Friday, October 08, 2010

Madness and Sanity 6

Chapter two of Porter's book is called "Gods and demons."  What we humans could not explain by reason or commonsense we attributed to divine intervention, whether that intervention was through a pantheon of gods in more remote times or through that of one deity only in more recent years.  When I was studying theology and philosophy in the old days we described this human attribution to outside divine powers as "the God of the Gaps" mentality.

How did early humankind explain such mental illnesses that we now call by a legion of psychiatric terms which forms a complicated nomenclature that can be readily accessed in the DSM-IV-TR which was published in 2000?  I often consult this Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which is used by many and varying professional bodies associated with the health industry around the world.

Archaeologists have unearthed skulls datable back to at least 5000 BC which have been trephined or trepanned - that is to say that small round holes have been bored in them with unsophisticated flint tools.  This evidence supports the conclusion that these early human beings believed these poor unfortunate souls to have been possessed by devils who could only have been freed by such drastic measures as boring holes in skulls.

William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar crawls away in madness
In a previous post I listed a plethora of adjectives associated with the term "madness", and taken together they have many pejorative associations.  It is little surprise, then, to even the most unenlightened reader that violence, grief, bloodlust and even cannibalism have been associated with insanity.  This chapter is a multi-stop tour of ancient to medieval and post-medieval beliefs with respect to madness.  Porter firstly stops off at Deuteronomy 6:5 where the Lord God of the Jews punished Nebuchadnezzar of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, who reigned c. 605 BC – 562 BC, by reducing him to bestial madness.  He then stops off at another historical stop in Ancient Greece, courtesy of the historian Herodotus who described the crazy King Cambyses of Persia who mocked religion - only a madman would do such a terrible thing.

Get your very own Werewolf t-shirt
We then stop off in India where we learn that the ancient Hindus had a special demon called Grahi who is held responsible for epileptic convulsions.  We are then informed of the links of madness with dogs and werewolves.  We learn an interesting word here from Porter, viz., lycanthropy or "wolf-madness" - that is a "wolf-man" or lycanthrope who prowls about graves and bays at the moon in sheer frenzied madness.  This reminds me also of Dr Anthony Storr's reference to Winston Churchill's black dog, the name he had for his deep depression which hit him quite often.

Ancient image of dramatist Sophocles
We then stop off in Babylon, Mesopotamia, Assyria where epileptic symptoms were ascribed to possession by devils.  These ancient beings do not possess clearly delineated personas, faculties or psyches as do the heroic characters of such later Greek tragedians as Sophocles, Aeschylus or Euripides, still less than those found in Shakespeare or in the reported medical cases in the works of Freud.  I have already referred to the fact that the growth of the sense of the individual was a fairly late emergence in the history of personal or psychological development - see my many posts on Dr Anthony Storr with respect of this matter.  Indeed, Homer's Iliad (written around 800 BCE) has no word at all for "person" or "oneself."

Because the individual psyche, any form of individual character or sense of personality was so ill-defined human beings in these early works of literature are presented as being mere puppets of the gods.  They are literally in the grips of terrible unknown forces beyond their control.  Another way of saying this is that the human being's inner life or persona or conscience, call it what you will, was then at a very early stage of development. 

Interestingly, the great pioneer of Western medicine, Hippocrates (c. 460 - 357 BC) could find little supernatural influence in mental diseases or illnesses which to his mind were simply diseases of the brain.

Christian Madness:

In Christian belief, the Holy Ghost and the Devil battled for possession of the individual soul and the battleground was none other than the very mind (or soul) of the individual which portrayed symptoms of despair, anguish and other mental disturbances, the results of that on-going battle.  Porter refers to the "good madness" illustrated in the lives of saints and mystics - the good or holy madness of the Cross, holy innocents, prophets, ascetics, mystics and visionaries who could be said to be "possessed" by the "good madness."

However, derangement was more commonly viewed as diabolic, schemed initially by Satan and spread by witches and heretics.  The Roman Catholic Church has a veritable evil history in its dealings with those wretched souls whom it adjudged as being heretics, witches or sorcerors.  Let us quote the words of Porter here:

The witch craze which gathered momentum across Europe from the late fifteenth century, peaking around 1650, likewise viewed uncontrolled speech and behaviour as symptoms as symptoms of satanic malificium (malice) directed by witches who had compacted with the Devil.  In the conflagration of heresy-accusations and burnings stoked by the Reformation ans Counter-Reformation, false doctrine and delusion formed two sides of the same coin: the mad were judged to be possessed, and religious adversaries were deemed to be out of their mind.  (op.cit., pp. 19-21) 
Also, in early Anglican circles, madness was seen as a desperate and acute phase in the trial and redemption of souls, because it brought the sinner into a state of crisis, and provided the prelude to recovery.  In all this, it appears and has always appeared to me that the Anglican position was always far more "reasonable" and middle-of-the-road or balanced than the more extreme ones of either right wing Roman Catholicism or more fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestantism.

In summary, then, in these more remote times we may say there was a widespread belief in the existence of supernaturally induced madness.  Thankfully, there are instances, listed by Porter, of more reasonable academics and medical persons who began to see that there could be some human weaknesses involved within the person, rather than the more horrific idea of possession from some maleficium or malice from a personified evil which exists outside him or her. Indeed, once again the Anglican Church showed a way more balanced approach to mental illness than either the Roman Catholic Church or the more fundamentalist Evangelical churches which both took an all-too-easy refuge in the idea of possession of the individual soul by demonic forces. 

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