In 400BC the Greek physician Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’ said: “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” It was then that the Greeks realised that food impacts a person’s health. With new studies being made it is now thought that the Mediterranean diet did not happen accidentally but was formulated to boost health. Hippocrates believed that illness stemmed from inadequate nutrition and bad eating habits.
Prior to Hippocrates, traditionally medicine was linked to superstition. All illness was thought to be god-given and tied up with magical and mystical aspects. Apollo was considered the founder of medical art, Athena was the legislator and medical goddess and Chiron the centaur appeared in mythology to be the teacher of medicine amongst humans.
To complicate things more, Apollo had a child with a mortal woman and because she was unfaithful to Apollo she was killed and the baby taken out of her womb or alternately she died at birth and Apollo cut the baby out of her. Whatever the scenario of the mother’s demise, Apollo gave the baby to Chiron the centaur to bring up, who taught this child the art of medicine. This baby was none other then Asclepius, who surpassed Chiron and Apollo in medical knowledge and was venerated and became the primary healer, giving birth to the cult of Asclepius in Athens in 429 BC.
As medicine was tied to philosophy the Greeks around the time of the sixth century BC began to practise pragmatic medicine together with scientific thought. They began to think about the survival of the strongest in nature and the possibility of an exchange of substances through the pores of the skin from the concept of harmony of the Pythagorean school of thought.
The most famous and important exponent of Greek medicine was Hippocrates of Kos (born about 460BC in Kos – died Larissa 377BC). The medical theory of Hippocrates and his school (School of Kos) believed that nature was the healer, fever was considered the body’s defence (something we have proved today) and the physician may try and restore health in the patient through diet. This school believed that the body was made up of four elements – earth, water, air and fire – and of four humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
Medicine in ancient Greece coincides in many respects with dietetics. A disease is treated with a therapeutic diet, therefore nutrition plays a vital role and gives origin to the scientific discipline of diet therapy. Hippocratic medicine therefore is science, art and experience and reasoning without preconceptions or superstitions. Hippocrates practised close observation and sound judgement and he stated that healing had to be found through experience and through the properties of various vegetable foods, and discovered that what was suitable in health was unsuitable in sickness and the accumulation of these discoveries was the origin of the art of medicine.
Hippocrates is considered the founder of western medical science and for the first time stating that illness is specific to nature and not to supernatural causes. The Hippocratic School was interested in balancing and purifying the body via diet. Food became medicine and one of the most commonly used ‘drugs’ was water and honey. Infusions were widespread and barley was filtered as frequently, millet as well as lentils were utilised, as was buttermilk and milk. The aim was to administer a diet that was frugal, avoiding effort and discomfort to the patient. A light diet at the initial stage of the disease or even a fast in the case of fever, solid food was prohibited for the first seven days and only when the fever came down the patient could eat millet during the day and pumpkin or chard and watered down wine in the evening, only after the ninth day eating sparingly.
The concept was that overeating and unhealthy eating that was not balanced was dangerous to the body, and even though surgery was practised in extreme cases, the focus on nutrition was very high, which meant that this dietary therapeutic prescription seems to digress from medicine into a culinary recipe, making the link between therapeutic diet and culinary culture intertwine.
To this day Greeks place a great emphasis on herbal teas, teas that are slowly becoming widespread.
Let’s look at some of them.
We all know camomile, which was most likely he first herbal tea to became commercialised, but in recent years we have seen dandelion tea in tea bags and I smile as I’m sure you are all aware that it is none other than radikia (ραδίκια). Remember when mama or yiayia boiled the χόρτα (horta), which was none other than wild dandelion and a cup of the water from its boiling with a squeeze of lemon. It was the healthiest ‘tea’ one could drink and may I say the tastiest hot tea. Then there is that quintessential Greek tea (τσαί του βουνού) and I could only find one translation, ‘mountain tea’, and a favourite, lemon verbena (λουίζα). Fennel, ginger, thistle, chicory, rhubarb root, liquorice and cinnamon were a few other elements that tea was made from and also used as herbs and spices for food.
But the most important one was olive leaf tea, which has almost the same antioxidants as olive oil. It is known for its antibacterial, antifungal and anti-viral properties. It also lowers blood pressure and lowers blood sugar levels in diabetics. It has also been proven to be an energiser and beneficial to chronic fatigue syndrome and for reducing the viral load in those suffering from AIDS. A gift from the goddess Athena, the olive tree is a natural wonder and it is well known that olive trees can live as long as three thousand years.
Wine was a gift from the god Dionysus to mankind, the Greeks tell us, even though they did not invent it. The Greeks used wine as medicine. It was considered to help digestion, was used as a medium to take medicines, wounds were washed with it and many medicinal wines were made by soaking herbs in the wine. Modern research has shown that wine truly has many health benefits if drunk in moderation.
In this article I was only able to give an outline of what the Greeks handed down. There is so much more to talk about on this subject but hopefully I have been able to give an understanding on why, when I was researching modern diets, the best was always ‘The Mediterranean Diet’.