The term is derived from the Latin rabies, “madness”. This, in turn, may be related to the Sanskrit rabhas, “to do violence”. The Greeks derived the word lyssa, from lud or “violent”; this root is used in the name of the genus of rabies Lyssavirus.
Because of its potentially violent nature, rabies has been known since circa 2000 B.C. The first written record of rabies is in the Mesopotamian Codex of Eshnunna (circa 1930 BC), which dictates that the owner of a dog showing symptoms of rabies should take preventive measure against bites. If another person were bitten by a rabid dog and later died, the owner was heavily fined.
Rabies was considered a scourge for its prevalence in the 19th century. In France and Belgium, where Saint Hubert was venerated, the “St Hubert’s Key” was heated and applied to cauterize the wound. By an application of magical thinking, dogs were branded with the key in hopes of protecting them from rabies. The fear of rabies was almost irrational, due to the significant number of vectors (mostly rabid dogs) and the absence of any efficacious treatment. It was not uncommon for a person, showing no signs of the disease, bitten by a dog merely suspected of being rabid, to commit suicide or to be killed by others. This gave Louis Pasteur ample opportunity to test postexposure treatments from 1885. In ancient medical times, the attachment of the tongue (the lingual frenulum, a mucous membrane) was cut and removed as this is where rabies was thought to originate. This practice ceased with the discovery of the actual cause of rabies.