Today I wanted to post a discussion that relates to early Greek, Roman, and Chinese medicine. It includes Greek and Roman Gods/Goddesses and Chinese Demons.
I am unsure as to what most of you know about ancient history, in particular health, sickness, and
So, this post is a brief look at some different deities in ancient times and how they were
used to maintain health and for curing diseases. I am going to barely touch the surface here, but the
hope is that it will engage conversation between us all. Plus, I plan to do future blog posts on this
In ancient China, in particular pre-Hàn dynasty (earlier than 206BCE) the Chinese believed that
staying healthy meant one had to worship their ancestors plus try to protect themselves from
demons as well as sorcerers that wielded black magic (contact or homeopathic magic). This was
considered the extent of staying healthy.
There was no ownership on looking after your health; as in, if an ancestor considered your worship inadequate, they could still make you sick. Alternatively, a demon could invade your body for ‘shits and giggles, or a sorcerer could gain access to a piece of you (for example, some of your hair) which could then be used to injure your whole self/being.
One particularly interesting demon was called Tai Yi (pronounced Tie Eeee). He was a demon that
travelled through the sky at incredible speed. This haste stirred up a lot of wind which he could use
to benefit, or injure, individual people or large populations.
He was not picky! In this way he could aid you in war by swinging the direction of wind to your advantage; he could also change his mind and swing the wind back against you for no specific reason. You could win wars with Tai Yi assisting you or you could lose wars because he supported the opposition soldiers.
Tai Yi did not have to have a say in wars necessarily, he could also use wind to favour or hinder crop production; he could blow you off a mountain or help blow you up a mountain (I have been told it is always nicer when climbing mountains if the wind is at your back).
In addition, if he were particularly bored, he could invade your body, but this could only happen
whilst you were sleeping. You see when you sleep the Chinese believe that your Hún (Ethereal/Heavenly Soul) leaves your body to travel the world, thereby leaving space for some other maleficent being (either a demon or someone else’s Hún) to enter your body.
Essentially you wake up and you are a completely different person. You are then under their control until a healing sorcerer/soothsayer rocks up and does his exorcism thing, thereby allowing the evil influence to leave so your Hún can come back into your body.
Interestingly one of the ways this was done was to use moxibustion smudging. Demons, including Tai
Yi, were considered anthropomorphic, and mugwort/artemisia vulgaris/moxa was abhorrent to
Not only did they hate the smell, but they could not see where they were going because
they were blinded by the smoke. Moxa smudging could be used both as a preventative as well as a
purgative when maleficent beings were near.
Pepper seeds/corns were another popular item used to keep demons at bay. Sprinkled around your
sleeping body it acted in a similar manner to moxa. Please note: different sources dispute the claim
that pepper was known to (and used by) the Chinese in pre- Hàn times.
Regardless, it was not until the Hàn dynasty (206BCE-220CE), and specifically after the Yellow
Emperor text (Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng/黃帝內經) was written, that there was a definite shift to more of a
personal ownership on health. This discussion is for another time, however. Let us now shift to
ancient Greek times.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, Aristotle, and others, changed the face of Western medicine. This
was around 400-200BCE, but even so, most people still used the Gods to stay healthy. The two
Gods/Goddesses I want to briefly discuss here are the Goddess Tyche (pronounced Tie Key) and the
Tyche was the Goddess of luck, fortune, and prosperity. Greeks would worship her to ensure they
had good fortune in whatever it is that they asked for. Regarding health and wellbeing, they would
worship Tyche for continuing good health. Having said that she was a lot like the Chinese demon Tai
Yi, in that she was not picky, and worshipping her did not necessarily guarantee good health
She is often pictured blindfolded carrying a ‘Horn of Plenty’ (also called a cornucopia) in one hand
and juggling a ball in the other. If she is not juggling a ball, she is balancing a set of scales. She is
depicted as blindfolded because she is indifferent towards anyone or anything (she does not want to
know who you are, what your fame/infamy is, how rich or poor you are).
