The Guaraní believe that people with recurrent seizures are a gateway between the worlds of life and death.
This story from NPR speculates that Emily Dickinson’s “spells” were related to epilepsy, and partly explain why she never married.
Representing Epilepsy, the latest volume in Liverpool University Press’s acclaimed Representations series, is the first book that looks at the cultural and literary history of epilepsy, a condition that afflicts at least 50 million people worldwide. Jeannette Stirling argues that neurological discourse about epilepsy from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century was forged as much by cultural conditions of the times as it is by the science of western medicine. Stirling also explores narratives of epilepsy in works as diverse as David Copperfield and The X Files, drawing out the many ideas of social disorder, tainted bloodlines, sexual deviance, spiritualism, and criminality they depict. This pathbreaking book will be required reading for cultural disability studies scholars and for anyone seeking a better understanding of this very common condition.
This compendium (Encyclopedia of Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud, Fred Rosner) gives a general sense for how epilepsy and seizure disorders appeared through the lens of Rabbinic Judaism, over the years. The dates for these different strictures and beliefs vary quite widely from the 6th century CE to the 18th century. They should not be taken to represent even current orthodox Jewish thinking, but they are part of the body of texts that are still studied. Not everything that is studied is believed, and the fact that old ideas are still around does not mean that they are necessarily allowed to shape our actions today.
A film adaption of Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows was made by Betty Kaplan in 1994. A scene from the film is found here, which appears to depict a seizure. Because this is magical realism, to ask whether it is “really” an epileptic seizure would be to miss the point. This appears to be a depiction of a seizure, but of course in the world of magical realism, the magic is just as real as anything else, and so the internal seizure finds its expression in, or expresses, external events. It is interesting that the woman with the seizure is empowered by her seizure.
In the book the seizures are specifically distinguished from epilepsy, and related instead to sexual taboo. “Digna knew the symptoms of epilepsy, and she knew that it did not wreak havoc with the furniture.”
Here’s a conventional trailer for the movie.
The book was originally published as De amor y de sombra (1984, Chile), and in English as Of Love and Shadows (1986.)
‘The Falling Sickness’ in Literature
Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.
Posted: 12/01/2000; South Med J. 2000;93(12) © 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Seizures have been described in literature since early times. Since classical literature reflects the attitudes of society, a review of “the falling sickness” in literature provides some insights into the profound affect of epilepsy. This article explores some great writings describing epilepsy and the changing view of an epileptic as a person being “possessed” to that of one with a medical condition.
In a second source from a different Christian group, the purported reference in Mathew 17:15 is explained in etymological terms that suggest a different meaning for the Greek.
It appears that this document is one Muslim’s response to a Christian Missionary. The author describes “Muhammad’s 11 symptoms” which, apparently, the Christian missionary had described as examples of epilepsy. By way of response, the author describes biblical (“Old Testament”) parallels to Muhammed’s symptoms, and concludes by arguing that “…the Prophet Muhammad(P) represented the continuity of the Hebrew Prophetic tradition, which had been broken and contradicted by the false teachings of Christianity.” Needless to say, the author does not consider the possibility that the biblical prophets themselves also suffered from epilepsy. For this Muslim author, like, in all likelihood the Christian missionary with whom he disagrees, the idea that epilepsy and prophecy could be linked is not considered. Instead a binary choice is perceived: either epilepsy (and falsehood) or prophecy (and truth.)
I bring you today, Act 4, Scene 1, from Othello, in which a man, raging with jealousy or anger or madness is excused by (imagined? conjured?) epilepsy. But what did the word mean in that time and place?
Act 4, Scene 1
SCENE I. Cyprus. Before the castle.
Enter OTHELLO and IAGO
Will you think so?
Think so, Iago!
To kiss in private?
An unauthorized kiss.
Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm!
It is hypocrisy against the devil:
They that mean virtuously, and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
So they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip:
But if I give my wife a handkerchief,–
Why, then, ’tis hers, my lord; and, being hers,
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.
She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that?
Her honour is an essence that’s not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not:
But, for the handkerchief,–
By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it.
Thou said’st, it comes o’er my memory,
As doth the raven o’er the infected house,
Boding to all–he had my handkerchief.
Ay, what of that?
That’s not so good now.
If I had said I had seen him do you wrong?
Or heard him say,–as knaves be such abroad,
Who having, by their own importunate suit,
Or voluntary dotage of some mistress,
Convinced or supplied them, cannot choose
But they must blab–
Hath he said any thing?
He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
What hath he said?
‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.
With her, on her; what you will.
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–
Falls in a trance
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach. What, ho! my lord!
My lord, I say! Othello!
How now, Cassio!
What’s the matter?
My lord is fall’n into an epilepsy:
This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.
Rub him about the temples.
The lethargy must have his quiet course:
If not, he foams at mouth and by and by
Breaks out to savage madness. Look he stirs:
Do you withdraw yourself a little while,
He will recover straight: when he is gone,
I would on great occasion speak with you.
How is it, general? have you not hurt your head?
Dost thou mock me?