Laudator Temporis Acti joins Rogue Classicism in wondering “whether there is any truth to the claim that the ancient Romans treated brain disorders or headaches with electric eels”. LTA also asks whether the electric ray or electric catfish (pictured below) might be more likely, since electric eels are found only in the Western Hemisphere, while RC is very doubtful that any ancient source can be found.
In fact, there is one. In his Compositiones, Scribonius Largus describes the use of the torpedo to treat headaches:
Capitis dolorem quamvis veterem et intolerabilem protinus tollit et in perpetuum remediat torpedo nigra viva inposita eo loco, qui in dolore est, donec desinat dolor et obstupescat ea pars. Quod cum primum senserit, removeatur remedium, ne sensus auferatur eius partis. Plures autem parandae sunt eius generis torpedines, quia nonnumquam vix ad duas tresve respondet curatio, id est torpor, quod signum est remediationis.
A rough translation:
To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb. When it first has felt it [= numbness?], let the cure be removed, so that that part’s feeling may not be destroyed. Several torpedos of this kind should be prepared, since sometimes the treatment, i.e. the numbness which is the sign of healing, hardly responds to two or three.
The text is quoted from G. Helmreich’s 1887 Teubner edition of Scribonius, via David Camden’s Forum Romanum / Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum site. This is chapter 11. Chapter 162, also mentioned in the OLD s.v. torpedo, is not on-line, though indexed. A headache that can be localized to one particular part of the head must be a migraine. Then again, I wonder if severe depression would count as a dolor of the head.
Whether Scribonius’ torpedo is an electric ray or an electric catfish is unclear. Of the latter, D’Arcy Thompson writes (Glossary of Greek Fishes, Oxford, 1947, 172):
The medical value of its shock is recognized by native tribes in Africa, and was known to the Arabian physicians in early times. As the marine Torpedo would be awkward to manage and difficult to keep alive, one may imagine that Pliny was referring, in part at least, to the Egyptian fish.
So far as I can see, Thompson does not refer to Scribonius, and does not quote any passage of Pliny clearly referring to shock treatments with live fish, though he does allege that the liver was an antaphrodisiac, among other improbabilities. Perhaps something went wrong with his notes, and he meant to write “Scribonius” for “Pliny” in the passage quoted.
The catfish picture is borrowed from the Forth Worth Zoo site, copied here to avoid bandwidth theft and link rot. The very human fat pink lips are a disturbingly creepy touch, worthy of a horror movie. To add to the horror, Thompson reports that they grow up to three feet long.