How Depression was Treated in Ancient Greece?


Views on Depression

Depression, as a mental health condition, was not explicitly understood or diagnosed in ancient Greece in the way it is recognized today. However, there are some references and depictions in ancient Greek literature and philosophy that may provide some insights into how depression was perceived during that time.

1.       Melancholia: The term "melancholia" was used in ancient Greece to describe a state of extreme sadness or sorrow. It was considered one of the four temperaments along with sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic. Melancholia was associated with the element of earth and was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile. This concept of melancholia shares some similarities with modern-day depression, though it was likely seen more as a physical condition than a mental one.

2.       Hippocratic Writings: The Hippocratic texts, which were written in ancient Greece, described various mental and physical ailments, including emotional disturbances. Some of the symptoms mentioned in these texts might have been similar to what we now associate with depression. However, the understanding and treatment of these conditions were primarily rooted in humoral theory, which focused on balancing bodily fluids.

3.       Philosophical Perspectives: Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, discussed the human psyche and emotions in their works. Plato, for example, addressed the concept of sorrow and its impact on the soul. Aristotle, too, wrote about the connection between emotions and mental well-being. While their writings touched on aspects related to mental distress, they did not have a comprehensive understanding of depression as a distinct mental disorder.

4.       Divine and Supernatural Beliefs: In ancient Greece, as in many other ancient cultures, mental health issues were sometimes attributed to divine or supernatural causes. People believed that certain gods or spirits could influence a person's mental state, leading to emotional disturbances.

Melancholia vs Depression

In ancient Greece, melancholia was a term used to describe a state of extreme sadness or sorrow, and it shares some similarities with modern-day depression. However, it is essential to recognize that the ancient Greek concept of melancholia was not the same as the clinical diagnosis of depression used in modern psychology and psychiatry.

The term "melancholia" comes from the Greek words "melas" (black) and "cholē" (bile) and was associated with an imbalance of black bile, one of the four humors in ancient Greek medicine. According to the humoral theory, the human body was believed to be governed by four fluids or humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile), and an excess or imbalance of any of these humors was thought to cause various physical and mental health problems.

Melancholia was considered one of the four temperaments, along with sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic, each associated with different personality traits and physical characteristics. Melancholic individuals were believed to have an excess of black bile, which was thought to make them prone to sadness, introspection, and sensitivity.

While there are some parallels between melancholia and depression, it's important to note that the ancient Greek understanding of melancholia was rooted in humoral theory and did not involve the comprehensive understanding of mental health conditions as recognized today.

In modern clinical terms, depression is a complex and multifaceted mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, changes in sleep and appetite, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating, and sometimes thoughts of self-harm. Depression is diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in standardized diagnostic systems like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

In contrast, melancholia in ancient Greece was a broader concept, encompassing a range of emotional and behavioral states attributed to an imbalance of black bile. While both melancholia and depression involve feelings of profound sadness, their underlying explanations and approaches to treatment were vastly different due to the cultural and medical contexts in which they were understood.

Hippocrates on Depression

The Hippocratic writings, attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE), provide some insights into how emotional distress, including what might be considered depression today, was perceived during that time. While the term "depression" was not explicitly used, the Hippocratic texts mentioned various mental and emotional ailments, which offer glimpses into how such conditions were understood and approached in ancient Greece.

1.       Humoral Theory: The Hippocratic writings were deeply influenced by the humoral theory, which posited that health and illness were determined by the balance of four bodily fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. An imbalance of these humors was believed to cause physical and mental ailments, including emotional disturbances.

2.       Melancholia: As discussed earlier, melancholia, which was associated with an excess of black bile, was considered one of the temperaments in the humoral theory. Melancholic individuals were thought to be more prone to sadness and sorrow.

3.       Natural Causes: Hippocratic physicians believed that both physical and mental illnesses had natural causes, and they focused on understanding the connection between environmental factors, bodily processes, and health conditions. Emotional disturbances, including melancholia, were seen as natural responses to certain life events or imbalances in bodily fluids.

4.       Observation and Clinical Diagnosis: Hippocratic physicians emphasized the importance of careful observation and clinical diagnosis. They recognized the importance of understanding a patient's symptoms, medical history, and environmental factors to diagnose and treat various conditions.

5.       Holistic Approach: The Hippocratic approach to medicine was holistic, taking into account not only physical symptoms but also the mental and emotional aspects of a patient's health. They viewed the mind and body as interconnected, and emotional well-being was considered integral to overall health.

6.       Therapeutic Approaches: The treatment of emotional disturbances in the Hippocratic texts involved a combination of lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, and herbal remedies aimed at restoring humoral balance. Therapeutic approaches aimed to address both the physical and mental aspects of a patient's condition.

Plato on Depression

Plato did not specifically discuss depression as a clinical diagnosis, as the concept of depression as understood in modern psychology and medicine did not exist during his time. However, some of Plato's writings and philosophical ideas touch on themes related to emotional distress and mental well-being.

One of the dialogues where Plato explores emotions is "Phaedrus," in which he discusses the soul and its various aspects. While not explicitly about depression, this dialogue touches on the impact of emotions on the human psyche and how emotions can influence one's actions and behavior.

