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Mysterious Ancient Greek Papyrus Revealed To Be Another Theory About Women's "Hysteria"

Prior to the pages' separation, the visible text was largely unreadable. After the papyrus was restored, researchers linked it to Galen based on the content and its similarity to the famous Ravenna papyri. University of Basel.

A 2,000-year-old papyrus covered in inscrutable mirrored text has finally been deciphered – more than 500 years after it was first brought to the University of Basel’s esteemed library for study by Renaissance scholars.

As announced by the institution last week, a team of researchers discovered that the famously inscrutable sheet of papyrus was truly several layers of plant fiber paper glued together after they took ultraviolet and infrared images. The excited classical studies staff then called in a manuscript specialist, who painstakingly separated each page.

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With the Greek text legible for the first time, the university was able to translate the papyrus and determine its origin.

“This is a sensational discovery,” project leader and ancient history professor Sabine Huebner stated. “The majority of papyri are documents such as letters, contracts and receipts. This is a literary text, however, and they are vastly more valuable.”

“We can now say that it’s a medical text from late antiquity that describes the phenomenon of ‘hysterical apnea’. We therefore assume that it is either a text from the Roman physician Galen, or an unknown commentary on his work,” Huebner continued.

Galen is one of the most famous figures in the history of medicine. Born in modern-day Turkey in 129 CE, the Greek physician quickly made a name for himself within the academic circles of the Roman Empire and the Middle East thanks to his prolific writings on medicine and philosophy. He is perhaps most famous, however, for his notes and illustrations of "human anatomy".

A lithograph portrait of Galen created by artist Pierre Roche Vigneron in the 1800s. Public domain

Due to widespread bans on dissecting human cadavers throughout the 2nd century and long before, Galen – and his peers – were forced to make inferences about human anatomy by dissecting animals. Though these texts were sometimes labeled as animal studies, many others contained misleading diagrams and descriptions of the human body. And despite the introduction of manuscripts on true human dissections by Greek physicians working out of Alexandria during the 3rd century, Galen’s writings remained the go-to reference for many doctors until the Renaissance.

On top of inadvertently creating centuries of confusion about body structure, Galen had some interesting ideas about women’s health, as the current manuscript demonstrates. First described in ancient Egypt (1900 BCE), and officially named by Hippocrates in the 4th century BCE, hysteria was the blanket diagnosis given by patriarchal practitioners for any number of depressive or erratic behaviors or poorly understood conditions. The theorized cause? Spontaneous movements of the uterus within the female body.

Galen advanced this theory further, suggesting that the womb wandering occurred when the organ was suffocated (where the term "apnea" comes from) by accumulated menstrual blood and female "seed". 

In his work In Hippocratis librum de humoribus, Galen wrote: “I have examined many hysterical women, some stuporous, others with anxiety attacks [...]: the disease manifests itself with different symptoms, but always refers to the uterus.” For treatment he recommended various types of fluid purging, herbs, and either repressing sexually exciting stimuli or, if she was a young woman, hastening her marriage so she has sexual contact.

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The full translated text of the Basel papyrus, plus Huebner’s analysis, will be published in 2019.

The expert papyrus restorer at work separating the layers. University of Basel

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