Her cornucopia is filled to overflowing with gifts which she could shower upon anyone at any time. Her ball or scales depict her weighing up whether to give you something good or something bad. Like Tai Yi, she could positively or negatively impact on individuals or entire communities. And as previously mentioned, she did not care if you worshipped her or not; praying to her for good fortune did not guarantee that bad things would not happen to you.
Asclepius was the God of medicine, and, like Tyche, Greeks would worship Asclepius to ensure good
health, or a speedy recovery from disease. Interestingly he could also be worshipped to bring a loved
one back from the dead. According to several sources he was gifted the blood of Medusa after she
died (gifted by Athena) and he was able to fashion a resurrection spell using his famous staff with
the snake wrapped around it.
Asclepius had anywhere from nine to eleven children depending on the source (regardless, he was a
busy man!); 5 or 6 girls and 4 or 5 boys. His offspring were all worshipped for their connection with
health (in their own right) by the ancient Greeks. Of particular interest is one of his daughters and
one of his sons. Her name was Hygieia, and as you can probably guess she was the Goddess of
hygiene and cleanliness; and the son worth mentioning was called Panacea, which again you can
probably guess, made him the God of remedying difficult diseases.
Regardless of whether you prayed to the Gods/Goddesses, there was no guarantee of good health
or of healing once sick/injured.
In ancient Roman times health and healing had come a long way, and would continue to evolve at a
rapid rate, especially after Galen emerged (129CE-210CE). But for our discussion we need to remain
in pre-Christian Rome (roughly before 50CE). Like the Greeks before them, the Romans had
Gods/Goddesses for everything. And their equivalents to Tyche and Asclepius were the Goddess
Fortuna, and the God Vejovis. Having said that, the Romans (and Greeks for that matter) had lots of
different deities for health, healing, and medicine!
Fortuna and Vejovis were venerated to ensure continuing good health, or a rapid recovery from
disease. There were some minor differences – the Goddess Fortuna was holding a ships rudder
rather than a ball or scales, but she still had the cornucopia in the other hand. Short of repeating
past comments, these Gods/Goddesses worked similar to their Greek equivalents.
The one extra item I would like to add within the Roman view is from my favourite Western
philosopher of all time. His name was Seneca (4BCE-65CE) and he lived during the tumultuous rule of
the following Roman Emperors – Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Of particular
interest here is the last three. Whilst Claudius himself is not supposed to have been a tyrant ruler, he
did exile Seneca to a tiny island in the Mediterranean for eight long years before being recalled to
Rome in 49CE to act as tutor of the then 12-year-old Nero.
During Seneca’s life he ran into an incredibly large amount of injustice and misfortune, not always
upon himself; in fact, most of the time it was on people that he knew. He became so disgruntled
about ‘The Lot’ of Romans that he grew immensely aggrieved, and he laid all this resentment onto
the Goddess Fortuna. So much so that he eventually created a daily meditation (not a worship or a
prayer) that he would start every day saying. This is what he would say:
“The wise will start each day with the thought, ‘Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.’ Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires. How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of an earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins? We live in the middle of things that have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals you have given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.”
Wow! “Reckon on everything; expect everything!” Hopping in the car to drive to work requires one
to prepare for a HUGE crash where loved ones die; blood everywhere; expect worst-case scenario.
Definitely not what most ‘New Age’ authors would say that’s for sure! But in some ways, and this is
the kicker, it prepares you if, in the unlikely event, that something bad does happen. This was his
trick you see. By expecting the worst, if the worst happens you are prepared and therefore you will
react with less of an emotional response, which allows you to get over the event faster. When the
worst-case scenario does not happen then it has been a bloody good day. What a fascinatingly
disturbing way to look at life.
