The Term ἄτη as it Denotes Depressive μελαγχολία: The Two Aspects of μελαγχολία in Classical Texts

Written by Maya C. Locker


1§1 The difference between the two forms of μελαγχολία (melancholia) as referred to by Classical Greek authors, depressive and manic, are unclear because both aspects are rarely included and explored in a singular medical text (Kazantzidis 245). Depressive μελαγχολία relates to “a pathological state of lasting sadness” while manic μελαγχολία relates to “a pathological state of lasting … fear” (Kazantzidis 245). It might seem more obvious to turn to medical texts to explore the ancient conception of mental illness; however, drama explores the human condition in a way that allows the reader and scholar to place ailments in the context of a specific character’s unique set of circumstances and emotional state. If we turn to Greek drama, we can explore these ideas in another genre in order to understand the distinction between these two aspects of μελαγχολία.

1§2 While μανία had been understood as an umbrella term for madness since Homer in the eighth century, the term and diagnosis μελαγχολία did not exist before the introduction of the Hippocratic humors in the fifth century BCE. When Hippocrates introduced the idea that “fear or depression that is prolonged means melancholia” (Ἢν φόβος ἢ δυσθυμίη πολὺν χρόνον διατελῇ, μελαγχολικὸν τὸ τοιοῦτον) (Aphorisms 6.23), he opened the door to a new, more complex way of thinking about madness. In the hope of illuminating the distinction between depressive and manic μελαγχολία, I will use the term ἄτη (átē) to understand depressive μελαγχολία, which I argue elucidates the distinction between the two aspects of this mental illness.

The Use of Manic μελαγχολία Terminology in Ancient Greek Drama

2§1 Before connecting the use of the word ἄτη with the presence of depressive μελαγχολία, we must establish a definition for the other side of μελαγχολία – manic. Using the definition from Thinking about Mental Disorders in Classical Antiquity, μαίνομαι (I am mad) words are used in Greek texts to “refer to ‘some harm inflicted by the subject on others’” (Harris 16), often as a symptom of a situation in which the person feels a lack of agency. For example, Medea’s destructive behavior makes her a manic melancholic. Peter Toohey used Medea’s lovesickness as an example of μελαγχολία. He calls her affliction “love melancholy” (Toohey 63), but I would suggest that Euripides’ Medea suffers from manic μελαγχολία. Her situation certainly falls under Kazantzidis’s definition of manic μελαγχολία – “a pathological state of lasting … fear” (Kazantzidis 245) and Harris’s statement on inflicting harm on others (Harris 16). She had previously been forced to flee her own country, is abandoned and insulted by her husband, and about to be sent “friendless into exile” with her children (Med. 604). Furthermore, the Chorus nervously tells the nurse to “…hurry before she harms those inside. For this grief of hers is charging powerfully forward” (Med. 180-184). This description fits both Kazantzidis’ and Harris’ definitions stated above. The Chorus compares Medea murdering her children to the story of “Ino driven mad (μανεῖσαν) by the gods when Hera sent her forth from the house to wander in madness” and killing her own children (Med. 1284-1288); however, Medea does not seem to have been driven by any external force other than her own “pathological state of lasting … fear” (Kazantzidis 245) to commit her crime. On the contrary, her reasoning for killing her children, though undoubtably brutal, is extremely thought-out and calculated. This understanding of manic μελαγχολία will be helpful in understanding the difference between manic and depressive μελαγχολία, and how the use of the term ἄτη denotes depressive μελαγχολία.

The Use of ἄτη in Ancient Greek Drama

3§1 The word, ἄτη, is a curious term used in ancient Greek texts meaning “disastrous folly;” it falls under the category of μανία, and unlike the use and context of manic μελαγχολία, refers to a situation in which “‘some harm [is] experienced by the subject’” (Harris 16). Just as the word μανία was used as a term to describe madness long before the institution of the Hippocratic humors, ἄτη was used in Greek texts in relation to madness. Straying from drama for a moment, a scene from the Odyssey where a character is cited as feeling ἄτη displays how long this term has been used in relation to depression. When discussing the madness brought on by wine, Antinous relates the story of the Lapiths and the centaurs at King Peirithous’ wedding (Od. 20.295-302):

οἶνος καὶ Κένταυρον, ἀγακλυτὸν Εὐρυτίωνα,

ἄασ᾿ ἐνὶ μεγάρῳ μεγαθύμου Πειριθόοιο,

ἐς Λαπίθας ἐλθόνθ᾿· ὁ δ᾿ ἐπεὶ φρένας ἄασεν οἴνῳ,

μαινόμενος κάκ᾿ ἔρεξε δόμον κάτα Πειριθόοιο·

…ὁ δὲ φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ἀασθεὶς

ἤιεν ἣν ἄτην ὀχέων ἀεσίφρονι θυμῷ.

It was wine that made foolish the centaur, too, glorious Eurytion, in the hall of great-hearted Peirithous, when he went to the Lapithae, and when he had made his heart foolish with wine, in his madness (μαινόμενος) he did evil in the house of Peirithous … and he, made foolish in heart, went his way, bearing with him his ruinous (ἄτην) mistake in the folly of his heart.

