status epilepticus in the prehospital setting”. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 29 (1), Feb 2011. doi:10.1016/j.emc.2010.08.003
Pandolfo, M. “Genetics of epilepsy”. Semin Neurol. 31 (5), Nov 2011. doi:10.1055/s-0031-1299789.
Temkin, Owsei. The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginnings of Modern Neurology. JHU Press. ISBN 9781421400532.
“Epilepsy: An historical overview”. World Health Organization. Feb 2001.