Early Views of Madness

One of the terrible consequences of the belief in supernatural possession by demons was the inhumane treatment in which it often resulted. An example is found in the book of Leviticus in the Bible, which many scholars believe is a compilation of laws which had been handed down orally in the Jewish community for as long as a thousand years until they were written down, perhaps about 700 b.c.e. Leviticus 20:27, in the King James version, reads, "A man or a woman that hath a familiar spirit. . . shall surely be put to death: they shall stone him with stones." The term "familiar spirit" suggests demoniacal possession.

There were exceptions to the possession theory and the inhumane treatment to which it often led. Hippocrates, who lived around 300 b.c.e. in Greece and who is regarded as the father of medicine, believed that mental illness had biological causes and could be explained by human reason through empirical study. Although Hippocrates found no cure, he did recommend that the mentally ill be treated humanely, as other ill people would be treated. Humane treatment of the mentally ill was often the best that physicians and others could do.

The period of Western history that is sometimes known as the Dark Ages was particularly dark for the mad. Folk belief, theology, and occult beliefs and practices of all kinds often led to terrible treatment. Although some educated and thoughtful people, even in that period, held humane views, they were in the minority regarding madness.

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