Ancient Celtic Medicine and Celtic Physicians — Part I, Hospitals

Ancient Celtic Medicine and Celtic Physicians — Part I, Hospitals

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher examines ancient Celtic medicine and Celtic physicians, Part I, looking at the establishment of the first European hospitals.

Although we visited this subject in a previous post series, there’s plenty we didn’t cover. As in so many areas compared with the rest of Europe, in medicine and treatment of the sick, the Irish Celts were advanced. Would it surprise you to know they established the first European hospitals?

The Druids Were the Healers

We have mentioned before that the druids, besides their role as keepers of the law, judgment, and mediators to the spirit world, also kept the knowledge of healing. If the druids’ spiritual guidance led the people astray, their role as physicians more often helped than hurt their patients.

Ancient European Health Care—Kill the Patient!

Before Christianity, the Greeks and Romans did little for the ill and ailing. Too often, the treatment of the sick, those in failing health, and the aged was to put them to death.  In general throughout ancient Europe, “health care” as we know it did not exist.

Around AD 250, a plague hit Alexandria, Egypt. Dionysius, a third century Christian bishop, described how people treated their fellows in that affair. The pagans, he said, “thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died.”

We also hear this from Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher, who said, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.”

Methods of treatment also often involved the spirit world. If you became ill, surely you must have angered the gods or been subject to some supernatural judgment or been under the curse of some spirit. Thus, treatment often centered around placating the offended supernatural power that caused the illness. The Irish druids often consulted astrology to help in diagnoses. So in this—blaming some spirit as the cause of disease—we cannot excuse the druids.

The First European Hospital—In Ireland

Given this attitude toward the sick, it’s surprising to find that the first hospital in Europe was actually established by Macha Mong Ruadh, the legendary Irish queen who died in 377 BC. She built the Bróin Bherg, the  House of Sorrows, at none other than Emain Macha, near modern-day Armagh. (For anyone interested in ancient, Irish history, Navan Fort, near Armagh, is well worth the visit.) Emain Macha, of course, was the legendary seat of the kings of Ulster. The hospital reputedly survived until AD 22 when it was destroyed.

And that wasn’t the only early Irish hospital. The Brehon Laws were a set of civil laws collected from the brehons or judges of early Ireland. These laws tell us that hospitals were to have been established in all regions of Ireland, implying the existence of a long tradition of treating the ill. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of Europe.

Christianity Changed Attitudes Toward the Sick

It wasn’t until Christianity came along that attitudes toward the sick changed permanently in Europe. In AD 399, Christians built the first hospital for the sick in ex-Irish-Europe near Rome. Dionysius goes on to tell us how Christians ignored personal danger and treated the sick during the Alexandrian plague:

“Very many of our brethren, while in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness, did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously and treated them for their healing in Christ, and died from time to time most joyfully … drawing upon themselves their neighbors’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.”

Why did Christians do this? Because the Bible teaches that every person is made in God’s image and that everyone has value as an immortal being who will live on into eternity. And because Christ taught that Christians are to love all men, even those who aren’t Christians, loving one’s neighbors as oneself.

The Irish Deserve Praise

It is to their credit that the early Irish—and yes, even the druids—attempted to alleviate the distress of their fellowmen by establishing hospitals in each region of Ireland. Why did the Irish, from all the peoples of ancient Europe, display such a caring attitude before they accepted Christianity? Was it the druids’ belief in an afterlife, however misplaced those beliefs were? Was it because the Irish upheld honor, generosity, and charity as values? We can only guess.


Sources for this post: The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis, and How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin J. Schmidt.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland in AD 432. To learn more about his book, click on the link.

The Meaning of Life: We Are Here to Love & Worship God

In our investigation of the meaning of life, we ask: Why are we here?

Last week we said one reason is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. As Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37: We are to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” But how do we do that?

First, is that we are to put God, not others, first. Some people turn this around and put others first. But that’s not what Jesus said, is it? Doing good works, helping others, feeding the hungry, helping the poor and the sick—these are in the second part of Jesus’s command. The first part is to love God, and without that, the second is of no use. It’s a matter of priorities.

We love God by putting him first, by not creating idols that supersede or overshadow God’s place in our lives. The first two commandments Moses received on Mt. Sinai deal with those things. God is to be the first and only God in our lives. The third commandment, “Don’t misuse God’s name,” is one that too many people ignore. There are even websites whose very name takes the Lord’s name in vain. We are to keep his name holy because God is holy. So putting God above all other things—money, career, sex, hobbies, friends—that’s of utmost importance.

worship-God2Next we are to worship God on a regular basis. We can only do this in a community of Christians. In Western culture this is usually, but not necessarily, on Sunday mornings.