The centaur felt ἄτη due to his own madness and defeat by the Lapiths; it is apparent from this excerpt that there is a strong connection between ἄτη and madness. Though one might argue that Eurytion caused harm and thereby falls into the manic μελαγχολία category “[referring] to ‘some harm inflicted by the subject on others’” (Harris 16), “it was wine that made foolish the centaur” (Od. 20.295), not Eurytion himself. This infers that in a situation like this where one is not in control of his or her actions, even if a person (or centaur for that matter) is the physical ‘harmer,’ he or she is considered the sufferer of harm, not the perpetrator. This is why the above passage ends with the emotion and affliction of the ruin, the guilt, and the ἄτη that Eurytion endures and feels.

3§2 Many who suffer from ἄτη fall into a depressive state as a symptom of this external harm – the “‘harm experienced by the subject’” (Harris 16). This term is used in perhaps the most famous case of madness in the ancient corpus – the story of Aias. Greek playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles used ἄτη when their characters experience harm and are facing ruin. When Euripides’ Electra bemoans her mother’s murder in Electra, Castor tells her as follows (El. 1305-1307):

κοιναὶ πράξεις, κοινοὶ δὲ πότμοι,

μία δ᾿ ἀμφοτέρους

ἄτη πατέρων διέκναισεν.

Just as your acts were in common, so too were your fates, and it was a single ruin (ἄτη) derived from your ancestors that has crushed you both.

Castor tells his sister that despite Orestes’ and her matricide, they were not the source of ruin for their family. The past actions of their parents were inescapable, and out of their hands. Just like the story of Eurytion in the house of Peirithous, the use of ἄτη denotes a person’s feeling of the folly or ruin that is out of his or her control. In Sophocles’ Aias, Aias is driven mad by Athena and falls into a depressive and eventually suicidal state. When Odysseus sees Aias’ behavior and the mental state he is in, he tells Athena (Aj. 121-126):

…ἐποικτίρω δέ νιν

δύστηνον ἔμπας, καίπερ ὄντα δυσμενῆ,

ὁθούνεκ᾿ ἄτῃ συγκατέζευκται κακῇ,

οὐδὲν τὸ τούτου μᾶλλον ἢ τοὐμὸν σκοπῶν.

ὁρῶ γὰρ ἡμᾶς οὐδὲν ὄντας ἄλλο πλὴν

εἴδωλ᾿ ὅσοιπερ ζῶμεν ἢ κούφην σκιάν.

…I pity him in his misery, though he is my enemy, because he is bound fast by a cruel affliction (ἄτῃ), not thinking of his fate, but my own; because I see that all of us who live are nothing but ghosts, or a fleeting shadow.

Odysseus bemoans the deterioration of such a great man, and Aias’ lack of control over his own fate, further emphasizing this element of ἄτη. In Children of Heracles, Iolaus, tasked with caring for the children of Heracles in exile, tells the children (Children of Heracles 605-607):

ὡς οὔτε τούτοις ἥδομαι πεπραγμένοις

χρησμοῦ τε μὴ κρανθέντος οὐ βιώσιμον.

μείζων γὰρ ἄτη. συμφορὰ δὲ καὶ τάδε.

For I take no pleasure in what has occurred, and if the oracle is not fulfilled, my life is no life at all. My ruin (ἄτη) will be all the greater. What we have seen is already a calamity.

3§3 It is noteworthy to mention that while this translation reads “my ruin,” the term is not possessive in this excerpt. This implies that ἄτη in and of itself is calamitous, further adding to the lack of control a person has regarding both the situation which led to the ruin or ἄτη, and the emotional state as a result of said ruin. In this excerpt, Iolaus has been exiled from his land with his late friend’s children, whom he must protect from Heracles’ powerful enemy. He too lacks control in his life and feels the strain of his seemingly inescapable circumstances. It is evident from these examples that the term ἄτη is indeed used in situations where “‘some harm [is] experienced by the subject’” (Harris 16).

ἄτη Represents Depressive μελαγχολία

4§1 The use of ἄτη represents depressive μελαγχολία in Greek literature. After laying out the distinctions between ἄτη and manic μελαγχολία, the parallels between sufferers of ἄτη and depressive μελαγχολία become clearer. If we take the context of ἄτη to be a situation where “‘some harm [is] experienced by the subject’” (Harris 16) as explored above, we can compare the storylines of ἄτη characters and depressive melancholics in Greek literature. By establishing the definition of depressive μελαγχολία through the example of Bellerophon as equal to the conditions surrounding ἄτη, we can thereby conclude that the use of ἄτη denotes that a character suffers from depressive μελαγχολία.

