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)

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