Did premodern cultures have versions of veterans affaire/PTSD treatment for soldiers?



I know they didnt have the literal psychological tech we have but simple observation would have made them aware that people who saw combat would come back changed. Did any culture recognize this and do things about it? I heard one interpretation that the ancient Hebrew law made anyone who killed in battle wait outside the city for ten days, so stuff like that?

In: Biology

No, the first signs of recognizing and misdiagnosing ptsd was World War I where soldiers were diagnosed with shell shock. I only recommend looking that up if you’re fine with extremely disturbing imagery and video.

PTSD is significantly worse in the modern day than it was for pre-modern cultures for a few reasons.

First, men in pre-modern cultures are much more acclimated towards violence than men in modern cultures. It’s not remotely unusual for a man to reach military age in the modern U.S. never haven gotten into a physical fight. Going back more than a few decades and this would have been a rarity – much less going back to pre-industrial times. This familiarity with physical violence protects against PTSD.

Second, people in pre-modern cultures lived in far stronger communities than they we do today. Most people lived with the same group of people their entire lives. When they went to war, they went to war with that same group of people. When they came back from war, they were surrounded by the same people who had experienced the same things for the rest of their lives. Living in these sorts of communities protects against much of what we consider ‘mental health problems’ in the modern day.

Third, war was considerably less intense. In a modern war, you’re often continuously engaged for months or even years. Even behind the front lines, you potentially still at risk. On the front lines, you’re subject to the constant threat of death from enemies you often can’t even see. In contrast, pre-modern war involves relatively brief battles where you can see your enemy in front of you, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with all of your lifelong buddies and when the battle is over you can relax.

Many ancient cultures had “purification rites”, which homecoming soldiers could or sometimes even had to go through before re-entering their old, civilian lives.

For example in ancient Rome, homecoming soldiers were bathed by the Vestal Virgins (basically a mix between priestesses and therapists). The Vestal Virgins scrubbed the soldiers physically clean but they also listened to their tales, gave them a motherly bosom to dig their heads into while crying etc.

Similarly, many native American tribes had a sweat lodge rite. After a battle, soldiers would sit into one of those lodges, oftentimes with a shaman and a few other important individuals from the tribe. They would then sweat all the misery and pain out of themselves and the stories they told to other people would dissolve into the air with the rest of the hot steam/smoke. The lodge was also a clearly defined location, where you could “leave” your trauma instead of carrying it back to the village. The shaman would help veterans to “clean” themselves, either by purely psychological means (asking questions, listening), by spiritual means (chanting, praying to spirits for forgiveness) or even physical means (ingestion of substances).

In medieval Europe, every knight who returned from battle was required to do penance. That means: confess your sins, receive holy absolution and perform certain actions that demonstrate your remorse. Warriors had to do this even if they hadn’t killed anyone but if they had killed someone, their actions post-war were scrutinized especially carefully. So, confessing your sins or doing a little pilgrimage or helping other people wasn’t simply meant to get God back on your side. It also had the purpose of seeking atonement for your own peace of mind; to feel less guilty about the horrible things you have done because you can now do good things and show people that you’re not all bad. The act of confessing your sins also has a touch of Freudian psychotherapy: a good priest does not judge or scold you about the bad things you’ve done. He simply lets you talk, listens attentively and then tells you what you must do in order to be forgiven. Rites such as pilgrimages also had the advantage that they gave a veteran a lot of time to think and re-structure the mess in his mind/heart.

Herodotus talks about soldiers who went blind and lost the ability to speak after battles in the Persian Wars in the 5th century BCE. While they didn’t talk about it in modern terms, there are reports of what we would now call PTSD. I’m not sure about any society doing anything about it in any systematic way though.