Note that we come to faith individually, but it cannot end there. We must worship God with others. This means gathering with other Christians in both large and small groups. In the large group gathering we can experience a tiny slice of what it will be like in heaven, singing and praising God en masse. It also provides a venue for hearing teaching and preaching. In the small group gathering, we can share meals together, discuss, and ask questions, do in-depth Bible studies, make friends, and live life together. That’s what we try to do in the community group that meets at our home each week. And it’s a necessary part of Christian life.

So we worship God in both large and small gatherings. We sing praises to him.

What else do we do? We obey him. 1 John 2:3–6 (NLT): “3 And we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments. 4 If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. 5 But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. 6 Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.”

Also part of obeying God is serving Him. Doing good works. Helping others. Fulfilling the second great commandment to love others. James 2:17 (NLT): “17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

Another part of loving God is knowing Him. bible-lightSo we study and learn and pray to Him on a daily basis. Prayer is communication with God. Prayer involves praising Him, bringing petitions to Him, and asking for His guidance.

Worship. Praise. Christian community. Service. Obedience. Loving others through good deeds. Seeking him through knowledge and prayer. I’m sure there are ways I’ve missed. But that’s how we love God. That’s why we are here.

Next time we’ll look at the second part of why we are here.

My Response to God

What have I don’t since my baptism?

I began my Christian life in 2008 by creating a 20-week course on apologetics and teaching it twice. Apologetics, if you don’t know, shows the truth of Bible through science, logic, philosophy, and evidence.

Then in 2009, after 28 years working as a computer programmer for IBM, I got retired.

That same month, Pastor Kevin Barnhart at Calvary Evangelical Free Church convinced me I should join the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development out of Ames, Iowa. This was church-based training, led by Pastor Kevin. I joined the class and almost immediately was gripped by a message from the book of Acts about the importance of church planting and spreading the gospel.

I also read John Piper’s book, Don’t Waste Your Life and one of its images greatly impressed me. In the book, Piper describes a couple who retired early, bought a thirty-foot yacht and spent their waning days playing softball and collecting seashells. We’re invited to imagine these two standing before Jesus on the day of judgment. Jesus asks them what they’ve done with their lives. They hold out their hands and say, “Look, Lord, see our shells.”

By contrast, Matthew 16:25-26 tells us this: “…whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life?”

So here was another choice: I could stand at the end of my days before my Lord, having lived a self-centered existence. I could live without spiritual purpose and collect seashells. Or I could go in a different direction. Thus, I began to focus my life on working for God’s kingdom with all my heart and soul.

Since then I’ve led numerous small group Bible studies. Some of them I created myself. For many years I was in charge of missions mobilization on Calvary’s missions team. I was a core leader of the former Saturday night service at Calvary that was the forerunner of this church. Through the Antioch School, under Pastor Kevin, I also finished my Masters of Ministry. Once a month I preach a message and lead a service at Homestead Senior Living Center.

And then I went back to a passion I’d almost given up—writing.

TalesFromCalvaryCoverOver a period of thirty years, before I was a Christian, I wrote two dozen short stories and two novels of fantasy and dark fantasy—none of them published. Then my inspiration dried up and I stopped writing. But my new faith inspired me and I began writing again in earnest. I wrote short stories from a Christian perspective. And I conceived of a book of short stories, testimonies, non-fiction, and poetry solicited from Calvary’s congregation. Vicki Tiede and Stanley Steely joined the project as coeditors.  You can still find Tales From Calvary on Amazon. It includes four of my short stories.

Then I began writing the novel of historical fiction that ended up being The Bonfires Of Beltane. I’ve finished the first draft of a sequel, The Broken Amulet, that follows Taran’s son, Tynan.

But beyond all this, the Holy Spirit has impressed upon me a work more important than any other—a work coming directly from the book of Acts. That is helping to plant The Gathering Church. In October 2013, Calvary Church commissioned us and sent us out. Since then we’ve met each week in the Holiday Inn Ballroom in downtown Rochester.

It’s now a year later and we are growing. Forty to fifty people attend each week. I preach there once a month. I’m its Treasurer and an Elder. I assist our lead pastor, Willie Grimm. And by God’s grace, we are bringing the good news of Christ to the unreached, unchurched people of Rochester.

Now please understand that all these acts, these works, are my response of obedience to the salvation Christ gave me. They are my way of using the skills and gifts I was given to obey Christ’s command to spread God’s kingdom across the earth. It’s also my way of thanking Jesus for this gift of eternal life.

I fear it’s a pitiful response. For how can one’s finite works ever adequately give thanks for an infinite gift?

And that’s my life so far, at least what’s worth reporting.