Epilepsy: The Sacred Disease

Aliases: epilepsy, falling sickness, St. Valentine’s disease, sacred or divine disease

A malady referred to as the ‘divine disease’ was an obvious choice for December’s theme of religion. The connection between epilepsy and spirituality has existed throughout recorded history. While some cultures have revered the illness as an indication of prophetic powers, most have viewed it as an affliction caused by demonic forces, heaping social stigma on top of a challenging medical condition.

Although Hippocrates, the father of medicine, denied any spiritual cause and hypothesized that epilepsy resulted from a dysfunction in the brain, it took about 2000 years for that idea to gain acceptance4. The earliest descriptions of the disease, dating from 2000 BCE, attributed it to a curse of the moon goddess3.  The pallor of otherness proved hard to cast off. In the Middle Ages epilepsy was considered characteristic of witchcraft, and epileptics continued to suffer social and legal persecution well into the 20th century in America4. A spiritual understanding of the disease led to spiritual treatments, including exorcisms and appeals to the illness’ patron saint, Saint Valentine.

Love and seizures: makes sense.

Because of the spiritual connotations of the disease, a diagnosis of epilepsy may be used to reinforce the mystical status of religious figures. In fact central figures of many major faith traditions, including the Buddha, Mohammed, and St. Paul, have been identified as possible epileptics4. The afflicted may also perceive the illness as a religious experience; there have been cases of epilepsy-related conversion experiences1 (this is not meant to discredit these experiences, only to say they occurred during a seizure).

Cause: Epilepsy is a neurological condition (an ailment that affects the central nervous system) that results in disordered nerve cell activity in the brain. The underlying causes of this illness are diverse, and include genetic predisposition (though this is not easily identified; greater than 500 genes are estimated to be related to the disease), head injury, and infectious diseases that cause inflammation in the brain or spinal cord, such as meningitis2.

Consequence: The abnormal brain activity may affect one region (focal) or the whole brain (generalized) and results in seizures. Although generally thought of in their most extreme form, seizures can be quite subtle. They vary in presentation from a blank stare and confusion to losing consciousness and jerking limbs. The disease most commonly emerges during early childhood or after age 602.

Cure: Epilepsy is generally treated with the suite of drugs aptly named anti-epileptics. These are anti-seizure medications that decrease the frequency and intensity of seizures. After a few years of treatment, many patients are able to discontinue their medication and remain seizure-free. In fact, half of people newly diagnosed with epilepsy will become seizure-free after treatment with their first medication. Focal epilepsy (where the disease is localized in the brain) is sometimes treated with surgery where the affected region of the brain is removed2.


1. Devinsky, O & G Lai. (2008). Spirituality and religion in epilepsy. Epilepsy &Behavior, 12:636-643.

2. Epilepsy. Mayo Clinic, 31 May 2013. Web. 1 December 2013. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/epilepsy/DS00342

3. Magiorkinis, E, K Sidiropoulou, & A Diamantis. (2010). Hallmarks in the history of epilepsy: Epilepsy in antiquity. Epilepsy & Behavior, 17:103-108.

4. Masia, SL & O Devinsky. (2000) Epilepsy and behavior: A brief history. Epilepsy & Behavior, 1:27-36.

Image credit: Attribution: cafecesura, via Creative Commons