-"The soul is an octopus"- ANCIENT IDEAS Of life and the body

Making an exhibition in a modern Museum of history of medicine


The Berlin Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité is a great Museum located on the campus of one of the biggest university hospitals in Europe. It holds a selection of over 750 items illustrating the development of Western medical thought and practice in the modern era, stretching over a period of 400 years. The collection ranges from specimens to instruments, models, and more complex installations.

Besides the permanent collection, the museum regularily hosts special themed interventions. From May 11 to September 11. 2016 a new exhibition is open to the public, entitled THE SOUL IS AN OCTOPUS’.

The exhibition is devoted to the ideas about body, soul and the interaction bewteen the two elaborated by ancient Greek and Roman doctors and thinkers. The image of the octopus, with its tentacles stretching out from a head-like body was used by the Stoic philosophers to describe precisely the working of mental functions in humans: the seven ‘mental’ faculties emanate from the 'ruling part of the soul' (which they called the hegemonikon). These include the senses, as well as biological processes such as reproduction and growth.

The visitor of the museum is taken to a trip back in time, to explore the beginnings of Western scientific thinking about human embodied life, and invited to place them in dialogue with modern paradigms and discoveries. What are the differences between modern, or/and non-Western understandings of ‘mind’, ‘mental’, ‘soul’ and what Graeco-Roman thinkers chose to discuss?

The exhibition is the product of over a year of collaboration: a group of researchers in ancient medicine and philosophy, of which I am also part (based at the Humboldt University in Berlin and mostly belonging to the Topoi Excellenz Cluster), under the guidance of the director of the Museum (and Professor of the History of Medicine at the Charité, Berlin) Thomas Schnalke, of Philip van der Eijk (Alexander von Humboldt Professor of History of Science at the Humboldt University in Berlin) and Uta Kornmeier, the curator of the exhibition. We met regularly to discuss ideas, give structure to the different topics and figure out the visual arrangements. Everyone choose a subject that was particularily close to his or her research specialism: localisation of the soul, bodily movement, reproduction, and so on. We then began to put together each area. The last, but fundamental step was to work closely with our designer, Christoph Geiger, whose job was to turn the ancient concepts we study, and our historical questions into images that visitors would grasp immediately - and enjoy as well.

Several objects (or reproductions) were gathered. Notably, ancient surgical instruments: for example, a trepanation drill from the Roman times (ca. 100 CE), whose function was to drill a hole into the human scalp in order to observe, and bring relief to intracranial pathologies, typically associated with mental impairment:

Or a vaginal speculum (first-second century CE) from Asia Minor, relevant to the reproductive function of the soul:

It was important that figurative art should also be represented, if to a limited extent, in order to have a feel of how ancient artists, and not only physicians (that is, professionals with a technical competence and an understanding not likely to be shared by the majority of people) represented mental life. Pieces of original Greek pottery are positioned to illustrate vivid examples of 'psychic' activity (in the extended sense); even a marble statue fragment representing the leg of a mature man (prob. second century BCE), which shows an impressive study of muscle and articulation as instruments of voluntary movement: 

The displays are accompanied by panels on which we introduced the ancient discussions relative to each aspect of the psychic sphere. Most of all, we were so lucky that the images produced by our ‘visual translator’, Christoph Geiger, came out truly wonderful and full of life.

One cannot summarise such an exhibition in a paragraph or two – and there would be no point. But I can give a taste of some of the key themes that contemporary visitors might find more striking, and of the images chosen to express them.

Indeed, the soul seemed a much more inclusive concept for ancient physicians and scientist than we understand it now. As the variety of displayed materials I have mentioned gives away, the ancient soul in medicine and science was not primarily a seat of identity or the place where spiritual life unfolds. Rather, it was the place, or principle for nutrition and growth….:

Nutrition and digestion

…  the source and 'control centre' of bodily movement:

…the principle active behind reproduction:

 …governing the senses and the information they deliver:

…. shaping and administering the whole of animal life, in short. The soul was, of course, also the seat of rational and emotional activities, that can be accessed, and expressed through talk and reasoning, and influenced by cognitive coaching. This was however not the only, nor even the defining feature of the psyche.

As it can be imagined, there was no consensus on what, and where in the human body the soul should be. Various localisations and descriptions of ‘embodied mental life’ were offered by ancient thinkers, focussing most notably around the heart, the brain, and the blood, but also involving the gastric area, or organs such as the liver. These models were at times competing one against the other, but often coexisting through complex associations:

Although ideas about the nature of the soul were various and at times widely different in ancient thought, on one aspect all medical doctrines seemed to agree. All of them were materialistic, in the sense that they strived to frame the soul, and psychic life in biological terms, as qualities or experiences of the body; or as bodily substances. A great example is offered by the author of the Hippocratic On the Diet (Regimen), for whom the soul (just as the body) is made of water and fire. Depending on which one of the two components prevails in the soul of a person, his or her mental abilities, sensorial sharpness and even character differ.

He described six variations, six ‘souls':


In such materialistic outlook, it is not surprising that several diseases could be seen as mental, but at the same time be firmly rooted in different parts of the body. We placed several labels around the exhibition to highlight the association between ailing bodily parts, or biological functions and specific ancient 'mental' diseases at various stages of ancient medical history: Phrenitis and the brain or meninges, Epilepsy and the brain, Satyriasis and the genitals, Melancholy and blood, and so on.

In the course of the preparation we often had to stop and ask ourselves what expectations a visitor to a museum like this would have; what could raise interest and communicate something about the past; what could best advocate the relevance of these histories to modern scientific ideas - and what would be off-putting, unfamiliar or simply boring. This was, at least for me, the most difficult part. One of the most evident points of comparison, for example, as well as divergence between ancient and modern medicine must be the role played by scrupulous anatomical knowledge: and so, at the front of the exhibition a parallel between modern techniques of anatomical research and ancient practices of dissection and vivisection is offered. The purpose is to invite the visitor to bridge the permanent collection - with its modern instruments and techniques  - and our account of ancient science and its itinerary of inquiry into the alive body of animals:

In short, to anyone with an interest in the history of mind and mental life, as well as ancient science: do find a moment to come and visit the museum - Berlin is great in the later spring and summer! And I'm happy to offer a personalised tour.

Moreover, there is a series of lectures going on until July 12 on the topic of the 'ancient representations of the living body'. A Catalogue is also available (U. Kornmeyer, ed., The soul is an octopus. Ancient ideas of life and the body. Berlin 2016).


Designs by Christoph Geiger, http://www.christophgeiger.com

Photos by N. Dietzemann, U. Kornmeier

Exhibition curator: Uta Kornmeier

Project leaders: Thomas Schnalke, Philip van der Eijk

Co-ordinator: Ruti Ungar

Academic team: Sean Coughlin, Philip van der Eijk, Ricardo Julião, Giouli Korobili, Orly Lewis, Chiara Thumiger