February 4, 2022

The history of epilepsy – the ancient world

Epsy Community

People have been trying to understand seizures for millennia. Learn about the history of epilepsy in this 3-part blog series.

For thousands of years, humans have been trying to figure out what seizures are and why people have them. In this series of three blogs on the history of epilepsy, we explore how both ancient and modern societies tried to explain the disease:

  • In the first article about the history of epilepsy, you will learn how ancient societies tried to understand the disease and when epilepsy was discovered
  • In the second article we will explore the emergence of our modern scientific approach 
  • In the last blog, we look at the ways that the disease was perceived in different places and times
Statue of epilepsy in ancient China

When was epilepsy discovered? The history of epilepsy in the ancient world

Earliest historical mentions

So, when was epilepsy discovered? Human beings have lived with epilepsy throughout our history. However, the first detailed description of the disease is in a 3,000-year old medical text called the Sakikku. Written sometime around 1,050 BC by the Babylonians (an ancient civilization in modern-day Iraq). The Sakikku tried to describe all known illnesses. 

One disease described on the stone tablets is called Sakkikumiqtu, which translates as ‘falling sickness’ – making this the oldest description of the disease in the history of epilepsy. The authors knew that there were different kinds of seizure although they attributed each one to a different spirit. 

Epilepsy in ancient China and India

Around 400 BC an ancient Indian medical text called the Charaka Samhita accurately described convulsions which were accompanied with blackouts and loss of consciousness. Importantly, this system appeared to recognise that the cause of seizures was within the brain. 

Around the same period, texts in traditional Chinese medicine began describing epilepsy. Like the ancient Indians, the Chinese realized that the cause of seizures was something physical in the body, which they believed could be treated with acupuncture. 

Ancient Greeks and the ‘sacred disease’

The ancient Greeks also began to speculate on the causes of epilepsy at this time – in fact the word ‘epilepsy’ comes from the Greek word for ‘to seize’ or ‘to attack’ because they believed seizures were caused by demons grabbing or attacking people. Some ancient Greeks also believed that epilepsy was a divine gift and a sign of genius and they called it the ‘sacred disease’. 

Hippocrates thought it came from the brain

Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), the father of medicine, was skeptical. He wrote: “I am about to discuss the disease called ‘sacred’. It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than any other diseases, but has a natural cause … the fact is that the cause of this affection … is the brain …”. This is arguably when epilepsy was discovered. 

However, Hippocrates’s beliefs were not widely understood at the time and most people in the ancient world still thought seizures were caused by demons. 

The Middle Ages

For many centuries after the ‘golden age’ of Greece, humanity’s scientific knowledge didn’t advance very much – especially in relation to epilepsy. In most of Europe, until the 17th Century, people believed that epileptic seizures were caused by demons and people with epilepsy were highly stigmatized. 

However, the writings of the Ancient Greeks had been translated into Arabic, and by the 1200s, Persian doctors like Rhazes and Avicenna began writing more detailed descriptions of epilepsy drawing on the work of Hippocrates. They also noticed that some people were born with the illness while others developed it after having head injuries. Furthermore, they discovered that diet could control seizures too. 

Advances during the Renaissance

This information gradually made its way over to Europe during a period called the Renaissance (1300-1600 AD), where people began to develop a greater interest in science again. At this time, scientists in Europe began trying to show that epilepsy was caused by things in the physical world – and not by demons or the Moon’s movements. 

How science changed the history of epilepsy

In the ancient world, people’s understanding of why seizures happened was relatively limited and they often tried to explain it through superstition, magic or religion. But as we see in the next blog, science provided a new way of explaining what was causing seizures.