Ancient PTSD Again, and again and again.

I think I should just give up and call this my Ancient PTSD blog!

It is that time of year again when someone posts an idea which links modern PTSD with ancient experiences. However, there is a growing trend that is more concerning than the intellectual mistakes or flaws that are inherent in this approach. Since the turn of the 90’s there has been a growing use of ancient ‘examples’ to justify PTSD as a concept (as a way to challenge the prevailing views of old that it was a ‘problem’ or a ‘weakness’ with the people who had it).

This use of ancient history saw the famous works of Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam, and Odysseus in America) come to the fore, and is in my opinion a good thing. Unfortunately, since the success of Shay’s work, there is a new trend which is to use ancient history to not only validate the diagnosis, but to actually justify therapies and, worse now, to present new ones.

The Article

It is in this new frame that an article was published on the Conversation, and subsequently republished by many outlets, including the Independent newspaper online. The article was written by O’Donnell and is titled “How PTSD treatment can learn from ancient warrior rituals”, a title which immediately highlights what I have just described as the new, and dangerous, direction in which the ancient PTSD question is heading. Now, of course, the Conversation is not a scholarly forum, but it is somewhere people go for informed ideas and research so, although we must not expect an academic paper, it should still pass certain scrutiny.

O’Donnell’s main thrust is that the experience of PTSD is universal, and references Shay’s own analysis of Odysseus who is described with “a classic experience of PTSD”. What O’Donnell fails to reference in Shay’s own work is a section that is worth quoting:

“Did Odysseus have PTSD as the APA defines it? The simple answer to the question is – no. Neither the text of the Iliad nor of the Odyssey gives us evidence that Odysseus is having symptoms . . .” J. Shay, Odysseus in America, p. 141

But I suppose we should assume that, like Shay, O’Donnell takes the view that the diagnosis of PTSD, in its medical form, is restrictive – a view I have some sympathy with. The article goes on to use a theory of trauma based on three ruptures: the rupturing of a person’s identity, the rupture of time, and the rupture of cognition.

O’Donnell finishes the article with the proposition that, because ancient cultures had PTSD, and also had cleansing rituals, we in the modern day should move to create our own rituals for our armed forces when they return home.

Historical Problems

I have discussed before the problems of using PTSD as a term in the ancient world (here and here), so will not go over old ground now. However, O’Donnell presents a few more problems in the universal method that is implemented.

The ‘ancient cultures’ that are used as examples include the Homeric Greeks (i.e. a fictional character), the ‘Romans’ (without any regard for the shifts in cultural, social and religious practices inherent in a period that spans a millennium), the Hebrews of the Bible, and the Medievals (literally the Medieval period, as if all Medieval people were bound by a common culture, religion, ritual practice, etc.)

The final two examples are perhaps the most concerning. The Maasai warriors, as if a modern African tribe serves, somehow, as a time machine to the ancient world. And the ‘Native Americans’, which as it stands includes some 566 different tribes with differing cultures, beliefs and practices and, in case it needed stating, also cannot be used as a time machine.


A more fundamental problem with the article is the use of ‘pollution’. The ancient Greeks had a concept of miasma, usually translated as ‘pollution’.[the go to book for understanding Miasma is still this one] When someone did something that was considered polluting, or was present when something polluting was occurring, they became ‘polluted’. Often this is likened to the Christian concept of sin– indeed O’Donnell talks about them as such – but it is not the same for a variety of reasons. The two most important of them being that: a) the Greek gods could be exposed to miasma and become polluted themselves, hence polluted people were banned from entering temples – I am not a Christian, but I am pretty sure God himself cannot be polluted with sin, although I am happy to be corrected – and b) miasma is sort of contagious, so by being polluted and returning home, you would pollute your family, for instance.

The causes of pollution vary from culture to culture. For the ancient Greeks you would be polluted for having a death in the family, for entering the house of someone who had just died, for using water or fire from a house from a polluted house in mourning, for touching a corpse, for having sex, for masturbating, for giving birth, for committing murder, and so on.

There are two elements off the top of my head that are not known to be polluting, when perhaps we may have expected them to be. The first is menstruation, often considered a ‘dirty’ time by many cultures, but it seems that the Greeks did not consider it so. The second, and most important for the topic at hand:

There is no suggestion that killing in war was considered, in any way, a polluting act.

This immediately makes the use of ancient society, in this case Greece, highly contentious in comparisons with the modern world.


So, even if we accept that cultures have different causes of pollution, and indeed different conceptions of pollution (miasma vs sin for instance), it is still fair to say that a sense of pollution is not uncommon through various cultures and time periods (that does not make it universal though).

So, how does one un-pollute themselves? This is another example of why pollution and sin are not happy bedfellows. Dependent on the severity of the pollution, an ancient Greek person was cleansed by an act as innocuous as taking a bath, or else the most common form of cleansing was the passing of time. The cleansing of buildings was harder and required things like water, sulphur and fire.

It is interesting, and if you read the article now it will become clear, that O’Donnell’s main example of PTSD is Odysseus, but neither he nor Ancient Greece appears in the section on ritual cleansing. This is because Odysseus does not have a ritual cleansing of any sort after his 20 year absence from home. He returns home, has a bath while disguised, kills some suitors (now out of disguise), and has sex with his wife, before leaving the house for more work to be done.

The Greek warrior did have a ritualistic homecoming, a topic that forms the basis of my ongoing research, but there it was one of reintegration into the home, not one of cleansing because his participation in war was neither considered wrong, morally dubious, nor polluting.

Using Ancient Rituals as Exemplars

There is a final issue with this idea of using ‘ancient’ rituals, or more accurately the replication of the idea, to help modern veterans. Ignoring the multi-cultural make-up of the British armed forces which would make the formation of such a ritual a complete farce, there is a separate issue. The concept of cleansing, and pollution, is one of inclusion and exclusion. By creating a cleansing you define the soldier as tainted by his experiences, which happened outside of the primary social group. You formally define him as unwelcome until he is ‘fixed’, and then expect a transformation to occur through ritual that removes him from those experiences. How is this going to help veterans who often discuss feelings of isolation, and being considered an outsider in their own home?

This can only work if there is a seamless transition of ideals for the veteran – someone who already held these views, and held belief in this ritual – but our general culture holds no such ritual, the creation of one would need the creation of an entire thought structure in which it could fit.

IF we were to use the past as an example for the present, and that is a big IF, I would be more tempted to look at the issue of reintegration rather than cleansing. While in some parts of history the two went hand in hand, they are not synonymous. To be fair, O’Donnell does not claim a need to create a modern cleansing ritual, but the use of these as examples to form the basis of the proposed ‘ritualistic homecoming’ is worthy of concern.

The Abuse of Ancient History

The holy grail of research in ancient history is relevance. The study of trauma and of the experience of combat has this in abundance, but in our pursuit for validity outside of the discipline, are we, ancient historians, in danger of losing our credibility?

The original use of ancient history and literature, to aid veterans through their experiences, is a commendable thing. Even in the face of historical scrutiny, the non-historicised use of Homer, for instance, still stands well as a project today.

But now, with the move by external disciplines to just pluck ancient examples to justify their own views or their new models, without historical scrutiny, the question needs to be asked, are we failing in our own duties? Should we allow our methodology to slide away in the face of acceptance and ‘usefulness’? Perhaps the answer should be a pragmatic ‘yes’, but it is not something I will adhere to any time soon.

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