Glaucoma: A Very Old Term Related to Superstition
In our article “Glaucoma and the origins of its name,”1 we proposed the idea that the term Glaucoma (or Glaucosis) did not derive directly by the adjective “Glaucos,” but by the Greek name for the bird owl (Glaux), to describe the old-folk belief for the apotropaic-magic role of animals in medicine, which was expressed in ancient Greece by naming a disease after the name of an animal. Leffler and Pierson challenged our idea, persisting that Glaucoma should be linked only to the adjective “Glaucos” describing the color of the diseased eyes. According to our point of view, the connection of the term Glaucoma with the superstitious ideas of ancient Greeks is more accurate than its direct connection to the color “Glaucos.”
Rufus of Ephesus (first to second century AD) is the only ancient Greek physician who specified that later physicians in antiquity used the terms Glaucoma and Hypochyma (or Hypochysis) for 2 special ophthalmological diseases that according to modern medicine are probably a form of cataract, whereas ancient to him, physicians used the term Glaucoma for both these conditions (Oribasius Med. Synopsis ad Eustathium filium 8.49.1-188.8.131.52,2 Paulus Med. Epitomae medicae libri septem 184.108.40.206-83).
When Rufus of Ephesus spoke about ancient physicians, it is obvious that he meant physicians before Pre-Socratic physicians-philosophers in a time when medicine did not have an absolute rational context. Earliest references to the existence of a physician and probably the disease of Glaucoma can be found in clay tablets of Linear B, which were discovered in Pylos dated to the end of Mycenaean times (ca. 1200 BC).4,5 This was a time when medicine and physicians were not entirely separated from magic and superstition.6 The terms Glaucos, Glaux, and Glaucoma are very old, and so they cannot be considered to be detached from the cultural environment in which they were formed.
The magical role of animals is indisputable in ancient Greek though, religion and ritual.7 The owl played its special role in ancient Greek religion, being the sacred animal of goddess Athena.7 Athena, besides her other hypostasis, was also a healer goddess.8 She was the only goddess in ancient Greek religion who was a special ocular healer. She had the epithet Ophthalmitis (Greek; the one who heals the eyes) and a special temple for Athena Ophthalmitis existed in ancient Laconia (Pausanias Perieg. Graeciae descriptio 220.127.116.11-18.104.22.168).9 The special connection of Athena to ocular diseases, which probably derived from its identification to the owl due to the good vision and the big eyes of this bird, may not be just a coincidence. Under this context, we can understand the connection of the owl (Greek, Glaux) to Glaucoma, in particular when the disease and the bird have the same name. In addition, the term Glaucosis, with its ending in sis, is similar to other names of diseases deriving from animals such as polypodiasis (polypus), hipposis (horse), elephantiasis (elephant), ophiasis (snake), and leontiasis (lion).10 We should have in mind that the lizard was also in antiquity a magical animal, especially for ocular diseases in general. Its magical role in ophthalmic healing had to do with its big and distinguished eyes. Many potions to treat ophthalmic diseases contained traces of lizards, as we learn from ancient writers.11
We should not forget that the change of a disease’s name, when it happened, was linked more to an effort, made by ancient Greek physicians, of elimination of any superstitions rather than to point a disease’s treatment. The most distinguished example is the name of epilepsy.