Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (25) Asthma

Homer is the first to use the words ‘asthma’ in the ‘Iliad’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As a child I suffered throughout summer each year from heavy hay fever, that included regular nosebleeds. It was difficult when I was on summer holidays on my grandparents’ farm near Cappoquin, preferring some days to stay indoors reading and drawing instead of playing outdoors in the fields and with the horses.

Those difficulties were compounded by parents who were unsympathetic and dismissive, telling me I had poor nasal hygiene.

But I sometimes think I may have also had undiagnosed childhood asthma. The occasional bouts of coughing and breathlessness that I know are not related to my pulmonary sarcoidosis mean that, on the advice of my GP, I take an inhaler with me when I travel, including this holiday in Rethymnon in Crete.

Asthma is a long-term inflammatory disease of the airways of the lungs. There are variable and recurring symptoms that obstruct the air flow and trigger spasms, including wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. For some people the symptoms of asthma can get worse at night or because of exercise.

Asthma has many different causes and reactions, and there is no known cure, although it is easily treatable, and it can be triggered by allergens and irritants.

A recent study shows about 262 million people are affected by asthma, which often begins in childhood.

Asthma was known in Ancient Egypt, but the word Asthma is derived from the Greek ἅσθμα asthma, which means ‘panting’ or to exhale with an open mouth.

The expression asthma, with the meaning of a short-drawn breath, first appears in literature when it is used by Homer in the Iliad, Book XV, line 10:

He saw Hector lying on the plain, his companions
sitting round him. Hector was gagging painfully,
dazed and vomiting blood.


In this scene, Zeus wakes up as the Greeks are trying to push a line of Trojans back, and he finds the Trojan leader Hector breathing painfully and vomiting blood. The word Homer uses for ‘gagging painfully’ is asthma.

Homer makes another reference to asthma in the Iliad, Book XV, line 290:

He was just starting to recover,
to recognise his comrades round him. He’d stopped
gasping and sweating, for aegis-bearing Zeus had revived his mind.


In this scene, Homer described Hector as just starting to catch his breath.

Homer uses the term asthma to refer to being winded as from fighting in battle, or from wounds received in battle. He is describing short, gasping breaths, but it is a vague term, used regardless of the cause.

However, Hippocrates is the first to use it in reference to a medical condition, ca 450 BCE. He thought the spasms associated with asthma were more likely to occur among tailors, anglers and metal workers. However, it is difficult to say whether he is referring to an autonomous clinical entity or simply a symptom.

The best clinical description of asthma in later antiquity comes from Aretaeus of Cappadocia in the first century AD

The word ασθματικός (asthmatikos) or asthmatic may have been used first by Herodotus Medicus in first century AD, and is quoted in the fourth century by Oribasius, who was physician to Julian the Apostate.

Julian as emperor tried to reintroduce the worship of the Olympian gods and sent Oribasius to visit the long silent Oracle at Delphi.

The physician from Pergamon returned with the last oracle of the Delphic Pythia:

ἔπατε τῷ βασιλε̃ι· χαμαὶ πέσε δαίδαλος αὐλά.
οὐκέτι Φοῖβος ἔχει καλύβαν, οὐ μάντιδα δάφνην,
οὐ παγὰν λαλέουσαν, ἀπέσβετο καὶ λάλον ὕδωρ.

Tell the king, the splendid hall fell to the ground.
Phoebus no longer has his house, nor the prophesying laurel,
nor the speaking well. The speaking water has dried out.


And, so, the Oracle of Delphi panted or exhaled her last utterance.

‘The Triumph of Achilles’ in the Achilleion in Corfu, in which Franz von Matsch depicts Achilles dragging Hector’s body at the Gates of Troy … Homer uses the word ‘asthma’ to describe Hector’s painful breathing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday: Telephone

Tomorrow: Synagogue

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
108, Saint Stephen Walbrook

Saint Stephen Walbrook is rectangular in plan, with a dome and an attached north-west tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Good morning from Crete, where I am staying on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

In the Church Calendar in many parts of the Anglican Communion, today is the Feast of the Holy Cross.

Before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is Wren churches in London, and my photographs this morning (14 September 2021) are from Saint Stephen Walbrook.

Saint Stephen Walbrook is listed by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the 10 most important buildings in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Stephen Walbrook, beside the Mansion House in London, is listed by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner among the 10 most important buildings in England.

This is the parish church of the Lord Mayor of London, but it is best-known for its dome by Sir Christopher Wren, the once-controversial altar by the sculptor Henry Moore, and its associations with the founder of the Samaritans, the late Canon Chad Varah.

Saint Stephen Walbrook stands on the site of a seventh century Saxon church that was probably built on the foundations of a second or third century temple of Mithras.

The church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. The nearby Church of Saint Benet Sherehog was destroyed in the fire but was not rebuilt, and instead its parish was united with the parish of Saint Stephen.

The present church was built in 1672-1679 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, at a cost of £7,692, becoming one of his largest parish churches in London. It is rectangular in plan, with a dome and an attached north-west tower. Entry to the church is up a flight of 16 steps, enclosed in a porch attached to the west front.

Wren also designed a porch for the north side of the church. This was never built, and the north door was bricked up in 1685 because it let in offensive smells from the slaughterhouses in the neighbouring Stocks Market. The walls, tower, and internal columns are made of stone, but the dome is of timber and plaster with an external covering of copper.

The 19 metre high dome, based on Wren’s original design for Saint Paul’s Cathedral, is centred over a square of 12 Corinthian columns. The circular base of the dome is carried on a circle formed by eight arches that spring from eight of the 12 columns, cutting across each corner in the manner of the Byzantine squinch. This all creates what many believe to be Wren’s finest church interior.

Saint Stephen Walbrook stands on the site of a seventh century Saxon church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 7: 11-17 (NRSVA)

11 Soon afterwards, he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

The dome inside Saint Stephen Walbrook, designed by Sir Christopher Wren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (14 September 2021, Feast of the Holy Cross) invites us to pray:

Crucified God, we give thanks for your eternal sacrifice. May we take up our crosses and follow you.

The 17th century altarpiece is attributed to the carpenters Thomas Creecher and Stephen Colledge, and the carvers William Newman and Jonathan Maine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Henry Moore’s altar in Saint Stephen Walbrook (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Entry to the church is up a flight of 16 steps, enclosed in a porch attached to the west front (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)