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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [2]


File:Melencolia I.jpg
Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer.

Melancholia (Greek μελανχολία), in contemporary usage, is a mood disorder of non-specific depression, characterized by low levels of enthusiasm and low levels of eagerness for activity. In a modern context, "melancholy" applies only to the mental or emotional symptoms of depression or despondency; historically, "melancholia" could be physical as well as mental, and melancholic conditions were classified as such by their common cause rather than by their properties. Similarly, melancholia in ancient usage also encompassed mental disorders which would later be differentiated as schizophrenias or bipolar disorders.


The name "melancholia" comes from the old medical theory of the four humours: disease being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; hence the name, which means 'black bile' (Ancient Greek μελας, melas, "black", + χολη, kholé, "bile"); a person whose constitution tended to have a preponderance of black bile had a melancholic disposition. See also: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric

Melancholia was described as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms as early as the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Hippocrates, in his Aphorisms, characterized all "fears and despondencies, if they last a long time" as being symptomatic of melancholia.[1]

The most extended treatment of melancholia comes from Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy treats the subject from both a literary and a medical perspective.

Burton wrote in the 16th century that music and dance were critical in treating mental illness, especially melancholia.[2][3][4] In November 2006, Dr. Michael J. Crawford [5] and his colleagues again found that music therapy helped the outcomes of Schizophrenic patients. [6]

A famous allegorical engraving by Albrecht Dürer is entitled Melencolia I. This engraving portrays melancholia as the state of waiting for inspiration to strike, and not necessarily as a depressive affliction. Amongst other allegorical symbols, the picture includes a magic square, and a truncated rhombohedron [3]. The image in turn inspired a passage in The City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson (B.V.), and, a few years later, a sonnet by Edward Dowden.

The cult of melancholia

During the early 17th century, a curious cultural and literary cult of melancholia arose in England. It was believed that religious uncertainties caused by the English Reformation and a greater attention being paid to issues of sin, damnation, and salvation, led to this effect.

In music, the post-Elizabethan cult of melancholia is associated with John Dowland, whose motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens. ("Always Dowland, always mourning.") The melancholy man, known to contemporaries as a "malcontent," is epitomized by Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, the "Melancholy Dane." Another literary expression of this cultural mood comes from the death-obsessed later works of John Donne. Other major melancholic authors include Sir Thomas Browne, and Jeremy Taylor, whose Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and Holy Living and Holy Dying, respectively, contain extensive meditations on death.

A similar phenomenon, though not under the same name, occurred during Romanticism, with such works as The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe.

In the 20th century, much of the counterculture of modernism was fueled by comparable alienation and a sense of purposelessness called "anomie."

Melancholy in Arab culture

The Arabic word found as ḥuzn and ḥazan in the Qur'an and hüzün in modern Turkish refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss, death of relatives in the case of the Qur'an. Two schools further interpreted this feeling. The first sees it as a sign that one is too attached to the material world, while Sufism took it to represent a feeling of personal insuffiency, that one was not getting close enough to God and did not or could not do enough for God in this world.[7] The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in [7] further elaborates on the added meaning hüzün has acquired in modern Turkish. It has come to denote a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to melancholia. According to Pamuk it was a defining character of cultural works from Istanbul after the fall of the Ottoman empire. One may see similarities with how melancholic romantic paintings in the west sometimes used ruins from the age of the roman empire as a backdrop.

As a parallel with physicians of classical Greece, ancient Arabic physicians also categorized ḥuzn as a disease. Al-Kindi (c. 801–873 CE) links it with disease-like mental states like anger, passion, hatred and depression, while Avicenna (980–1037 CE) diagnosed ḥuzn in a lovesick man if his pulse increased drastically when the name of the girl he loved was spoken. [8] Avicenna discuss, in remarkable similarity with Robert Burton, causes like fear of death, intrigues, love, and food and treatments combining medicine and philosophy. Including rational thought, morale, discipline, fasting and coming to terms with the catastrophe.

The various uses of ḥuzn and hüzün thus describe melancholy from a certain vantage point, show similarities with Female hysteria in the case of Avicenna's patient and in a religious context it is not unlike sloth, which by Dante was defined as "failure to love God with all one's heart, all one's mind and all one's soul". Thomas Aquinas described sloth as "an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing". [9]


  1. Hippocrates, Aphorisms, Section 6.23
  2. cf. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, subsection 3, on and after line 3480, "Music a Remedy":

    But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise [3481]of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, it is a sovereign remedy against [3482] despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself. Canus, a Rhodian fiddler, in [3483]Philostratus, when Apollonius was inquisitive to know what he could do with his pipe, told him, "That he would make a melancholy man merry, and him that was merry much merrier than before, a lover more enamoured, a religious man more devout." Ismenias the Theban, [3484]Chiron the centaur, is said to have cured this and many other diseases by music alone: as now they do those, saith [3485]Bodine, that are

    troubled with St. Vitus's Bedlam dance. [1]

  3. "Humanities are the Hormones: A Tarantella Comes to Newfoundland. What should we do about it?" by Dr. John Crellin, MUNMED, newsletter of the Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1996.
  4. Aung, Steven K.H., Lee, Mathew H.M. (2004). "Music, Sounds, Medicine, and Meditation: An Integrative Approach to the Healing Arts". Alternative & Complementary Therapies. 10 (5): 266–270. doi:10.1089/act.2004.10.266.
  5. Dr. Michael J. Crawford page at Imperial College London, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Psychological Medicine.
  6. Crawford, Mike J. (2006). "Music therapy for in-patients with schizophrenia: Exploratory randomised controlled trial". The British Journal of Psychiatry (2006). 189: 405–409. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.105.015073. PMID 17077429. Unknown parameter |quotes= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  7. 7.0 7.1 'Istanbul', chapter 10, (2003) Orhan Pamuk
  8. Avicenna, Fi'l-Ḥuzn, (About Ḥuzn)
  9. "Summa Theologica", Thomas Aquinas

See also

External links

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