In Plato's view, the soul is divided into three parts: the rational part (associated with reason and intellect), the spirited part (associated with emotions and desires), and the appetitive part (associated with basic bodily needs and desires). Plato believed that the ideal soul is one in which the rational part dominates over the other two parts.

In this context, Plato mentions the dangers of excessive emotions, such as sorrow, anger, and pleasure, when they overpower reason. He warns against succumbing to irrational emotions and advocates for the cultivation of rationality and self-control to achieve a balanced and virtuous soul.

While Plato's writings do not directly address depression as a mental health condition, his exploration of emotions and the importance of maintaining emotional balance has philosophical implications that resonate with modern concepts of mental well-being. His emphasis on reason, self-awareness, and inner harmony can be seen as principles that contribute to emotional health and resilience, which are relevant in understanding and addressing various emotional and psychological challenges, including those related to depression.

Aristotle on Depression

Aristotle, another prominent ancient Greek philosopher (384-322 BCE), also discussed emotions and the human psyche in his works. While he did not specifically address depression as a clinical diagnosis, some of his philosophical ideas touched on aspects related to emotional well-being and mental states.

1.       Emotional Virtues: In his ethical work "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle emphasized the concept of "virtue" or "excellence of character." He discussed emotions, such as anger, fear, and desire, and suggested that the key to emotional well-being lies in finding the right balance or "golden mean" between excess and deficiency. For instance, he considered courage as a virtue that lies between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice.

2.       Eudaimonia: Aristotle's ethical theory centered on the pursuit of eudaimonia, often translated as "happiness" or "flourishing." He argued that achieving eudaimonia involves living a life of virtue, engaging in rational and meaningful activities, and fulfilling one's potential. Emotional well-being was seen as an integral part of attaining this state of flourishing.

3.       Psychological Faculties: Aristotle described the human soul as having rational, appetitive, and vegetative faculties. The rational part of the soul was associated with reason and intellect, and the appetitive part was connected to emotions, desires, and impulses. Aristotle acknowledged the significance of emotions in influencing human behavior and believed that emotions could be cultivated and developed through proper education and training.

4.       Intellectual Pursuits: Aristotle considered philosophical contemplation and intellectual pursuits as essential for attaining a higher level of well-being and fulfillment. Engaging in intellectual activities was seen as a means to elevate the mind and overcome negative emotions.


In ancient Greece, the understanding and treatment of emotional distress, including what might be considered depression today, were quite different from modern clinical approaches. The prevailing medical and philosophical beliefs of the time heavily influenced the ways in which emotional disturbances were addressed.

Here are some of the general methods that might have been employed to treat emotional distress in ancient Greece:

Humoral Balancing

The dominant medical theory in ancient Greece was the humoral theory, which posited that health and illness were determined by the balance of bodily fluids or humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). To treat emotional disturbances like melancholia, physicians would have attempted to restore the humoral balance. For instance, if a person was believed to have an excess of black bile leading to melancholic symptoms, treatments might have focused on reducing black bile through dietary changes, herbal remedies, or purging. Here are some methods that might have been employed to balance the humors:

1.       Dietary Changes: Physicians would have recommended specific dietary adjustments to help balance the humors. For melancholy, foods that were believed to reduce black bile or promote its elimination might have been suggested. Conversely, foods thought to increase black bile might have been restricted.

2.       Herbal Remedies: Medicinal herbs and botanical substances were commonly used in ancient Greek medicine. Herbal remedies might have been prescribed to address imbalances in bodily fluids, including black bile associated with melancholy.

3.       Purging: In certain cases, purging methods such as bloodletting or induced vomiting might have been used to reduce excess black bile. The idea was to remove the humors believed to be causing the imbalance.

4.       Lifestyle Modifications: Physicians would have advised patients to make lifestyle changes to promote overall health and well-being. Engaging in physical activities, spending time outdoors, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle were considered important factors in promoting humoral balance.

5.       Fasting and Dieting: Controlled fasting or specific dietary regimens might have been recommended to bring about humoral equilibrium. These practices were believed to restore the body's natural balance and alleviate melancholic symptoms.

6.       Emotional and Environmental Considerations: Since humoral imbalances were believed to be influenced by environmental and emotional factors, physicians might have advised patients to manage stress, avoid excessive emotions, and maintain a peaceful living environment.

Lifestyle Modifications

Physicians in ancient Greece recognized the importance of lifestyle factors in health and well-being. Here are some lifestyle modifications that might have been recommended for individuals experiencing emotional distress in ancient Greece:

1.       Physical Activity: Engaging in regular physical activity was valued in ancient Greek society for its positive impact on overall health. Physical exercises, such as walking, running, or participating in sports, were believed to promote physical and mental well-being. Gymnasiums in Ancient Greece were institutions dedicated to physical and spiritual instruction. Therefore, one discipline was related to the other.

2.       Spending Time in Nature: The ancient Greeks appreciated the healing power of nature. Spending time outdoors, especially in natural settings like gardens or scenic landscapes, was believed to have a calming and therapeutic effect on the mind. And sunlight was one of the main keys of the Greek cure for depression.

