Ancient Greek Mythology Diseases, Health, Illness, Infections, Conditions

The Roman goddess Venus is actually an example of Hellenization of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Venus was considered to be the goddess of love and the term 'venereal' disease was used as a euphuism for an STD. The Herpes virus is known to have been present in ancient Greece and in fact one such case has been described by Hippocrates. The name herpes is the Greek word for "to creep or crawl" which refers to the spread of skin lesions. One of the first recoded experimental treatments of herpes required the burning or cauterizing of skin lesions with a hot iron. Venereal disease was also known as Cupid's itch in reference to the Roman god Cupid.


“Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick.” This is part of the Hippocratic Oath that every physician across the world takes– a solemn vow to help and treat the ill. Few of us realize that this Hippocratic Oath has its roots in ancient Greek and is named after Hippocrates, who it is believed, wrote these original guidelines for doctors.

Introduction To List Of Diseases

The ancient Greeks were medically proficient and were able to identify and name several diseases. Since the names have not changed with the passage of years, several known diseases still have Greek names. In a way, the names of these diseases stand as a timeless testament to the great Greek pioneers of medicine.

It is necessary that our journey back in time starts here, in ancient Greece, in the time of Hippocrates. The lifestyle of the ancient Greeks was simple and yet fulfilling. Their houses were similar to our own homes and each house generally had a kitchen, dining room, bathroom, and a sitting area. The women had elaborate hairstyles with metal headbands and the children played marbles and rode piggyback in the street. This is the sight that would have greeted Hippocrates as he made his way to a patient’s home. Today we are so dependant on technology that it seems impossible that the ancient Greeks could have such in-depth medical knowledge with only the most rudimentary technology. So what did the ancient Greeks know about medicine and were their remedies actually helpful?

  1. Cholesterol

    Origin of the word: The word cholesterol is a combination of the Greek word ‘chole’ meaning ‘bile’ and ‘steros’ which means ‘solid’. Cholesterol was originally discovered as small stones in the gallbladder and so it acquired this name.

    Ancient Greek Cure: Flaxseeds had prominent culinary as well as therapeutic roles as their health benefits for digestion and other ailemnts were well-known. There has been a lot of modern research on flaxseeds and their effectiveness in lowering cholesterol levels. Several independent studies have shown that flaxseed is extremely effective in treating high cholesterol levels. In some cases, it was even observed that a person benefitted equally from a dose of flaxseeds and a dose of cholesterol lowering medication. It is the high fiber and omega-3 fats content in flaxseed that makes it so effective in lowering cholesterol levels. However, this does not mean that one can simply substitute medication for flaxseed but instead flaxseed can be used as a dietary aid to lower cholesterol levels.

    Trivia: Ancient Greek surgeons were capable of removing kidney and gallbladder stones but were treated as inferior to doctors. This was because the concept of dissection was repulsive and appalling to most doctors and healers. In fact doctors were expressly forbidden from performing surgeries. It was only in later centuries that the tables were turned and a surgeon’s skills were given due credit.
  2. Diabetes

    Origin of the word: The word diabetes was coined from the Greek prefix ‘dia’ meaning ‘apart’ and the word ’bainein’ which means ‘to stand. Thus together the word meant a compass or a siphon. The word siphon therefore was a rather cheeky reference to the excessive urination experienced by a person suffering from diabetes.

    Ancient Greek Cure: The ancient Greeks generally followed a very healthy diet and diabetes was a very rare condition. In such cases patients were generally advised to follow a healthy diet and lifestyle and also exercise regularly. However, the Greeks also used several condiments and herbs such as black cumin and fenugreek which have been found to be effective in treating diabetes. Diabetes was recognized as a severe condition and was often fatal. Remedies like a mixture made out of dates, raw quinces, gruel, and the oil of roses were common but ineffective remedies.
  3. Gonorrhea

    Origin of the word: word Gonorrhea comes from the Greeks word ‘gono’ which means ‘seed’ and ‘rhein’ which means ‘to flow’. Thus the word meant the flow of seed as it was thought that the abnormal discharge was actually semen.

    Ancient Greek Cure: Alum was one of the most commonly recommended forms of treatment in ancient Greece. The Greek physicians actually obtained this form of treatment from the ancient Babylonians who also used alum to treat rashes and wounds.
  4. Cholera

    Origin of the word: Cholera is actually a Latin word that means ‘bilious disease’ and is derived from the greek word ‘khole’ meaning ‘bile’. This disease causes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and vomiting which is the reason for its name.

    Ancient Greek Cure: The ancient Greeks came up with the miasmatic theory of disease to explain certain diseases such as the Black Death and cholera. Miasma is the ancient Greek word for “bad air” or pollution. It was therefore believed that unhygienic conditions caused these diseases and so they could be prevented through good hygiene habits.

