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.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

10 Fascinating Facts About W.E.B. Du Bois

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the Civil War and lived to see the incipient days of the Civil Rights movement. A thinker, scientist, and activist, Du Bois was an integral part of moving from one era to the next, not only by contributing a remarkable amount to the public discourse on racial inequity but also by putting his beliefs into practice as an organizer. His legacy is cemented by his social scientific efforts and the groups he founded to fight for social justice. Here are 10 facts about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois attended the historically black college Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 before seeking a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. In 1892, he earned a John F. Slater Fund grant to study at the University of Berlin, but he wasn't tired of academia yet. He returned to the United States and, in 1895, became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard with his dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638-1871." During his undergrad years at Harvard, Du Bois was taught by the preeminent American philosopher and pioneer in psychology William James, who had an effect on Du Bois’s thinking and writing.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted the first major case study of a black community in the United States.

Published in 1899, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study” was the result of Du Bois’s survey of the city’s black population from 1896 to 1897. The study, which involved 5000 personal interviews, sought to identify the social problems unique to the black population. Not only was it the first case study of any black community, it was also an early effort of sociological research as a data-driven, statistically based social science. Du Bois’s conclusion was that the root of the multivariate problems lay in how black Americans were perceived, noting that the problems would ease if whites would see their black neighbors as peers instead of inferior: “Again, the white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.” He also noted the historical causes of the so-called “Negro Problem,” including the legacy of systemic slavery and biased housing policies that left black members of society paying more rent for worse accommodations.

3. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discussed his concept of “double consciousness,” an existential state experienced by persecuted groups in oppressive societies, marked by sensing your identity is divided. Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Du Bois's former professor, James, praised The Souls of Black Folk upon its release. He also reportedly sent a copy of Du Bois’s landmark work to his brother, the iconic American novelist Henry James.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement and opposed Booker T. Washington.

During the Reconstruction Era in the South, African Americans experienced a greater amount of social freedom and political participation, but nearing the turn of the century, southern states began restricting voting rights and segregating facilities. Eventually, in response, Booker T. Washington helped lay out the Atlanta Compromise—a principle that black Americans should avoid protesting for civic rights so long as they had access to criminal justice and jobs. In response to Washington’s tactic of capitulation, Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group to found the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated for equal treatment, equal economic opportunities, equal educational opportunities, and “manhood suffrage.”

5. W.E.B. Du Bois's views gained larger support after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

Between September 22 and 24, 1906, in response to unsupported reports about black men raping four white women, more than 10,000 whites stormed through Atlanta, beating every black person they could find. The riots resulted in a number of deaths (the exact number could be as low as 10 or as high as 100) and, as an outright betrayal of justice, spat in the face of Washington’s brand of going along to get along.

After the riots, Du Bois wrote the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” and bought a shotgun in response. Du Bois and others felt that President Theodore Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, should have sent in troops to prevent more violence. Coupled with an incident involving soldiers in Brownsville, Texas that same year, in 1908 Du Bois proclaimed that if Taft received the Republican nomination blacks should drop their support for the Republicans (a party they’d been faithful to since Abraham Lincoln), proclaiming an “avowed enemy [is] better than false friends.”

6. W.E.B. Du Bois co-founded the NAACP.

Four years after the Niagara meeting, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside figures such as journalist Mary White Ovington and lawyer Moorfield Storey. It was created as a biracial organization that would protest and lobby for equality (much like its forerunner, the Niagara Movement). Its earliest battles included fighting Jim Crow laws in the South (which segregated public facilities), opposing President Woodrow Wilson's segregation in federal workplaces, and lobbying for the right of African Americans to serve as military officers in WWI. Five years after its founding, it had 6000 members in 50 branches. From 1910 to 1934, Du Bois acted as the director of publicity and research, was on the board of directors, and edited its monthly magazine, The Crisis, which covered arts and politics.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois was a Civil Rights activist on a global scale.

Du Bois’s interest in equality extended beyond his own national borders. He helped organize multiple Pan-African Conferences after attending his first in 1900 in London. There, he penned the “Address to the Nations of the World,” which urged the United States and European nations to fight systemic racism and to end colonialism. He was also a member of the three-person delegation from the NAACP to the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. As a writer and activist, he fought for freedom and equality for the whole of the African diaspora and for Africans themselves.

8. W.E.B. DU BOIS was a victim of McCarthyism.

The FBI started a file on Du Bois—an avowed Socialist—in 1942. In the 1950s—when McCarthyism was at its peak—Du Bois, who served as chairman of the anti-nuke Peace Information Center, and four others were charged with failing to register the organization with the government. If they had been convicted, they could have faced five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

The jury didn’t get to render a verdict, however, because the judge threw the case out after defense attorney Vito Marcantonio informed him that Albert Einstein would testify as a character witness for Du Bois. (The two were pen pals, and Einstein even wrote an essay for The Crisis.)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana but never renounced his United States Citizenship.

The fallout from the McCarthy-era government repression was profound. Several of Du Bois’s colleagues kept their distance, including the NAACP, which never rose publicly to his defense. Plus, despite the lack of a conviction, the government still revoked Du Bois’s passport for eight years. After getting it back, Du Bois traveled to Ghana in 1961 (at the age of 93) to work on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora. When the United States refused to renew his passport in 1963, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in symbolic protest. He’s sometimes erroneously included in lists of famous people who have renounced their American citizenship, but Du Bois never formally did so.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois died the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Du Bois was 95 when he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963. (Du Bois’s house in Accra, where he’s buried, was turned into the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, a small museum to his time in Ghana.) The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he shared his dream. It seems fate isn’t without a sense of poetry.

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