3.       Social Interactions: Being part of a supportive community and maintaining social connections were considered important for emotional well-being. Participating in social gatherings, discussions, and communal activities provided opportunities for people to share their feelings and seek support from others.

4.       Balanced Diet: Diet played a crucial role in ancient Greek medicine. A balanced diet consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and moderate amounts of meat was believed to contribute to overall health and vitality.

5.       Music and Art: Music and art were highly valued in ancient Greek culture and were considered to have therapeutic effects. Listening to music or engaging in artistic activities, such as painting or sculpting, might have been encouraged to lift the spirits and alleviate emotional distress.

6.       Philosophical Contemplation: Philosophical discussions and contemplation of higher truths were believed to elevate the mind and promote emotional well-being. Engaging in philosophical pursuits, such as reading philosophical works or participating in philosophical dialogues, was considered intellectually enriching.

7.       Meditation and Reflection: The practice of self-reflection and introspection was valued in ancient Greek society. Taking time for personal reflection and meditation might have been recommended to gain insights into one's emotions and thoughts.

Herbal Remedies in Ancient Greece

·         Oregano (Latin name: Origanum vulgare hirtum) is by far the most popular herb in Greece! Among all oregano in the world, Greek oregano is considered “true oregano” and is the most pungent and strongest medicinally. The name is derived from the Greek word origanon meaning "joy of the mountain" (oros "mountain" and the verb ganousthai "delight in"). In ancient mythology, the goddess of love Aphrodite planted the herb in her garden on Mt. Olympus to demonstrate to humans the physical representation of happiness. The herb was then woven into wedding crowns for newly married couples to ensure a happy marriage.

Among its many medicinal benefits, oregano has antioxidant components that boost immunity, kill bacteria, and increase production of white blood cells, which aids in faster recovery from illness. It has Omega-3 fatty acids that help rebalance cholesterol levels, support heart health, and strengthen bones, and is high in minerals the stimulate the liver’s ability to detox.

·         Tsai Tou Vounou (Sideritis) is known as mountain tea because it grows wild throughout the mountainsides of Greece. In ancient times, it was administered to wounds caused by iron weapons during battle, and subsequently was also called ironwort. Greek sideritis is literally translated to “he who is made of iron.” Customarily, the whole herb is used in an infusion (short boiling time), and can strengthen the immune system, aid in digestion, and help prevent colds.

·         Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) has its Latin botanical name because of the honeybees’ love for its aromatic flowers (melissa is Greek for honeybee). In ancient mythology, the group of nymphs called melissai were credited as those who discovered honey. The herb is well known to calm the heart and uplift the spirit during times of stress, and can support those with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and panic attacks. It also has strong antiviral properties against herpes and shingles. Dioscorides mentions its use as a wine-infused liniment in De Materia Medica.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) calms the heart and uplifts the spirit.

·         Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis L.) is called dafni in Greek in reference to the myth about the god Apollo pursuing the uninterested nymph Daphne. In response to her pleadings, the gods granted her protection from Apollo by turning her into a bay tree, and heartbroken Apollo subsequently symbolized the tree in honor of love-shorn poets. In ancient Greece and Rome, bay leaves were used to make crowns for kings, war heroes, and Olympians, and was said to provide protection from disease and evil spirits. The priestesses at the Temple of Delphi may have drank high-dose bay leaf tea to induce a trance state and be able to divine the will of the gods.

Today, bay leaves are added to foods to improve digestion (such as lentils), made as a tea to help fight colds and fevers, and used externally to relieve arthritic pain and swelling. It may also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

·         St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum L.) was also once believed to protect people from curses and demons. Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides all wrote about its many therapeutic applications. The herb is most often used for depression and anxiety, as noted earlier by its Doctrine of Signatures. Crush its bright yellow flowers and be surprised when a red dye appears, which when macerated and soaked in olive oil, can be used externally for inflammation, neuralgic pain, bruises, and swelling. The red color was likened to blood and thought to indicate its wound healing properties. Given its antiviral properties, it also helps healing from shingles and herpes (and taken together with lemon balm can provide a more profound healing effect).

·         Mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) produces the mastiha resin that has been harvested for at least 3,000 years exclusively on the island of Chios. Hippocrates recommended mastic for the prevention of digestive problems and colds and to maintain oral health. It was also used as a remedy to heal wounds, including snake bites, and improve the condition of the blood. Mastic contains powerful antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties, making it a trifecta of powerful healing qualities.

·         Sage (Salvia officinalis) is derived from the Latin word “to heal” and was the symbol of fertility, good health, and a long life. The ancient Greeks, believing that sage protected one from evil and conferred wisdom, used it to enhance mental abilities and in sacred gatherings. It was drunk as tea to increase fertility and improve digestion, and applied externally to treat venomous snake bites (a seemingly common problem in ancient Greece). Dioscorides recommended sage wine for “disorders of the kidneys, bladder and sides, as well as for … coughs, hernias, bruises, and impeded menstrual flow.” Sage continues to be an antiseptic and natural digestive, and excellent for its antidiabetic action.


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