Phobias go back a long way. They are fears that can be very debilitating, and although sufferers know that the fear is irrational and excessive, the phobia can be very difficult to overcome. Sometimes phobias seem to have been constant over time. An example would be gephyrophobia, ‘fear of bridges’; yes, the Greeks had a word for it, and this label simply means, er, ‘fear of bridges’! This is found today and featured in a BBC TV series of the 1990s, GBH, where the character played by Michael Palin was a sufferer.
But the condition also features in the ancient Greek collection of case histories, Epidemics, traditionally associated with the name of Hippocrates and dating back to the fourth century BC. The sufferer was called Democles and he had panic symptoms so bad that, even if the bridge was not very high – just over a ditch – he had to get off and walk through the ditch instead.
When Democles turned up to see the physician who recorded his story, he came with a friend, Nicanor. Nicanor had a rather less common phobia – fear of flute girls. When he was at a symposium – an all-male Greek drinking party for around 14-30 men – and he heard the flute girl start to play, he became ill. No explanation is given in the original text for this, but perhaps we can make some guesses.
Flute girls were part of the entertainment at these parties. The partygoers were expected to drink, to discuss the meaning of life, to make up poems and songs, and also to have sex with the entertainers. There was plenty of opportunity to lose face in front of your friends and peers. The flute girl started to play when the drinking began. Her instrument, the aulos, was more like a bassoon in terms of how it is played. The Greeks associated it with madness, and loss of self-control.
Perhaps Nicanor had had a bad experience with a flute girl, and the music brought it all back. Perhaps the whole competitive male context of the symposium was just too much for him. Or perhaps he expected the music to send him mad – and it did.
On the symposium, see Oswyn Murray (ed.), Sympotica. A symposium on the symposion (Oxford, 1990)
If you want to hear an aulos (be careful!) you can hear its sound on http://www.oeaw.ac.at/kal/agm/
Image: wikimedia commons: attributed to the Brygos Painter