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Online Articles: Original Studies

Glaucoma and the Origins of Its Name

Laios, Konstantinos PhD*; Moschos, Marilita M. MD, PhD; Androutsos, George MD, PhD*

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doi: 10.1097/IJG.0000000000000373
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Glaucoma (or Glaucosis) was an ophthalmological disease with numerous references in ancient Greek medical literature.1 Although in antiquity it concerned a type of cataract,2 the origins of its name and the expectations of its use can reveal interesting information.


In ancient Greek medical literature, the terms Glaucoma and Hypochyma (or Hypochysis) described the same disease.3 Rufus of Ephesus (first to second century ad) had explained that only earlier to him physicians used both the above terms. Modern physicians used Glaucoma only for the incurable condition under which crystalline lens turned Glaucos (Greek, shining green or blue) and Hypochysis when the curable phenomenon of coagulation of liquids between the crystalline lens and the uvea was observed.4


The term Hypochyma had a more sufficient medical context because it meant the suffusion of humors over the eye, and reflected the fundamental idea of humoral pathology in ancient Greek medicine (every disease was the result of the unbalanced accumulation of human humors).5

However, the term Glaucoma is older. The adjective Glaucos is the etymon for the nouns Glaucoma and Glaux (Greek, owl). Homer characterized Athena as Glaucopis, meaning not only the goddess with the shining eyes, but mainly the goddess who could see very well,6 to connect her with the owl, which in antiquity was believed to have excellent vision, especially in the dark.


It was a common perception in ancient Greek folk to nominate a disease after an animal. There are many similar paradigms, such as cancer (crab), alopecia (fox), polypodiasis (polypus), hipposis (horse), and elephantiasis (elephant). The scope of this practice was to use the apotropaic force believed to be sustained by animals against the diseases, such that either the animal fought the disease with some magical power or the disease itself transferred to the animal miraculously. This concept was common in primitive civilizations such as the Babylonian, the Elamite, Hittite, the Aegean, and the Etruscian. This idea found many elaborative representations, where animals turn against the evil eye, which deeply represented evil in general.7

According to us, Glaucoma as an older medical term was derived from the word Glaux (owl), so that this animal would help fight against this severe disease according to the above-mentioned belief of primitive folk. The representation of a Greek gem (Fig. 1) where 7 animals attack the evil eye with an owl to have the primordial role in the center of the scene support the apotropaic role of the bird and our argument.8

Ancient Greek gem.

Besides, it is more obvious to conjure a severe disease provoking blindness by trying to connect it with an animal having excellent vision, especially in the night. We should also not forget that the lizard was a suitable talisman for ophthalmic diseases in general in Greek antiquity.7

However, with the rise of the rational Greek medicine, Greek physicians, who rejected every superstition concerning diseases in general,9 introduced the term Hypochyma for the same disease to interpret it in a more logical way. Nevertheless, the long tradition and the deep roots in the popular conscience about the apotropaic role of the term Glaucoma were elements strong enough to preserve it through the ages.


1. Hirschberg J. Geschichte der Augenheilkunde. Leipzig: Engelmann; 1899-1918.
2. Arrington GE Jr, Mart-Ibanez F. A History of Ophthalmology. New York: MD Publications; 1959.
3. Liddell HG, Scott R. Greek—English Lexicon. New York: Harper & Brothers; 1885.
4. Heiberg JL. Paulus Aegineta, Corpus medicorum Graecorum, Vols 91 & 92. Leipzig: Teubner; 1921.
5. Schöner E. Das Viererschema in der antiken Humoralpathologie. Wiesbaden: Steiner; 1964.
6. Kofiniotis E. Homeric Lexicon. Athens: A. Charisis; 1993.
7. Levi DStillwell R. The evil eye and the lucky hunchback. Antioch-on-the-Orontes: The Excavations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1937-1939:220–232.
8. King CW. The Handbook of Engraved Gems. London: G Bell; 1885.
9. Nutton V. Ancient Medicine. London/New York: Routledge; 2004.

glaucoma; owl; superstition; ancient Greek medicine

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