Healing words: Quintus Serenus’ pharmacological poem

Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of ancient science to modern readers is its predilection for verse. The ancient Greek and Romans could express the most complex scientific and medical notions in poetic form. Thus, many pharmacological recipes in Greek and Latin were cast in verse. These poetic recipes can be divided – very roughly – into two categories: those that are filled with metaphors and riddles that readers must decode; and those that use verse to assist memory through the means of rhythm and uncomplicated poetic imagery.

The verse recipes of Quintus Serenus (or Quintus Serenus Sammonicus: very little is known of this author, who lived at the end of the second – beginning of the third century CE) fall somewhere between these two categories. These remedies, collected in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book), include numerous learned references, but do not require advanced riddle-solving skills from their readers. Serenus borrowed most of his recipes from older pharmacological authorities, such as Pliny the Elder (first century CE), but added other some material, in particular magical recipes.

Serenus’ best known recipe is undoubtedly the ‘abracadabra’ recipe, which include the first known occurrence of that magical word. It recommends writing the word on a piece of parchment, which is then used as an amulet in the treatment of a particular type of fever:

One possible representation of the 'Abracadabra' amulet. Source: Wikipedia
One possible representation of the ‘Abracadabra’ amulet. Source: Wikipedia

Much more fatal [than other fevers] is that which is called ‘hemitritaios’
In Greek words; this in our language
Nobody could express, I believe, and neither did parents wish for it.
Write upon a piece of papyrus the word ABRACADABRA
And repeat it more times underneath, but take away the last letter
So that more and more individual elements will be missing from the figure,
Those which you constantly remove, while you retain the others,
Until a single letter remains at the end of a narrow cone.
Tie this to the neck with a linen thread; remember that!
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-9; for more information on this poem, see Peter Kruschwitz’s great blog]

Serenus used inscribed parchment as a healing ingredient in at least another recipe. This is a recipe to treat insomnia in people suffering from fevers:

Not only does the most loathsome fever consume wretched patients,
It further deprives them of longed-for sleep,
Lest they should benefit of the heavenly gift of peaceful sleep.
Therefore inscribe a piece of parchment with random words,
Burn it, then drink the ashes in hot water.
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-5]

With such recipes, it not surprising that historians of magic have paid more attention to Serenus than medical historians. It is very easy to dismiss such practices as hocus pocus. I would argue, however, that one should not take Serenus’ recipes at face value. Certainly, these are real recipes which Serenus collected from various sources, but did Serenus intend his readers actually to prepare them? It is always difficult to gage an author’s intention (and reader’s response), but it is still worth noting that in the first lines of his work, Serenus wrote:

Phoebus [Apollo], protect this health-giving song, which I composed
And let this manifest favour be an attendant to the art you discovered [medicine].
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis, preface 1-2]

Serenus, then, calls his poem a ‘salutiferum carmen’, a ‘health-giving song’. This poem is healing because it contains healing recipes, but it is also healing in itself, as a piece of poetry. The idea that poetry could heal – or at least alleviate pain, or sweeten harsh treatments – was a common one in Roman culture. In particular, the Epicurean poet Lucretius had compared the role of poetry in philosophy to that of honey as a sweetener to a bitter medicinal preparation (De Rerum Natura 1.936-942).

I would suggest that for Quintus Serenus poetry in itself is healing: listening to mellifluous words can heal, especially when they pertain to pharmacology. In this context, recipes that have words as their main ingredient, as in the case of the ABRACADABRA recipe or the recipe against insomnia, become particularly significant. Not only can a poem heal; it can be dissected into its basic components – random words and letters – and still retain much of its power.




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