Anatomical descriptions in the Iliad

Maria Chicco
Aylesbury, UK

 

Illustration on the interior of a Greek kylix, Achilles dressing the wounds of Patroclus, central figures in the Iliad
Illustration on the interior of a Greek kylix, Achilles dressing the wounds of Patroclus, Attic red figure, Vulci, Italy, ca. 500 BCE, signed by the potter Sosias. Kylix – Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin F2278 (c. 500 BC)”

The descriptions of battles and duels in the Iliad confer an epic character to its narration. However, beyond dramatic effect, the detailed descriptions of wounds and injuries have attracted the attention and curiosity of generations of readers, especially those with a medical background.

Some of the anatomical descriptions appear surprisingly elaborate and precise for a text presumably composed around the eighth century BC. Several authors have focused on this aspect of the Iliad and some have gone as far as to conclude that Homer (or whoever composed the Iliad) likely had a medical background.1,2

The aim of this short article is to review some of the most striking examples of precise anatomical descriptions contained in the Iliad, as well as the considerations on this subject provided by various authors over time. The quotes from the Iliad are taken from the 1987 translation by Martin Hammond, which is not organized in verses;3 the page number is therefore provided as a reference.

 

Injury severity

Several authors have examined the descriptions of wounds in the Iliad from an anatomical perspective,1,4,5 in particular, the excellent knowledge of vulnerable points in the human body.6

For example, Homer qualifies the site “where the collarbone separates neck and chest, an especially dangerous spot”7 and “where the collarbones hold the join of the neck and shoulders, at the gullet, where a man’s life is most quickly destroyed,”8 displaying awareness of the relationship of the clavicle to key structures such as the great vessels and the trachea.

Similarly, Homer comments on the painful and protracted death caused by certain types of injuries, such as wounds to the abdomen: “Meriones struck him with his spear between genitals and navel, the place where death in war comes most painfully to suffering mortals,”9 thus possibly describing the agonizing course of a bladder or bowel injury.

On the other hand, some injuries are immediately recognized as being superficial and not life-threatening. In book 4, Menelaos is hit by an arrow in the thigh; however, when he saw that “the arrow’s head binding and the barbs were still outside, his spirit gathered again in his breast” and he recognized that “the sharp arrow is not lodged in a fatal spot.”10

 

Formulae and dramatic effect

Some specific anatomical sites and injuries recur throughout the text. The recurrent formulae confer a certain stereotyped character to some wound descriptions and may have served to facilitate recitation by respecting the particular metrical constraints imposed by the hexameter verse.

For instance, evisceration recurs in the text through specific formulae, such as “all his guts gushed on the ground,” 11,12 “the bronze let his bowels gush out,” 13,14,15 and “he sank down holding his entrails in his hands.”16 Other stereotyped injury descriptions include transfixion through chest, abdomen, mouth, or skull, where the assailant typically drives “the bronze right through.” Tissues and fluids are liberally splattered in formulae such as “all his brains were spattered inside,” 17,18,19 “his brains spurted from the wound,”20 and “the marrow spurted out from his vertebrae.”21

The Iliad also contains longer, more elaborate descriptions of injuries, where the poetic aim is to heighten the dramatic effect. For example: “he fell with a crash, the spear fixed in his heart, and the heart’s jerking made the spear quiver right to the butt”;22 “the sharp stone hit him in the space between the eyes, smashing the two brows together: the bone could not hold, and his eyes dropped to the ground in the dust right there in front of his feet”;23 “the spear passed right through the eye-socket and came out through the muscle of the neck . . . the heavy spear was still in the eye-socket and he lifted up the head like a poppy-head on its stalk”;24 and “he struck him on the neck below the ear, so the whole blade sank in, and only the skin held: his head fell hanging at the side.”25 While the poetic intent of these descriptions is evident, credibility from an anatomical perspective is preserved.

 

Anatomical descriptions

While some descriptions have impressed authors for their anatomical and physiological accuracy, others are perplexing in their obvious implausibility.26 In one instance, Homer may even have tried to pre-empt possible criticism: in the description of Hector’s death, it is specified that the weapon’s heavy bronze head did not cut the windpipe and, as a result, Hector was still able to eloquently address his enemy.27

Some other descriptions are rather mysterious and have encouraged speculation as to the exact nature of the anatomical structures described. Most notably, Homer often mentions two tendons and a vein running on the posterior aspect of the neck which, when severed, cause an immediately fatal outcome: “he hit him at the join of the head and neck on the topmost vertebra, and sheared through both tendons”28; “Diomedes lunged his sword and struck his neck in the middle, cutting through both the tendons”29; “he hit him in the neck with a stone and broke through both its tendons”;30 “he stabbed him, cutting right through the vein that runs all the way up the back to reach the neck: he cut right through this and Thoon collapsed on his back in the dust.”31

 

Treatment and doctors

The Iliad contains few cases of diseases, the main example being the description of a plague raging in the Achaean camp, which starts the narration. The plague is caused by offense to a divinity and as such can only be remedied by offering adequate reparation to the gods. Battlefield injuries, on the other hand, are dealt with more pragmatically.32 Authors have noted that “one of the traits of Homeric medicine is that it is, by and large, a secular (i.e. human) activity,”33 although a few instances of wounds healed directly by the gods are described.

