We’ve all heard the word panacea thousands of times — “that’s a panacea for this or that,” meaning all-healing, the total solution. Perhaps an ointment, treatment, or even a good thought. Often used in the negative, something may be said to not be a panacea. And we’ve been told to keep good hygiene to stay healthy (and presentable!). But where do these words come from? The Greeks!
I was looking for background on a research project I’m working on relating to gait and pulled ACSM’s Advanced Exercise Physiology off the shelf at the Dana Medical Library at UVM. The first chapter was entitled Historical Perspective: Origin to Recognition. As interesting as any novel I’ve recently read, this chapter presents where concepts and words we use freely today come from, especially as it pertains to health and science.
Over time, what constitutes health, how it is maintained and reasons for illness and poor health, has been posited in different contexts. Healers in ancient India and China promoted exercise and health to prevent sickness, not to improve performance, though warriors were provided with good nutrition, quarters, and encouraged to get adequate sleep. However, what we consider modern medicine and exercise science has its roots in Greece. And here’s where the names come in. In Greek mythology, Zeus was the supreme god. His son Apollo had massive powers including control over health and disease. Apollo’s son Asclepius was known as the physician god of healing and he had two daughters, Hygeia and Panacea, who were the goddesses of health and treatment, respectively. And so, the derivation of hygiene and panacea goes way back – as far as 1,500 to 2,000 B.C!
In an era when history in some circles (not naming names!) is viewed as irrelevant or even with disdain, I find it valuable to pause, be humble that we don’t know everything and learn by listening. And celebrate the origin of words we use today. The Greek gods may never have existed (though maybe they did!) but their legacy serves us well.