10 Things People Thought Lived Inside Their Bodies

iStock.com/Paul Campbell
iStock.com/Paul Campbell

The human body is full of weird, gross and awe-inspiring stuff as we know it—but for people who lived when ideas were unbound by strict anatomical correctness, it was even more so. Here are 10 things people thought, and in some cases still think, were inhabiting their bodies.

1. THREE SOULS

The existence of a physical soul inside the body was widely accepted by Greek philosophers and physicians. Plato had posited in the Timaeus that there were three souls: the Immortal Soul in the head, and a Mortal Soul divided into two parts by the diaphragm. The upper Mortal Soul was the Irascible Soul which assisted reason against desire. Beneath the diaphragm was the Appetitive Soul, which just plain desired. The diaphragm was an essential barrier keeping this hungry proto-id from being a bad influence on the Immortal Soul.

Claudius Galenus (130-199 CE), doctor to the gladiators of Pergamon, had a great deal of practical experience in the treatment of injury. However, he only ever dissected animals (mainly monkeys), so as far as he knew, there was all kinds of space inside the human body for souls to inhabit. Following in Plato's footsteps, Galen defined the three anatomical souls thus: Rational, seated in the head; Spirited, seated in the heart; and Desiderative, seated in the liver. These spirits were composed of matter, corporeal even if ethereal.

2. PNEUMA

Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), the father of Western medicine and he of oath fame, and his successors, most notably Praxagoras (born ca. 340 BCE), believed that the arteries carried a vital force called pneuma, a sort of heated air that was the source of both life and spirit.

Cadaver dissection was taboo, so most of the ancient Greek doctors got their ideas about the soft tissues of bodies from observation of the living or the vivisection and dissection of animals. Because the arteries of dead animals are virtually empty, Praxagoras concluded that arteries and veins were separate circulatory systems, and that the former carried pneuma while the latter carried the blood. In other words, arteries delivered vital heat to the organs. When the pneuma reached the brain and heart, it generated thought and action; veins just delivered nourishment.

It took almost 2000 years for the existence of pneuma to be seriously challenged. Around 1508, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “All the veins and arteries arise from the heart. And the reason is that the largest veins and arteries are found at their conjunction with the heart, and the further they are removed from the heart, the finer they become, dividing into very small branches.” In 1628 William Harvey (1578-1657) demonstrated that arteries and veins were both part of the same circulatory system, disproving pneuma once and for all.

3. COMMON SENSE

Now it's a metaphor, but common sense started out as a physical organ. Aristotle believed there was a spot near the heart where all the data from the senses was interpreted and adjudicated. The sense organs perceived information about the person's environment. That information was carried, probably by the blood, to a single central faculty called the sensus communis. The sensus communis then processed the information and converted it into a reaction or understanding.

Galen agreed with the concept, but he thought the sensory information was transmitted by the pneuma, not the blood, through hollow sensory nerves to the brain, not to the heart. The brain would then pump the pneuma into motor nerves and from there into muscles where the information became movement. Since Galen was held to be an unimpeachable source on medical matters well into the Renaissance, people kept on looking for the sensus communis in the brain until anatomists in the 17th century studied enough actual human brains to conclude that there was no such thing as the common sense.

4. AND 5. DEMONS AND GHOSTS

The earliest surviving medical texts are Sumerian cuneiform tablets engraved around 2100 BCE. By then, Mesopotamian medical precepts that disease (as opposed to injury) was caused by an irate god or demon possession were already firmly established. There were two kinds of healers: the ashipu, or exorcist, and the asu, or physician/pharmacist. The ashipu diagnosed the patient by determining which god or demon was causing the illness, and performed the incantations necessary to drive out the possessing spirit. The asu treated wounds and prescribed herbal remedies. Sometimes they worked together.

Demonic or ghostly possession as a physical invasion of the body causing a panoply of symptoms from seizures to self-harm to glossolalia carried forward into Jewish and later Christian tradition. There are exorcisms in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Jewish writings from the Middle Ages and early modern era report demons or dybbuks (spirits of the dead) physically leaving the body of the possessed through bloody fingernails or toenails, or in worst case scenarios, from the throat, vagina, or rectum.

6. HOMUNCULUS

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, was the first person to examine seminal fluid under a microscope and discovered spermatozoa in 1677. He postulated that "a human being originates not from an egg but from an animalcule that is found in the male semen." Animalcules was the old-timey word for single-celled animals that people suddenly realized the world was crawling with once microscopes became popular.

