Madness as Psychosocial Function in the Ancient Myth of Heracles

Teresa Encarnación Villalba Babiloni
Universidad Nacional a Distancia (UNED), College of Valencia (Spain)

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


Since its origins Greek culture became aware of the importance of mental illness in their daily lives. Greeks established the difference between two types of mental illness: the first one had its origin in the divine inspiration and the second one was caused by physical disease. Both of them presented symptoms in form of outbreaks of cholera, rage and anger but are different kinds of violence which could even get to the homicide. Physicians proposed their patients healing the soul through verbal psychotherapy or healing through the words. In this article we propose to review the psychosocial function of the transitory mental illness and verbal psychotherapy in the myth of Heracles.

Keywords: myth, mental illness, anger, social balance, verbal psychotherapy.

  1. Introduction

Since ancient times many primitive cultures know and live diseases like divine intervention on human beings whether spirits (demons) or the gods. The Greeks, like the Egyptians and other peoples of the Middle East, believed in a supernatural etiology of diseases but also conceived the existence of natural causes that explain the illnesses. This common survival between natural and religious beliefs in the explanations of the generic concept of disease is directly linked to the distinction in the ancient Greek medicine from a technical and rationalized medical branch, in close link with the body and other religious and magical ritual, more in line with the soul (Lopez, 2006:186). The influence of religious and magical ideas was so significant that Greek medicine was administered with due regard to religion and magic.

Although the disease is a reality in itself and a psychological reality that is lived differently in each afflicted, it also reflects, to some extent, the structure of a social convention. This is particularly remarkable in the field of mental illness. The diagnosis of normality or mental abnormality is only referring to the integration or marginalization within a sociocultural context (Fernandez, 1969:30-32).

The disease as divine punishment for sin, offense or sacrilege was attested in Greece from the Homeric poems. The ailments arising as a result of chance or fate are also characteristic of Greek thought. The disease of whatever kind is a test of patience and magnanimity of the patient and the love of man to those around him. Also, as a reality, the disease reveals to man consecutive features in his existence which in a state of psychosomatic normality are not evident such as vulnerability and dependence. In this way we discover another human dimension since the morbid condition is an affliction that modifies the usual course of the patient’s life. Sick people can show an uncontrollable, unexplained and obnoxious behavior (Parker, 1983). So illnesses, disabilities and mental disorders were feared and respected by human beings since ancient time.


  1. Psychopathology in Ancient Greece through the myths

            Every culture has a category that can be called “madness”. In ancient times this disturbance seems to be more a religious and ritualistic process than a disease itself (Simon, 1984:46). The Greeks made a distinction between human and divine madness. Herodotus stated a double explanation of mental disorder: on the one hand, the divine or supernatural intervention that seemed to reflect the popular thought and on the other hand the natural origin of the disorders that alters the normal psychic activity, represented by the medical position that comprised the etiology of illnesses in physiological terms (Lopez, 2006:190). They understood that a change of external factors, including habitat and life forms, and the use of the pharmacopoeia would positively influence the achievement of internal balance and restoration mental health.

            Popular thinking believed that mental abnormality is due to the action of some supernatural force or some being penetrated in the human body which produced a pernicious effect. In addition to these spirits and demons, many gods could send madness, these are: Ares, Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, Hecate, Aphrodite, Hera, the Furies and the Nymphs, among others. The reasons that drove these divinities to send the madness were varied: sometimes it was on a whim and others for rebuke. The divine madness was inflicted as a punishment to those who made any offensive or sacrilegious act against the deities. The cure of illness was often made by the deceased, provided that the affected through offerings, let him off the punishment to the offense committed. In the mythical stories abound examples of crazy sent by the gods as a rebuke of a wicked act. The myth that we discuss in the following paragraphs is an example of how Hera can no longer bear the abuse of Heracles’ force and sends him madness. After the defeat of the Minyan, Heracles marched into Thebes, defeated Pirecmes – the king of the Euboeans and ally of the Minyan – and spread terror throughout Greece whit the order that Pirecmes’ body was divided in two by four foals and left without burial next to Heraclius River (Plutarco, Vidas paralelas). Given this sacrilegious act of leaving a body without honorable burial, Hera – angry at the excesses of Heracles – did mad the hero. So Heracles taking on enemies his own family killed his wife Megara, their children and his nephew Iolaus (Apolodoro: 114.12; Diodoro Sículo: IV.11; Eurípides: Heracles, 462 y ss.).

The Greek stereotype of the mental ill individual has some characteristic physical signs, most notably delirium, wandering behavior, but above all, verbal and visual hallucinations, and all kinds of illusions that cause ghostly images. Patients prone to extreme abnormality are conceptualized in the melancholic group. In the following lines we will see how this is the caseof Heracles because in more than one occasion he suffers from this type of symptoms and him disease is called as melancholy in classical writing sources. The sadness suffered for the loss of Hylas provoked in Heracles a frenzy of maddening symptoms: sweating, blood boiling in him veins and running at high speed. Finally he stops and weeps bitterly (Apolonio de Rodas: Argonautas, I, 1261-1272).

Secular and physiological treatment of diseases will search remedy for ailments caused by natural causes, and the magic-religious treatment seeks healing those which arise from a possession or divine action by exorcisms and cleansings or through divine intervention. Back in the myth of Heracles we can find examples that show how it was used both medical and the magic-religious treatments: Athenian legends relate that Theseus, who was very grateful to Heracles because the hero took him out of Tartarus, was horrified by the murder his crazy friend had committed and took him to Athens where Medea cured his madness using medicaments (Eurípides: Heracles 26 and 1163; Pausanias: IX.11.2; Diodoro Sículo; IV.55). The therapy of dementia was supplemented with homeopathic and sympathetic treatment which is reflected in the consideration of disease as stain and in the need of purification. In this point, we have to recall that Heracles, along its adventures, had to resort to the act of purification after a fit of madness repeatedly. In one of them, after killing Iphitus in a fit of rage, Heracles went to Neleus, the king of Pylos, to purify him but Neleus would not do it because he was an ally of King Eurytus, Iphitus’ father. Only Nestor, the youngest son of Neleus met the hero and convinced Deiphobus, son of Hippolytus, to purify Heracles in Amiclas. But still, it didn’t him great help since he still had bad dreams (nightmares) and had to go to the Oracle of Delphi to see how he could get rid of them (Apolodoro: II.6.1; Diodoro Sículo: IV.31). Priestess Jenodea refused to answer on the grounds that the hero had killed his host in a fit of rage and she had no oracles for people like him. Heracles got into a new fit of rage, stripped the temple of their votive offerings and snatched the tripod on sat priestess Jenodea. Apollo, angered by this action, fought with Heracles until Zeus separated them. Heracles had to return the sacred tripod. Then Jenodea gave him the following oracle: “To get rid of your affliction, you must be sold as a slave for a year, and the price you get must be given to the children of Iphitus “. Heracles obeyed but swore revenge on the man who enslaved him: Eurytus (Apolodoro: II.6.1; Higinio: Fábula 32; Pausanias: X. 13.4)…Full Text PDF

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