Looking at the development of medicine in Greek antiquity, in particular at the time of Hippocrates, you see references made to the poor understanding Greek medicine shows of anatomy, and chalks this up to a taboo against dissecting the human body. Is there any source that establishes or explains this prohibition?

  • Good question + answer. I hope that you ask the (now edited out) followup question as a separate question -- I too would like to know the answer to the question. (Also, disregard my now-deleted comment, I just read the question with a fresh pair of eyes and it makes sense now.)
    – user62
    Jun 2, 2016 at 0:25
  • @Hamlet - The follow-up question is reposted now: What changed in Greek culture to allow Herophilos to perform human dissections. Since it can actually be answered with the same source as this one, wanted to wait until I had the time to write an answer, as well.
    – femtoRgon
    Jun 7, 2016 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


Found a paper on the topic:

"The discovery of the body: human dissection and its cultural contexts in ancient Greece.", by H. van Staden, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 1992 May-Jun; 65(3): 223–241

I'll provide my poor summary of a few salient bits here, but if you are interested, it's a very interesting read. The paper presents three reasons that dissection would have been unacceptable to ancient Greek culture.

First, a human corpse is seen as a significant polluting influence:

In many ancient Greek sacred laws, every human corpse is considered a significant source of pollution for all who, in any fashion whatsoever, come into contact with it or stand in a relation of kinship to it.

A number of surviving laws are cited, attesting to the contamination visited on the house and people around the corpse, and including cleansing rituals for the house of the deceased, those who have come into contact with the corpse, and the burial site, as a well as a waiting period before a contaminated person in allowed to enter shrines again.

Second, the "cultural valorization of the skin":

With few exceptions, complex religious, social, and political Greek traditions assert the inviolability of the skin, dead of alive, human or animal, except as a means of gaining control of a crisis.
Skin is a magical symbol of wholeness and oneness, of the integrity of individual or collective organisms that might become susceptible to disintegration or fragmentation.

Again, examples are given, citing the importance of skin (or hides) in mythology, foundation stories and religious observances.

The third reason presented analyzes the Greek word temnein (to cut), and its primarily being associated with violent or sacrificial acts. The author admits this to be speculative, and I'm not sure I can effectively summarize the point here, as I'm not sure I quite understand the point, myself.


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