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Humours and Airs

by Leslie E. Jones

You might have noticed that there are a number of tunes with “humour” in the title.  The word “humour” or “humor”  in the context of tune names does not refer to jocularity, but to the ancient medical idea of the four humours – and when I say ancient, I mean the ancient Greece of Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and developed by Galen (129 – c. 200 CE).  Galen held that there are four humours in the human body (Blood, Yellow Bile, Black Bile, and Phlegm) corresponding to Aristotle’s four elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air) — these four elements were asserted to be the fundamental constituents of everything that exists.  Aristotle (along with Plato and Pythagoras) asserted that music had a direct effect on human emotions, actually creating those emotions within the soul. A humor, for Galen, is an essence.  Each of the four (respectively: Yellow Bile, Phlegm, Black Bile, Blood) is needed to be in balance for a person to be in good health. The blood was associated with artisanship, and responsible for both ones level of hopefulness and one’s level of erotic passion – the phrases “hot blooded,” “cold hearted,” “cool headed,” and “warm hearted” are all vestiges of this ancient view of how the body works. During the Middle Ages this idea of humours or airs was also applied to places thought to have a certain quality affecting health.  Some geographical places have a restorative effect on health, others a degenerative one (smell was one indicator).  Later, around the seventeenth century, the quality or “air” of a place began to sometimes be called its “humour,” and some doctors would prescribe spending time there as part of a cure for certain ailments – this is still practiced in Italy, for example. Over time people began to also use the term metaphorically, and then in the States we dropped the second “u” because George III tried to keep the colonies.  This view of how the human body worked was also responsible for the death of the first president of the United States.  Accordingly, “the humors of . . .” harkens back to a world-view at odds with modern science and modern medicine.

by Leslie E. Jones (c) 2013

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