Lessons from the Myth of the Madmen Ship

The myth of the ship of the madmen began to be mentioned in the year 1486, at the dawn of the Renaissance.

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The myth of the ship of the madmen began to be mentioned in the year 1486, at the dawn of the Renaissance. A man named Sebastian Brandt wrote a long poem called Arrenschiff or Stultifera navis. There he talks about a trip by sea made by 111 madmen, to a place called “Narragania” or “Locagonia”.

Jerónimo El Bosco, was more direct. He developed a painting called “The ship of the madmen”. There he depicts the pilgrimage of a group of men and women who are not in their senses and who travel by sea to an unknown destination. That is the essence of the myth of the ship of the crazy. Those that do not coincide with the scheme of collective reason, must be thrown into the immensity of the sea. They are destined for a wandering life, without a country, without a firm land. Only an endless racking.

“Madness can not be found in the wild. Madness does not exist except in a society, it does not exist outside the forms of sensitivity that isolate it and the forms of repulsion that exclude it or capture it”.

-Michel Foucault-

Michell Foucault in his “History of madness in classical times”, alludes to the myth of the ship of the mad. Indicates that you can have real bases. There are documents of antiquity and the Middle Ages in which are mentioned ships whose cargo was a lot of “fools”. According to these accounts, they were not allowed to dock in any port. They must be far from everyone.

The myth of the ship of the madmen is in the very essence of the construction of the concept of madness. Also in the response of society to this and in the treatment that should automatically be applied to it. There are several teachings there and the following are three of them.

1. The madness is intolerable to society

In Classical Greece the first approaches were made to the study of what was happening in the mind. There was ambiguity about it. It was considered a demonic condition and then, with Hippocrates, an imbalance of body fluids that should be treated with a proper diet. Something similar happened in Rome.

With the Middle Ages, madness definitely entered the realm of the supernatural. There was no talk of madness as such, but of possession. Both at this time, as in the previous ones, ostracism and segregation was a normal treatment for those suffering from mental disorders.

Apparently, the presence of someone who expresses a discourse far from the predominant reason has been intolerable to societies. It is considered a threat. Foucault indicates that it is a threat to the established order and that is why it causes fear and induces segregation. There are those who maintain that the myth of the ship of the madmen has its first expressions in Greece. It was a form of exclusion to “safeguard” the “common good”.

2. The myth of the madman ship and the brutality

Unlike other patients, the madman does not feel sorry for him. Basically he is feared. Although the mental disorders in principle are not “contagious”, as would be the case with leprosy or tuberculosis, they unleash a deep rejection in others. This rejection has often resulted in brutality.

The myth of the ship of the madmen does not stop representing an intolerant and cruel way of approaching mental illness. However, segregation is only one of the “less radical” ways of dealing with madness. They have existed and there are other much more brutal practices. For example, on many occasions people with mental disorders have been tortured.

In the Middle Ages the “fools” were burned, beaten and often treated like animals. It was believed that there was “the stone of madness” and that it was in the brain. Many were mutilated to extract that element from evil. With the Modern Age appeared and spread the idea that the insane had to be confined, instead of sending them to a wandering trip, as happened in the myth of the ship of the mad.

3. The concept of madness is diffuse and imprecise

Not even in the 21st century is there a definitive concept of what madness is. Much less in other times. During the Middle Ages and the Modern Age, anyone who deviated from the norm was called insane. There fit the cognitive disabilities, rebellious people, prostitutes and almost anyone who does not stick to the predominant parameters.

Surely many will be amazed to read this. Maybe they think that we are fortunately in other times. However, currently the change is not so noticeable. We live in a society that only accepts collective delusions. For example, to believe that a brand makes you superior. There are countries in the world where certain people believe they are more than others by wearing clothes of a certain brand. That is not considered insanity. On the other hand, a discourse held by a single individual does look sickening and is treated accordingly.

Cruelty continues to haunt mental illness. Sometimes that insensibility is born in the family of those who hold delusional discourses or is the victim of hallucinations. Exclusion remains a way to address this situation. As in the myth of the madman ship, many people with mental disorders are left to their own devices. They are sometimes seen on the streets of many cities around the world. Or in a come and go through the corridors of mental institutions, which rarely seek to support and promote them. What continues to prevail is segregation, secrecy and dissimulation, as if it were a reality that disappeared when we covered it with the carpet.