Worm Food: Towards a Typology of Worm and Lice Disease-Descriptions in Graeco-Roman Narratives
Two disease-descriptions featured in ancient literature (skolekosis and phthiriasis) have long been interpreted as evidence of medical illness, but this paper argues that they should be understood as strictly literary phenomena; they do not describe any diseases that occurred in the ancient Mediterranean world. The lack of correspondence between narrative literature and ancient medical writings controverts the dominant scholarly assumption that these diseases had some basis in history/medicine. Instead, this paper argues that four relatively distinct conceptions of skolekosis and phthiriasis were at play in ancient literature, despite their shared use of worms and lice. With a clearer understanding of this typology, we are better positioned to understand the normative function of narratives depicting skolekosis and phthiriasis.