5 Superstitious Theories Our Ancestors Had About Their Bodies

5 Superstitious Theories Our Ancestors Had About Their Bodies
5 Superstitious Theories Our Ancestors Had About Their Bodies

It a took a long time to figure out how the human body works. People realized pretty early on that the eyes see, based on how people stopped seeing when they poked their eyes out, but what about that gray wrinkly organ that you found in dead people’s skulls? Aristotle thought that it served as a cooling unit, while the Egyptians thought it served no useful function at all. 

Without any confirmed knowledge, our ancient ancestors relied on guesswork, and these early attempts at science tended to sound a bit like magic. 

Erections Are Full of Air, So You Can Induce Them Through Fart Food

Ancient humans must have realized fairly early that erections are full of blood. All it took to determine this was chopping off someone’s erect penis, and surely plenty of people found excuses to do that. Still, the Ancient Romans believed that penises change size not due to the blood in them but due to another substance called pneuma

Pneuma, which is also the Greek word for “breath,” was believed to perform all kinds of functions — from transmitting heat to combining with fire to extract energy from food. Pneuma is a gas, and since humans expel gas from an orifice located quite close to the penis, it seemed reasonable that this same gas inflates the penis, just as you could blow air to inflate a pig’s bladder. Of course, this meant that if some men had trouble inflating their own penises, they needed more pneuma down there. They could get some using this:


Sheri Silver

No, not the grated cheese. We mean the green stuff.

That’s arugula, a plant that’s been cultivated for thousands of years. Romans used it as an aphrodisiac, since vegetables tend to spark flatulence. If dining on arugula meant forsaking a heavier meal that attracted a lot of blood to the guts for digesting, maybe this really did help some men whose own pneumatics systems were malfunctioning. Plus, all many of them needed was a good placebo. 

When Hair Gets Matted, That’s Illness Leaving the Body

If someone’s hair is hopelessly matted together, you might associate that with sickness. If someone hasn’t been maintaining their hair properly, they might not have been taking care of other hygiene matters either, and maybe their whole body is full of worms.

That’s what people in Poland thought in 19th century, when they saw a particularly gross-looking kind of matted hair. This hair was so knotted and had so thoroughly merged with dirt that it became a solid mass. Today, we have a name for this condition — plica neuropathica. At the time, they just called it a plait, and people associating it with Poland called it the Polish plait.

Adrian Grycuk

This Polish person is long dead, but in a museum, their plait lives on. 

However, associating the plait with sickness played out a little differently back then. If someone was sick, and they were growing a big plait, it seemed only logical that the sickness was leaving the body to form the plait. As sick as the person was, the plait had to improve their prospects by drawing out the illness. So, the smart thing was to let it grow as big as possible. 

People would let theirs grow to several feet in length. It might look like disgusting neglect, but it was the most effort anyone back then put into personal care.

The Left Testicle Makes Boys, and the Right One Makes Girls

Long before anyone figured out exactly how gametes merge to form a zygote, they knew sex led to babies, and they knew semen was necessary for pregnancy. They also figured out that semen comes from testicles. And it was clear that each man had two testicles, but it wasn’t exactly clear why. Sure, everyone had two eyes and two ears, but each man had just one penis, so why two testicles?

Anatomical drawing of man

Wellcome Images

Everything else is paired for symmetry, but one ball dead center would be just as symmetrical.

This baby-making process appeared to involve a binary: Babies could come in either of two sexes. So, Ancient Greeks like Anaxagoras concluded that one testicle had the power to make boys, while the other had the power to make girls. 

They even believed that you could remove a single testicle to ensure that all offspring would be of the desired sex. This is the sort of theory that would quickly be disproven the first time anyone put it to the test. As it happens, we don’t think ancient people had the ability to remove one single testicle and leave a man fertile, so this was a theory no one ever got to really try. 

Blood Is Wine or Milk

Blood, that useful substance that fills the body, is red. And you know what else is reddish, sometimes? Wine! So, in the 17th century, there arose the idea that if a patient is short on blood, you could transfuse in some wine to top them off.

Thomas Franke

Sadly, this was administered intravenously rather than orally.

By the 19th century, doctors learned that blood contains a component that looks white under the microscope. Today, we call these leukocytes or white blood cells, but at the time, doctors couldn’t help but notice that this was the same color as another bodily fluid: milk. Clearly, this meant you could inject milk when someone was short of these white blood cells. It didn’t even need to be human milk — any milk would do. 

Unlike some beliefs, this one very much did end up subject to testing through experimentation. Nearly all the patients who received transfusions of wine or milk died. And so, it was back to the drawing board. 

Your Kidneys Tell You Right From Wrong

The heart pumps blood, but people long believed that it’s really the organ that controls your emotions. You know this — we still talk about “following your heart” and “what the heart wants” in memory of what we once believed was its true function. We’ve forgotten, though, that our ancestors also attributed mental roles to other organs as well.

People used to think our kidneys contained our conscience. The reasoning for this, as far as we can tell, came down to how they couldn’t figure out what the kidneys really did, and some organ had to contain your conscience, so why not these? After all, it’s not like one single organ handles all your thinking. That would be poor design.

The relations of the viscera and large vessels of the abdomen

Henry Vandyke Carter

Sometimes, you listen to your gut. Other times, you listen to your kidneys. 

This belief left its mark on a famous old text: the Book of Revelation. “Sayeth the Son of God, ‘I am He that searches the kidneys and hearts,’” reads this book. This verse is saying that God will judge our inner thoughts, but if you don’t know about this ancient kidney belief, it looks a lot more like Jesus is a nephrologist. 

Either way, it means that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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