    Modern Medicine: Oral Rehydration therapy is used to prevent dehydration while antibiotics are prescribed to shorten the course of this disease.
  5. Leprosy

    Origin of the word: The term leprosy comes from the Greek word lepra which means a disease that causes scaly skin. However, it is interesting to note that leprosy was actually known as Elephantiasis to the Greeks. When Latin translators were translating certain medical texts, they made a mistake and so it came to be that all scaly conditions were caused by leprosy.

    Ancient Greek Cure: The ancient Greek treatment for this condition is unknown. While many different cultures considered leprosy to be a curse from god, it is doubtful that the Greeks in Hippocrates’ time had the same view since they believed that all diseases had a biological cause.

    Modern Medicine: Multidrug therapy or MDT for leprosy is very effective and the dosage is generally spread out over a 12 month period. The dosage may vary according to the age of the individual and in most cases a person is not longer infections after just 2 weeks of treatment.
  6. Anemia

    Origin of the word: Anemia is a derived from the Greek word anaimia which means a lack of blood. The name anemia accurately describes this condition as the individual experiences a reduced quantity of red blood cells or hemoglobin which, in turn, causes pale skin.

    Ancient Greek Cure: Beetroot was used by ancient Greeks to treat anemia and other related conditions. Modern research has found that beetroot contains high quality iron that is easily absorbed by the body. The regular consumption of beetroot and fresh beetroot juice helps to increase the red blood count levels in an individual suffering from anemia.

    Modern Medicine: Oral iron supplementation is generally recommended in moderate cases while most mild cases can be treated with dietary and lifestyle changes alone.
  7. Allergy

    Origin of the word: The word allergy was coined in the 20th century and is based on the Greek words ‘allos’ which means’ other’ and ‘ergon’ which means ‘work’. This meant that the substance caused a different reaction in an individual as compared to others.

    Ancient Greek Cure: It is interesting to note that Hippocrates noted that the consummation of milk could cause gastrointestinal distress and hives. He suggested that very small doses of the food causing the reaction could be consumed so that the individual would get desensitized. The same principle is now used as oral immunotherapy and is extremely successful in treating certain allergies.

    Modern Medicine: Antihistamines are the preferred form of treatment for most types of allergic reactions.
  8. Migraine

    Origin of the word: The term ‘migraine’ derives from the ancient Greek term hemikrania, which comes from the Greek words ‘hemi’ and ‘crania’ for ‘half’ and ‘skull’. Interestingly, the word chronic also derives from ancient Greek mythology, in the name ‘chronos’, which means time. The earliest descriptions of a rare form of migraines called Basilar-type migraine also come from Aretaeus in ancient Greece.

    Ancient Greek Cure: Ancient Greece had a wealth of knowledge on the subject of herbology, which was indispensible to ancient Greek medicine. The knowledge gathered by these early Greek physicians still resonates in our modern world, with mint being widely used for relief from various headaches, including migraines. This herb was widely used by the ancient Greeks for migraine relief and other cures, and the tradition was borrowed by the Romans who popularized mint across the rest of Europe. The name of this precious herb can also be traced back to ancient Greek legends. According to the ancient Greeks Minthe was a nymph, who was also the beloved of the god of the underworld – Pluto. Legends state that Minthe’s jealous wife transformed him into the fragrant herb, since when the herb has been highly regarded.

    Modern Medicine: In most cases non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used for the treatment of migraines, but severe migraines may require treatment with serotonin receptor agonists.
  9. Acne

    Origin of the word: The word acne comes from the Greek word ‘akmas’ which means ‘point’. This term was used to describe skin eruptions that caused pustules and papules and there is sufficient textual evidence to show that the Greeks were concerned about this skin condition and came up with several remedies to rid themselves of it.

    Ancient Greek Cure: There are several home remedies for acne that were prescribed by the ancient Greeks and many of them consisted of vegetable and herbal preparations. Honey was one of the most common treatments for acne and was common to most acne remedies. Honey has come to be regarded as a skin tonic and research has proven its therapeutic powers.

    Sulfur was another extremely popular remedy used by the ancient Greeks to cure acne. Large amounts of Sulfur were added to a scalding hot bath and the individual would then soak in this solution. Sulfur helps to eliminate excessive oiliness and also has anti-bacterial properties. This made sulfur a very effective treatment for acne.

    Modern Medicine: Sulfur is still used in modern acne face masks and cleansing scrubs. Sulfur helps to get rid of the upper layers of skin and may cause peeling in individuals with sensitive skin. Most modern topical creams and facewashes for acne include Benzoyl peroxide as a key ingredient.
  10. Plague

    Origin of the word: The word plague is again borrowed from the Greek word ‘plaga’, which means a blow or stroke. Greece was struck by an outbreak in the summer of 430 or 429 BC that left them all too familiar with the dreaded disease.