4§2 Aristotle refers to the hero Bellerophon as a depressive melancholic (Tusc. Disp. 3.63), and the hero’s circumstances and symptoms match up with the previously outlined understanding of ἄτη. Bellerophon grew proud after his many victories, and thought himself worthy of traveling to Olympus. At Zeus’ directive, Bellerophon fell to earth from Pegasus (falling into a thorn bush which blinded him). Though this play by Euripides has been lost, we know a bit about it from later authors such as Aristotle and Cicero. We also have an early understanding of Bellerophon’s story from Homer, who describes how “‘Verily over the Aleїan plain he [Bellerophon] wandered alone, / Devouring his spirit, avoiding the path of men’” (Pr. 30.23-25). He is essentially exiled from the rest of the world due to his hubris. The first definition of ἄτη in the LSJ reads “bewilderment … caused by blindness or delusion sent by the gods, mostly as the punishment of guilty rashness.” Along with the LSJ definitions “guilt” and “ruin,” the latter used in the LSJ and in two translations in the last section, the condition of depressive μελαγχολία appears on par with the way ἄτη is used in the texts explored.

Conclusion and Further Avenues for Exploration

5§1 When referring to Aristotle’s Problems, Cicero explains that when the soul is grieved, many sufferers “seek out solitude” like Bellerophon (Tusc. Disp. 26.6870). So too, Chairestratos, a character in Menander’s Aspis (The Shield), is grieved over his greedy brother’s upcoming nuptials to a girl his stepson loves. He shuts himself up alone in his chambers and cannot control his sorrow. In this situation, Arnott translates μελαγχολῶ as “depression” (Aspis 306-308):

κακῶς ἔχω. μελαγχολῶ τοῖς πράγμασιν. μὰ τοὺς θεούς, οὐκ εἴμ᾿ ἐν ἐμαυτοῦ…

I’m ill. The affair’s produced a black Depression (μελαγχολῶ). No, by heaven I can’t control myself…

5§2 Aristotle describes the two aspects of μελαγχολία as “two sides of one … disease” and states that μελαγχολία “can manifest itself either as madness or as depression, depending on the temperature of the black bile (μέλαινα χολή)” (Kazantzidis 246). I would argue that the examples from Greek drama provided here support Aristotle’s description. In both Children of Heracles and Medea, the characters suffer from μελαγχολία due to their exiles; despite the similar circumstances, the characters’ symptoms differ. Medea’s μελαγχολία manifests itself as manic, which is evident in her violent response as a result of her condition, while Iolaus’ μελαγχολία manifests itself as depressive.

5§3 There is room for further exploration of this topic, as this only represents a small sample of examples from Greek texts. Roman texts provide a more confusing view, even if they were written in Greek. In Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights, he tells a story of approaching a man who seemed to be mad (μαίνεσθαι). Gellius proceeds to explain that the disorder is called μελαγχολία, a mental illness “of heroic affiliation” (Attic Nights 18.7.4-5). This seems to refer to μελαγχολία in general as opposed to a singular aspect of μελαγχολία. What does this mean as far as gender is concerned? If women were diagnosed with μελαγχολία, would they too be considered of a heroic disposition? Medea shows many qualities of the Greek hero in Euripides, though she is also described as unwomanly and barbaric.

5§4 Celsus’ On Medicine provides an interesting view on Aias’s madness (insaniae) and on the idea that a certain kind of insaniae predominantly affects heroes, or the “robust” (robusti) (Cels. 3.20). Aias and Orestes are used as examples of these robust people whose minds were misled by madness and “duped not by their mind, but by phantoms” making them “foolish in spirit” (Cels. 3.19). It is interesting that tristitia (depression) caused by black bile is listed before the section on the madness of heroes. Since this type of madness seems to line up with depressive μελαγχολία, as the heroes involved lacked control and agency over their actions, one would wonder whether Celsus as a Roman scholar would differentiate this insaniae from one like Medea’s where she seems in control of her brutal actions. While Celsus does not provide examples of real sufferers, there are many physical treatment options listed from bloodletting to abstinence to diet (On Medicine 3.17).

5§5 Cicero also uses heroes as examples of madness. When Cicero attempts to translate μελαγχολία into Latin (he translates it as furor), he complains that “what we [Romans] call madness they [Greeks] call ‘melancholia,’ as if it were true that the mind is moved by black bile alone and not often by a stronger anger, or fear, or sorrow, in the way in which we say that Athamas, Alcmaeon, Ajax, and Orestes are mad” (Harris 247). This use of ‘mad’ seems to be used as the generic term employed before the invention of the humors, not referring to manic μελαγχολία. Cicero, however, seems to cite Aias as a manic melancholic (Kazantzidis 263), which seems contradictory to the Greek conception of his character, at least as concluded in this paper’s study of him as a depressive melancholic. There is no singular ancient text, or modern English text I have come upon, that addresses both aspects of μελαγχολία and provides literary examples for the two manifestations. Creating a codified text that addresses this line of research would assist both classicists and medical professionals in understanding ancient Greek and Roman views on mental illness.


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Harris, William V. Mental Disorders in the Classical World. Vol. 38. Brill, 2013.

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Kazantzidis, George. “‘Quem nos furorem, melagxolian Illi Vocant’: Cicero on Melancholy.” In Mental Disorders in the Classical World, 245-64. Vol. 38. Brill, 2013.

King, J.E., ed. and trans. 1927. Cic. Tusc. Disp.

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Toohey, Peter. “Medea’s Lovesickness: Eros and Melancholia.” In Melancholy, Love, and Time, 59-103. University of Michigan Press, 2004.

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