Worms, Demons and Gods: Disorder and Health Within the Body
Indian and East Asian medical traditions envisioned the inner landscape of the human body as the abode of numerous other living beings. Some of these beings were worm-like creatures, some were demonic, some were gods. Some were dangerous etiological agents, others were protective guardians.
We know today that the human body hosts an array of parasites; we understand the mechanism of how they cause disease; and we have sophisticated ways of eradicating them. Before the invention of the microscope in the early seventeenth century, only tapeworms, pinworms, maggots, etc., were visible to the naked eye. Yet traditional medical systems imagined that an additional host of parasite-like entities, along with demons and gods, inhabited the human body.
Classical Indian medical texts, such as Caraksaṃhitā and Suśrutasaṃhitā, attribute a range of somatic and psychological disorders to a variety of demons called graha (seizers). The texts suggest remedies in the form of ritual offerings. In early Chinese and Japanese medicine traditions, the body was imagined to house a set of spirits with peculiar names derived from Daoism.
In some of the traditions, the patients have been treated with medicine. Suśruta recommends enemas, medicinal drinks, and powdered animal feces as cures for worms. Dietary advice is also given in Suśruta as well as in Chinese and Japanese medical manuals. Magical or ritual cures have been employed in some East Asian settings as well.
In some cases, these imagined inhabitants of the body are diagnosed and treated by today’s practitioners of traditional Asian medicine. For example, some acupuncturists in Japan have treatment protocols for children sufferings from irritability and excessive crying, a syndrome that is still named after the (imaginary) kan worm, which traditionally caused the symptoms in the child.
This panel especially welcomes papers that focus on visual representations of worms, disease demons or other beings that inhabit the body and papers on contemporary diagnosis and treatment of traditional worms or demons.