Leeuwenhoek's student Nicolaas Hartsoeker, later inventor of the screw-barrel microscope, claimed to have made the discovery a few years earlier. There was a dispute between them over who got there first, but Leeuwenhoek was the boss, so he gets the credit. Hartsoeker didn't actually see any wee people curled up in sperm, but unlike Leeuwenhoek, he came to advocate the preformatist spermist position, i.e., that the miniature baby is already in the sperm before it gets anywhere near a uterus and that the woman only contributes the growing environment. He called it the "homunculus," from an alchemical term for a tiny full-grown person created by arcane means.

7. BOSOM SERPENT

The term bosom serpent was made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the title of an 1843 short story about a man convinced that there's a snake living inside his chest. The idea that a snake, lizard, or assorted amphibians could be squirming around inside a person's body far predates Hawthorne, however, in folklore from all over the world.

In 1910, folklorist Thomas Johnson Westropp recorded a story from Clonlara, County Clare, Ireland, of a "worm with legs" running down a sleeping man's throat. Over time his appetite increased to alarming levels until he was compelled to consult a "wise person." The wise man told him to drink nothing and eat only bacon for two days. Then he was taken near a stream and his mouth pried open. When a rasher of crispy bacon was held to his mouth, the worm with legs ran out of his mouth and jumped on the bacon. The wise person threw the lizard bacon into the water and the patient was cured.

A certain Dr. Gardner, "Inventor of the Universal Medicines," announced his arrival in the Leeds Intelligencer of July 20, 1801, with guarantees that his nostrums could cure any number of ailments, including parasitic worms. Nothing remarkable there, but he also promised to show visitors more unusual beasts that he removed from afflicted patients: "One like a Lizard, the other has a Mouth like a Place, a Horn like a Snail, Two Ears like a Mouse, and its Body covered with Hair, was destroying the Man's Liver, a Portion of which it has brought off with it."

8. COMBINATION GUT CRITTERS AND DEMON POSSESSION

Theodorus Döderlein was 12 years old when he was stricken with terrible stomach cramps. The boy—who was the son of a pastor in Berolzheim, Germany—soon began to vomit streams of critters. He started off with insects and other invertebrates, and would go on to upchuck 21 newts, four frogs, and several toads. His doctor doubted it was really possible for so many animals to live comfortably inside the human stomach, but the local pastors were convinced it was real and caused by demonic possession. They didn't change their minds even when a doctor dissected one of the frogs and found partially digested insects in its stomach, suggesting the poor creature had eaten a fresh meal out of doors in the recent past.

The exorcists took over. There was report of a snake's head coming out of the boy's mouth during the ritual only to rush back down to the comfort of his gut when they tried to pull it out. With Theodorus still mired in invasive reptiles, amphibians, and insects, the exorcists decided to employ a surefire remedy for animals in the stomach: Horse urine. And lots of it. Accompanied by prayers and hymns, they poured multiple bottles of horse piss down naughty Theo's gullet. It worked like a charm. Theodorus never vomited up a single animal ever again.

9. BULUK'SIT ("BULGING EYE WORM")

The Tzeltal people in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, have an ancient medical tradition that goes back to the Maya. Body invaders play a significant role in this belief system. The Buluk'sit, or bulging eye worm, is one of the most insidious. It's a caterpillar about 3 inches long with horns and a large mouth for sucking like a leech or lamprey. It enters a woman's body through the vagina and takes up residence in the uterus. Every midnight it suckles from the womb, drawing nourishment from its unwitting "mother" as if it were a human fetus. This condemns the woman to infertility because all of the life force that would otherwise go to her possible baby is sucked away by the horned caterpillar. But some Tzeltal say that the caterpillar eats semen, and prevents pregnancy that way.

10. POKOK ("FROG")

In the same family of Tzeltal is the pokok syndrome, in which a frog is implanted by sorcery into the uterus of a woman where it grows as if it were a genuine pregnancy, only to end in the miscarriage of a malformed frog-like fetus.

BONUS: OK, THIS ONE MIGHT HAVE BEEN FOR REAL, THOUGH

Russian agriculturist and prolific memoirist Andrey Bolotov (1738-1833) told how a Russian peasant woman came to him with a bloated stomach. She claimed a koldun, or male sorcerer, had put a toad in her stomach. Bolotov wrote off her story as superstition and gave her an emetic to help her bring up whatever was causing her bloat. She vomited a toad. A live toad. Astounded, Bolotov examined the animal and found it was blind with atrophied rear legs as if it had lived in a dark, confined space for a long time.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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