The sacred disease of Cambyses II

George K. YORK1,2 ; David A. STEINBERG1

1The Såa Institute, 21201 Ostrom Road, Fiddletown CA 95629, USA
2Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, 7373 West Lane, Stockton CA 95269, USA
Tel. 209-2454398, Fax. 209-2455409


One of two extant references to epilepsy in pre-Hippocratic writing is found in the History of Herodotus (III,33). The Persian king Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great and conqueror of Egypt, was reported by Egyptians and Persians alike to be cruel, blasphemous and mad. Herodotus, writing eighty years after the king's death, reported that was "afflicted from birth with that grievous disease which some call sacred. It is no unlikely thing that, when his somatos was grievously afflicted, his phrenes too should be diseased". Did Cambyses II have epilepsy?

In classical antiquity, popular writers called many diseases sacred. Heraclitus, in the other pre-Hippocratic mention of the sacred disease, uses the popular usage in saying metaphorically that false assumption is a sacred disease, and seeing is being deceived. By comparison, medical writers followed the writer of the Hippocratic text On the Sacred Disease in using the term to refer to what we might now recognize as epilepsy, broadly defined. Herodotus joins the Hippocratic writer in noting that the sacred disease begins in childhood. Herodotus also adopts a medical usage in regarding the sacred disease as a somatic disease, to be contrasted with madness affecting the phrenes. The writer of On the Sacred Disease disagrees, locating madness in the enkephalon, not the phrenes. Herodotus expresses a common cultural bias against epileptics, remarking that someone with epilepsy must also have mental disease.

Though Herodotus does not give detailed symptoms of the mad king's sacred disease, he used medical terms to describe it. His one detail, childhood onset, and his popular prejudice against epileptics, accord with the illness described in On the Sacred Disease. The sacred disease of Cambyses II is consistent with epilepsy.


Panel 8B   (Shock)
Friday, 17 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999