The Ancient Greeks Thought Bipolar Disorder was a Divine Gift

Did you know that two of the first human diseases described by the classical Greek physicians are “mania” (mixture of anger, rage, and euphoria) and “melancholia” (sadness)? Jules Angst and Andreas Marneros wrote a paper that scoured ancient writings for observations about bipolar disorder. They found that review of pre-Hippocratic era manuscripts revealed descriptions of “morbid states of depression and exaltation.” In other words, super highs and super lows. Sound familiar?

Hippocrates (460-337 BC), known as the “Father of Medicine” (doctor’s still swear the Hippocratic oath), theorized that the brain was the organ in charge of mental functions, disturbances, and disorders. He wrote,

“The people ought to know that the brain is the sole origin of pleasures and joys, laughter and jests, sadness and worry as well as dysphoria, and differentiate between feeling ashamed, good, bad, happy … Through the brain we become insane, enraged, we develop anxiety and fears, which can come in the night or during the day, we suffer from sleeplessness, we make mistakes and have unfounded worries, we lose the ability to recognize reality, we become apathetic and we cannot participate in social life … We suffer all those mentioned above through the brain when it is ill…”

I can absolutely relate to all of those feelings (sometimes all at once)!

To Socrates and Plato, mania was “a divine state.” In fact, Plato wrote that there are two kinds of mania, one that involves “a mental strain that arises from a bodily cause of origin” and the other is “divine or inspired, with Apollo as the source of the inspiration.” He went on to described several additional types of divine mania, including “erotic inspiration” sent by the god of love and “protreptic inspiration” that comes from Muses because it seems to inspire men to sing (or in my case, sketch, paint and write). While in manic episodes, I personally have experienced all of these “divinely inspired” states at one time or another.

The philosopher Democritus asked Hippocrates, “Why are extraordinary men in philosophy, politics or the arts melancholics?” After many discussions, Hippocrates concluded that Democritus did not suffer from melancholia – he was simply a genius. Have you ever noticed how many people with bipolar disorder are artistic and/or geniuses (often referred to as divinely inspired)? I have found that I have had extreme bouts of creativity and productivity during manic episodes. And there are many, many famous creative “geniuses” who have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, including actors such as Mel Gibson, Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vivien Leigh. Singer/songwriters Patty Duke and Nina Simone were diagnosed during their successful careers. Ted Turner, an extremely prosperous businessman, and the writer/novelist Ernest Hemingway were also treated for bipolar disorder. Some of recent history’s influential thinkers and do-ers are thought by experts to have had bipolar disorder, including Jackson Pollack (artist), Friedrich Nietzsch (philosopher), Sir Isaac Newton (mathematician/physicist/philosopher), Abraham Lincoln (politician), Virginia Woolf (writer), Florence Nightingale (nurse) and Vincent van Gogh (artist), just to name a few.

While not a genius in any sense of the word, I like to consider myself divinely inspired from time to time. I have also noticed that, while I enjoy my creativity, my body and brain cannot maintain the manic pace for an extended period of time, and these episodes never happen without a depressive episode following closely on its heels (the higher the high, the lower the low). For me, finding the balance between the highs and lows is the “sweet spot” where I get the best work done without wanting to cut my ear off in the process (as one of our predecessors did). Working with my doctor, taking my meds, exercising, eating well, and having proper sleep habits give me the ability to use the divine gift for good.

I think the ancient Greeks were on to something – we are divinely inspired. Let’s celebrate, not that we have bipolar disorder, but just that we are part of an amazing club filled with artists, philosophers, writers and businessmen. I hope this inspires you to be the best that you can be. Not perfect, not a genius – just a divinely inspired you.

1 Like

Some present day people think that schizophrenia is a devine shaman type gift. None of those people have to suffer with it though.

1 Like

If schizophrenia is a gift, I’d like to re-gift it to my mother-in-law for this Christmas!

i see correlations with the mystical/shamanic. The area of the transpersonal/spiritual in relation to what people experience in schizophrenia does hold some water imo. A certain aspects of things probably depends on individual & collective response to these experiences/conditions.

i also wouldn’t deny that there are varying degrees of psychopathology (illness).

Do you actually have schizophrenia?

Depends on definitions - Yes, have been diagnosed with it for 25 years. Was considered a very severe case.

The last psychiatrist concluded that i had made a remarkable recovery.

Are you taking meds or just reading jung?

1 Like

i take a very low dose of one medication - i read many authors - have read thousands of books.Have read/researched a lot on mental health. Any other loaded questions?

Exact same as me and lots of people here. Glad you found a med that works for you.

1 Like

Think it’s down to more than the medication - Continued sobriety & a lot of self work has played a part as well. Although i also feel that the medication is necessary & helpful.

1 Like

I like your threads.

1 Like

The Ancient Greeks Thought Bipolar Disorder was a Divine Gift

They were also big on pederasty.


What culture/society isn’t?

Ours (Western society) technically isn’t as getting caught engaging in it will cost you reputation and possibly freedom (as it should be).


Pfffffft - it’s rife.

Regardless. In many ways the Ancient Greeks were more advanced. i just see it as a silly straw man/ad hominem type argument. i don’t see what it really has to do with the areas of seeing certain forms of madness as having a component of divine gift/spiritual aspect? As unpopular as it is to the consensus of current ‘Western’ society/culture to see anything in anything other than predominantly materialistic terms, & the entire field of psychiatry/mental health in predominantly terms of pathology.

The ancient Greeks were extremely prone to magical thinking, thus their whacked out mythology. I’m more comfortable putting my faith in neuropharmacology and advanced imaging tech. Also, don’t discount gut bacteria. Methinks what you ascribe to spirituality is the beasties in your midsection having a conversation that disagrees with you.


1 Like

i think that they had a very interesting mythology - far more interesting than ours.

There are certainly what can be considered a gut & heart brain - that is also long discussed in the esoteric literature - sorry to say to you that the mystics got there long before materialistic science.

All well & good, but you know as well as i do, probably in your quieter moments, that modern psychiatry has no more of any kind of an answer than the Ancient Greeks did. All we still have are theories, assumptions & opinions. Suppose it’s a matter of whose theories, opinions & perspectives you want to go with?

In certain regards i choose to take an integral/holistic view - Because to me it makes more sense.

Handel wrote “The Messiah” during a three week manic episode. Winston Churchill, known for his stirring rhetoric, was bedeviled by depression. He called it his “black dog”.

1 Like

At least you do see/understand that it’s a matter of faith.

Ancient greeks were great fans of perfect harmony, both physical and psychological : Kalos kagathos (καλὸς κἀγαθός). Then, we can suppose that perfect mental health was also something good for them, more than disease. They probably prefered symphrenia (Συμφρηνια) over schizophrenia (Σχίζωφρηνια)