Astrological humorism, all joking aside

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No, I’m not referring to astrology jokes! I am paying homage to Galen, born 1,881 years ago this coming month, in September, 129 AD, whose medical research carried on Hippocrates’ tradition of humorism, the belief that the human body was dominated by four humors (or, essences). The concept that these humors also corresponded to the four seasons and, no coincidence, the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air, was brought to us by the philosopher, Empedocles (490–430 BC), an Ancient Greek (of course).

[He]  was a pre-Socratic philosopher and a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek city in Sicily. Empedocles’ philosophy is best known for being the originator of the cosmogenic theory of the four Classical elements. He also proposed powers called Love and Strife which would act as forces to bring about the mixture and separation of the elements. These physical speculations were part of a history of the universe which also dealt with the origin and development of life. Influenced by the Pythagoreans, he supported the doctrine of reincarnation.

Although the idea of the four humors can most likely be traced back to Ancient Egypt, it is primarily due to the Greeks and specifically Galen’s influence on medical research and philosophy that humorism was incorporated into what became medical astrology during the late Middle Ages and the early modern period of the Renaissance. Hopefully, after reading this, you will have newfound respect for Galen; a collective thank you for his work wouldn’t go amiss, since it’s going to be his birthday soon.

His theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for nearly two millennia. His anatomical reports, based mainly on dissection of monkeys and pigs, remained uncontested until 1543, when printed descriptions and illustrations of human dissections were published in the seminal work De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius.

Galen’s theory of the physiology of the circulatory system endured until 1628, when William Harvey published his treatise entitled De motu cordis, in which he established that the blood circulates with the heart acting as a pump. Medical students continued to study Galen’s writings until well into the 19th century. Galen conducted many nerve ligation experiments that supported the theory, which is still believed today, that the brain controls all the motions of the muscles by means of the cranial and peripheral nervous systems.

Modern understanding of what might have inspired the idea of the humors in the first place came from Sweden, an often-overlooked country, it seems to me:

In 1921, Fåhræus, a Swedish physician … suggested that the four humours were based upon the observation of blood clotting in a transparent container. When blood is drawn in a glass container and left undisturbed for about an hour, four different layers can be seen. A dark clot forms at the bottom (the “black bile”). Above the clot is a layer of red blood cells (the “blood”). Above this is a whitish layer of white blood cells (the “phlegm”, now called the buffy coat). The top layer is clear yellow serum (the “yellow bile”).

The following table shows how the humours, seasons, and elements were associated with certain behaviors astrologers are quite familiar with. The fact that this table has been expanded to indicate modern usage of ancient cosmological beliefs is of interest, since humorism has been completely discredited scientifically. However, being discredited by science is not proving to be enough reason for people to give up our collective attachment to the question of what makes us tick. Human beings are endlessly fascinating creatures, and since science has not yet come up with a way to explain us to ourselves adequately, I suspect we will continue to poke in the dark until that magical day when all speculation must end due to science’s radical discovery of How Human Beings Really Work.

I predict the scientist who publishes that article will make a gazillion dollars and retire off-world.

Humour Season Element Organ Qualities Ancient name Modern MBTI Ancient characteristics
Blood spring air liver warm & moist sanguine artisan SP courageous, hopeful, amorous
Yellow bile summer fire gall bladder warm & dry choleric idealist NF easily angered, bad tempered
Black bile autumn earth spleen cold & dry melancholic guardian SJ despondent, sleepless, irritable
Phlegm winter water brain/lungs cold & moist phlegmatic rational NT calm, unemotional


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