Etiology (//; alternatively aetiology or ætiology) is the study of causation, or origination. The word is derived from the Greek αἰτιολογία, aitiología, "giving a reason for" (αἰτία, aitía, "cause"; and -λογία, -logía). More completely, etiology is the study of the causes, origins, or reasons behind the way that things are, or the way they function, or it can refer to the causes themselves. The word is commonly used in medicine, (where it is a branch of medicine studying causes of disease) and in philosophy, but also in physics, psychology, government, geography, spatial analysis, theology, and biology, in reference to the causes or origins of various phenomena.
In the past, when many physical phenomena were not well understood or when histories were not recorded, myths often arose to provide etiologies. Thus, an etiological myth, or origin myth, is a myth that has arisen, been told over time or written to explain the origins of various social or natural phenomena. For example, Virgil's Aenead is a national myth written to explain and glorify the origins of the Roman Empire. In theology, many religions have creation myths explaining the origins of the world or its relationship to believers.
In medicine, the etiology of an illness or condition refers to the frequent studies to determine one or more factors that come together to cause the illness. Relatedly, when disease is widespread, epidemiological studies investigate what associated factors, such as location, sex, exposure to chemicals, and many others, make a population more or less likely to have an illness, condition, or disease, thus helping determine its etiology. Sometimes determining etiology is an imprecise process. In the past, the etiology of a common sailor's disease, scurvy was long unknown. When large, ocean-going ships were built, sailors began to put to sea for long periods of time, and often lacked fresh fruit and vegetables. Without knowing the precise cause, Captain James Cook suspected scurvy was caused by the lack of vegetables in the diet. Based on his suspicion, he forced his crew to eat sauerkraut, a cabbage preparation, every day, and based upon the positive outcomes, he inferred that it prevented scurvy, even though he did not know precisely why. It took about another two hundred years to discover the precise etiology: the lack of vitamin C in a sailor's diet.
An etiological myth, or origin myth, is a myth intended to explain the origins of cult practices, natural phenomena, proper names and the like. For example, the name Delphi and its associated deity, Apollon Delphinios, are explained in the Homeric Hymn which tells of how Apollo, in the shape of a dolphin (delphis), propelled Cretans over the seas to make them his priests. While Delphi is actually related to the word delphus ("womb"), many etiological myths are similarly based on folk etymology (the term "Amazon", for example). In the Aeneid (published circa 17 BC), Virgil claims the descent of Augustus Caesar's Julian clan from the hero Aeneas through his son Ascanius, also called Iulus. The story of Prometheus' sacrifice trick at Mecone in Hesiod's Theogony relates how Prometheus tricked Zeus into choosing the bones and fat of the first sacrificial animal rather than the meat to justify why, after a sacrifice, the Greeks offered the bones wrapped in fat to the gods while keeping the meat for themselves. In Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, the origin of the color of mulberries is explained, as the white berries become stained red from the blood gushing forth from their double suicide.
The dictionary definition of etiology at Wiktionary