Ultimately, Seneca did not just avoid worshipping the Goddess Fortuna, he ‘DARED HER’ to have a
crack at him. And, whilst it took the Goddess Fortuna 69 years to do it, she eventually gave Seneca
his worst-case scenario. He was ordered to commit suicide by order of the Emperor Nero, who
believed, rightly or wrongly, that Seneca was conspiring against him to take the throne for himself. A
guard showed up at Seneca’s mansion (he was incredibly rich) and orders him to immediately kill
himself. He starts to write a will but is taking too long. His wife wants to commit suicide alongside
Seneca, but she is not allowed. So, he slit his wrists, but the blood does not flow fast enough for the
centurion, and he orders Seneca to cut more blood vessels. So, Seneca opens vessels in his ankles
and then behind his knees. Still, he does not die so Seneca orders some hemlock (poisonous alkaloid
of the parsley plant) to be brewed up, much to the guards disgust. Hemlock works in a similar
manner to fly spray or strychnine poisoning; as in, it forces the muscles in the body (including the
heart) to involuntarily contract and relax which looks a lot like the patient is suffering from severe
seizures. Eventually the heart contracts and does not relax again and the person dies. Alternatively,
the person dies of asphyxiation. It is all rather unpleasant apparently but after two doses of hemlock
Seneca still is not dead. So, the guard shoves him in a steam bath where, depending on differing
reports, the heat increases the blood flow again from his slit vessels and he dies of blood loss, or he
suffocates. Worst case scenario death? You think?
So, is it better to pray to the Gods/Goddesses/Demons/Ancestors or run the gauntlet like Seneca?
To close, what I find particularly interesting here is that the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans had a
similar view on health, healing, and medicine, with similar deities to represent this. Some of the
Gods/Goddesses even had similar names and pronunciations. For example, the Chinese Demon Tai
Yi (pronounced Tie Eeee) and the Greek Goddess Tyche (pronounced Tie Key).
This is not even remotely surprising when it comes to the Greeks and Romans because
geographically, they were near to one another, plus the Romans invaded the Greeks and became
one of the biggest super-powers in ancient history. But it is a vastly different story with the Chinese.
For starters, the ‘Silk Road’ which connected the East with the West had not started operating
during this era. In fact, there is nothing that I have read suggests the Greeks/Romans had ever had
contact with the Chinese during this time. Sure, Alexander the Great managed to get to the edge of
India, as well as slightly south of Lake Balkash around 327-326BCE. But the Chinese did not venture
that far west until the Hàn dynasty (around 50BCE), during their attempt to out-flank the Mongolian
hoard who were continually causing a nuisance to the northern borders of China. As some of you are
probably aware, this is where the Great Wall of China became so important.
The other main reason for the lack of contact between East and West, was Persia, which sat
between the two countries and was, itself, a super-power. So how/why did two completely different
cultures share similar views on health?
Further, the Chinese had Emperors and were Autocratic, whereas the Greeks had a Senate and were
Democratic. So, the citizens lived in quite different societies which, for the most part, resulted in a
distinctly different view on things. Also, the countries had different climates, relied on different
means of transport, had different fruits/vegetables/herbs/domestic animals, and were prey to
completely different diseases/enemies.
So, what does this all result in? Well, that is where you all come in. I would love you to offer up your
views on anything within this post, whether it is about the deities, or the comments on health.
Whatever! You might like to agree with aspects of the post or disagree; the post might prompt you
to ask further questions which is great; either way I would love to get us all talking about this topic.
Constructive feedback is highly encouraged.
In the future I plan to write a blog on the next stage of Eastern and Western medical development,
which is where Five Elements and Four Elements, come into play. But in the meantime, this post lays
the groundwork by exploring a period in history that is often neglected when one discusses
Take care and talk soon. Love and light to you all
*BCE = Before Current Era, CE = Current Era; secular/nonspiritual based
*BC = Before Christ, AD = Anno Domini (In the year of our Lord); Church/spiritual based