While most injuries were instantly fatal, a few wound treatments are reported and give an insight into trauma management in ancient Greece. Non-fatal wounds were most often caused by arrows: treatment involved removing the arrow, cleansing of the wound, and applying medicinal herbs and bandages. Two main medical figures are described in the Iliad: Asclepius’s sons, Machaon and Podaleirios, both fighting on the Achaean side. Interestingly, no equivalent figure is present in the Trojan army: it relied on lay personnel and divine intervention—in fact, all three episodes of divine treatment for battle wounds occur in favor of Trojans (Aphrodite for Aeneas, Apollo for Glaukos, and Zeus for Hector).

The importance and prestige of medical figures are clearly recognized in the Iliad: in a well-known episode, Machaon is struck by Paris with an arrow and Idomeneus urges Nestor to evacuate him since “a healer is a man worth many others, for his skill to cut out arrows and spread wounds with soothing medicines.”34 The scholar of medical research in the Homeric epics, Hermann Frölich, remarks that this importance given by Homer to medical status, as well as the detailed descriptions of some wounds and of some medical acts, should lead to the conclusion that Homer himself was a surgeon, even a military surgeon.35

 

Conclusion

The Iliad offers a fascinating window into anatomical and medical knowledge in ancient Greece. Certain anatomical structures and relations are described in surprisingly correct terms; however, it seems evident in many examples that Homer’s main concern remained the dramatic quality of the text.

 

Notes

  1. Godquin B, “Homère était-il chirurgien?”, Chirurgie 116 (1990): 136-143.
  2. Frölich H, Die Militärmedicin Homers (Stuttgart: Enke, 1879).
  3. Homer, The Iliad (London: Penguin Books, 1987), translation by Martin Hammond.
  4. Saunders KB, “The Wounds in Iliad”, The Classical Quarterly 49 (1999): 345-363.
  5. Urso C, “Riferimenti anatomici nell’Iliade di Omero”, Pathologica 89 (1997): 26-30.
  6. Marketos SG, Androutsos GJ, “The Healing Art in the Iliad”, in Science and Technology in Homeric Epics, ed. Paipetis SA (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008), 275-281.
  7. Homer, i, 126.
  8. Homer, The Iliad, 359.
  9. Homer, The Iliad, 214.
  10. Homer, The Iliad, 56-58.
  11. Homer, The Iliad, 66.
  12. Homer, The Iliad, 339.
  13. Homer, The Iliad, 212.
  14. Homer, The Iliad, 233.
  15. Homer, The Iliad, 283.
  16. Homer, The Iliad, 332.
  17. Homer, The Iliad, 168.
  18. Homer, The Iliad, 192.
  19. Homer, The Iliad, 332.
  20. Homer, The Iliad, 282.
  21. Homer, The Iliad, 334.
  22. Homer, The Iliad, 211.
  23. Homer, The Iliad, 271.
  24. Homer, The Iliad, 233.
  25. Homer, The Iliad, 261.
  26. Saunders, “The Wounds in Iliad”, 345-363.
  27. Beasley AW, “Homer and Orthopaedics”, Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 89 (1972): 10-16.
  28. Homer, The Iliad, 232.
  29. Homer, The Iliad, 162.
  30. Homer, The Iliad, 267.
  31. Homer, The Iliad, 213.
  32. Sahlas DJ, “Functional Neuroanatomy in the pre-Hippocratic era: observations from the Iliad of Homer”, Neurosurgery 48 (2001): 1352-1357.
  33. Pikoulis EA, Petropoulos JC, Tsigris C, Pikoulis N, Leppäniemi AK, Pavlakis E, Gavrielatou E, Burris D, Bastounis E, Rich NM, “Trauma management in ancient Greece: value of surgical principles through the years”, World Journal of Surgery 28 (2004): 425-430.
  34. Homer, The Iliad, 178.
  35. Frölich, Die Militärmedicin Homers.

 


 

MARIA CHICCO, DHMSA, MBBS, MRCS, graduated in Medicine from King’s College London in 2016 and is currently a surgical trainee in the Oxford deanery. As part of her studies, she completed the Diploma in the History of Medicine awarded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London. In this framework, she conducted research on several topics in medical humanities and published on the development of medical manuals and on the history of the Italian Hospital in London.

 

 

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