It is commonly believed that the primitive philosopher resorted to supernatural conceptions of the universe out of choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Primitive man preferred a rational interpretation of natural events, and indulged in mystery only when such occurrences were otherwise unexplainable. When a modern student is confronted with a problem that defies solution, he gives the problem up as inexplicable — at least for the time; but the philosopher of antiquity never left a problem unsolved. When a proposition was above his range of knowledge, he resorted to his imaginative and intuitive powers to solve it. He removed the problem from the province of physics and placed it in the realm of metaphysics, believing that nothing is beyond the powers of supernatural forces.
Early man could well understand death and disease brought about by violence, such as by the fangs of a wild beast or the spear of an enemy, but he could not grasp the idea of disease and death attacking a person without any traumatic causes. He could not realize that there was no tangible design or aim in the convulsive paroxysms that threw him down and caused his limbs and muscles to twitch and that there was no purpose in the spasmodic chills and fever that harassed him. Illness aroused in primitive man’s mind feels of despair, fear, resentment, and resignation. For want of a rational explanation of morbid conditions, he inferred that here had been an interference by an offended, jealous, or envious supernatural being — an evil force, from without, that entered his body, overpowered his soul, and caused him suffering.
Aboriginal man had an innate horror of sickness. He did not know when and where the evil spirit might apprehend him and lay him low, for without any intention on his part he might have aroused the wrath or envy of one of the myriad of demons or gods. He imagined himself haunted by invisible forces day and night. They pursued him even though he descended into the darkest caves or climbed the highest mountains. They were in the air he breathed, in the food he ate, and in the water he drank. He could resist the tiger, the lion, the crocodile, and the serpent, enemies which he could see and from which he could protect himself, but he could not cope with invisible forces against whom there was no weapon.
Primitive beliefs and practices, however, cannot as a general rule be called superstitious. Deductions based on mistaken theories or savage tradition may be called ignorant but not superstitious. A belief becomes superstitious with the discovery of the true cause of the natural phenomenon. For example, when a primitive man, having no knowledge of optics, saw an image in his neighbor’s pupil, he believed that he saw his spirit. It was logical for him to think the spirit had escaped if the image disappeared after an accidental injury to the eye. Supernatural forces rather than superstitious beliefs govern in the mind of the primitive man the universal phenomena. The very word ‘air’ has a supernatural significance. The whirlwind of the desert, the hurricane, the ebb and flow of the tide, the fountain, the geyser, and the mirage were to early man the action of supernatural beings. Man’s fear of evil spirits appears to antedate his belief in benevolent deities or gods. The development of the god-idea among primitive man seems to be an outgrowth of his need for protection against evil spirits.
When disease or other catastrophes overtook the aboriginal man, he propitiated the demon causing his trouble and prayed to his gods to intervene with the evil spirits, for he could not conceive how a benevolent god would persecute a poor human being, but he dreaded the demon who lurked in the mountains, caves, shady trees, and streams, and who was ever ready to attack him.
The idea that disease is caused by occult powers was rooted in the mind of the primitive man from time immemorial. The supernatural forces responsible for morbid conditions were believed to have taken their origin from four different sources. 1) Aerial powers, such as demons; 2) subterranean powers, such as worms and ghosts of the dead; 3) terrestrial agencies, such as elves, witchcraft, and the evil eye and 4) heavenly powers, such as gods and stars. The belief in the demonic etiology of disease is probably the oldest known theory in the history of medicine. According to Aeschylus, the Babylonians believed demons to be the cause of all diseases and mishaps of life. There were the special demons for every disease; a demon known as Ashkaku was the spirit causing consumption; Erra, the spirit of pestilence; Alu, the demon of blindness; Namtur, the evil spirit causing the plague; Etama and Az, the storm demons who bring with them all sorts of diseases and catastrophes; Labartu attacked women in the puerperal state and bereaved mothers of their offspring; and Dibarra, the dangerous spirit who played such an important role in mythology.
The association of disease with supernatural forces was not confined to ancient Babylonia. Alexandria, which was the great metropolis of the East, where the civilizations of the Orient and Occident met, became the center of demonic healing.
A trace was made regarding the demonic possession among civilized peoples, such as the Greeks, Romans, Jews, and early Christians down to the present Nations of Europe, ‘It is not too much to assert that the doctrine of demonic possession has kept up substantially the same to account for the same facts by half of the human race who stand as consistent representatives of their forefathers back into primitive antiquity.’ (Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol 2, pp. 142-143)
The animistic conception of pathology was lost as soon as man learned to reason and think more clearly. With the discovery of a new fact, the old theory lost its prestige. Very often the discovery of new facts in medicine is reached by the process of evolution, as, for example, the rude ancient belief that disease was caused by the entrance into the body of malignant spirits was first changed to the more rational idea that living creatures such as parasites and insects entered the system; later the discovery of the microscope transmuted the etiology of disease to bacterial organisms. Thus it appears that the ancient view of the etiology of disease was by and large similar to the modern concept of our bacteriology; if it did not agree in letter it agreed in principle. Both views assumed that an extraneous invisible object is the cause of physical disturbance.
The ancient failure to discover things that are now considered simple was not due to a lack of ingenuity, for there were from time immemorial thoughtful and capable people with original ideas; their seeming lack of originality was because they did not possess the necessary scientific approaches and laboratory equipment which required ages to produce.
The sanitary and hygienic laws of the Hebrews, and their methods of combating disease three millennia ago, indicate that they suspected some contaminating extraneous evil influence of entering the body and producing disease. The biblical ordinance concerning the control of contagious disease was far ahead of the age and was not matched until the 17th century, and not fully appreciated and understood until about the late 1800s.
According to Josephus, the plant Baarath was used for fumigation, to exorcise the demons of disease, a process parallel to the disinfecting of the sick room and the wearing apparel of the present-day patients afflicted with contagious maladies. Antiseptic oils were employed for fumigation in Old Judea as far back as three thousand years ago.
The ancient ideas of health and disease, which might seem uncivilized, silly or strange today, were the beginnings of today’s medicine and our early romance with the gifts of medicine.”