    Ancient Greek Cure: Ancient Greece was just as vulnerable to the plague as was medieval Europe, but a great deal of knowledge of early outbreaks of the plague and detailed information on the symptoms was actually passed on through the writings of Thucydides. This greatly helped shape the understanding of this feared disease.

    Modern Medicine: Today we have a vaccine for bubonic plague which was the most feared of all. Pharmaceutical treatments for other varieties of the plague are also very effective.
One of the most common symbols of modern medicine is a staff with wings with two entwined snakes. This symbol is a combination of two separate ancient Greek symbols and is referred to as the medical caduceus. The caduceus was a popular symbolic object with two snakes and was representative of the Greek god Hermes who was considered to be the messenger of the gods. The other symbol was the staff had just one snake and represented Asclepius who was considered by the ancient Greeks as the god of healing and medicine. This combination of the two different staffs was actually a mistake but it soon gained acceptance and was adopted by the U.S. Army Medical Corps. The snakes symbolize rejuvenation as they shed their skin.

Influence of Ancient Greece on Medical Science:

  • The ancient Greeks believed that labor pain and successful delivery were governed by Artemis, the goddess of childbirth. They did however rely on an herb called dittany, which was recommended for Aristotle as being useful in labor for pain relief.
  • Dental health in ancient Greece was particularly good, but this probably had more to do with their low sugar diet, and coarse whole grained foods. The importance of cleaning the teeth was also understood however, and primitive dentistry treatments involved extraction of infected teeth.
  • Achilles' heel or Achilles' tendon also derives from Greek mythology. Legend states that his mother, the goddess Thetis in an effort to protect her son Achilles from bodily harm dipped him in the River Styx, just holding on to his heel. In other words this was the only area that was left vulnerable and Achilles was killed by a poisoned arrow that pierced the area.
  • Surgical treatments were probably the greatest contribution the ancient Greeks made to modern medicine, and the most common surgical practices were used for the treatment of battle inflicted wounds. Pliers and forceps were helpful in the removal of any foreign objects, and herbs came in handy for pain relief and also to reduce blood loss. There were other surgical practices as well like lancing of boils, opening up of passages, tooth extraction, and at times as a last resort amputation.
  • Herpes is another disease that the Greeks were all too familiar with. Although they lacked a clear understanding of the disease and did not contribute and cures for the condition they did give it its name, which means to creep or crawl, and could have been a reference to the cold sores.
  • Although cancer may have had no real treatment other than with pain relief, ancient Greeks did have some limited understanding of the condition. The term cancer in fact comes from the Greek ‘carcinos' which means crab or crayfish, and Hippocrates used it as a reference to malignant tumors.
  • According to Galen and Aretaeus, a Greek physician named Asclepiades was the first to perform an elective tracheotomy. He also attempted to build a new approach to disease studies, based on the flow of atoms through the body's pores. He is highly regarded because he is probably one of the earliest thinkers to advocate the humane treatment of mental patients.
  • Ancient Greek surgeon, Critobulus is believed to have attended to both Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great. He is credited with having saved Philip from disfiguration, when an arrow pierced his eye, although his sight could not be saved. He is also believed to have treated Alexander when he was wounded in the storming of the fortress of the Mallians.
  • Ancient Greek physician Diocles of Carystus is another highly celebrated greek physician who created a surgical instrument that could be used to extract arrows, referred to as "the spoon of Diokles"
  • The ancient Greeks also used a device for bladder stone removals that is described in Hippocratic books. A hollow metal tube would be inserted into the urethra to empty it out, making this a primitive catheter.
  • Herophilos of Chalcedon is credited with the creation of what is probably the oldest known device for pulse measurements, a portable waterclock.
  • Ancient Greek physician, Ctesibius devised the commonly used cylinder-and-pistol syringe, which was used for the draining of pimples, boils and wounds that were infected.
  • Hippocrates understanding of fractures is also noteworthy and he clearly understood the ideas of traction and counter-traction and devised special splints to treat fractures of the tibia.
  • He also developed the Hippocratic bench or scamnum for the treatment of spinal injuries, which involved a rack system, and involved the use of gravitational force for the straightening of the spine.


Ancient Greece is considered by most historians to be the bedrock of all modern Western Civilization. At this time, the Roman Empire was not as rich as the Greeks in culture and learning but it had immense commercial and political ties with the rest of Europe. As the Romans started to adopt several aspects of Greek culture, the changes were passed on to neighboring countries until Greek culture was prevalent in almost all of Europe. The Ancient Greek thinkers have made immense contributions to the fields of philosophy, educational systems, and politics. Greek art and architecture was unparalleled and played a very important role in the Renaissance that later swept Western Europe.

Since the Greeks were so advanced in the field of medicine, it is understandable that the names of several diseases have Greek origins. However, it is important to remember that the Ancient Greeks gave us even more powerful words like harmony, ethics, music, melody, hope, and perhaps above all, empathy.