The coral and the seal: an ancient amulet against all ills

By Laurence Totelin

In a recent post, Sietske Fransen and Saskia Klerk introduced a seventeenth-century recipe whose main ingredient was red coral. That ingredient has made several other apparitions in The Recipes Project posts (see here, here, and here). Perhaps it is time it took centre stage. For coral is not any ingredient. We know it to be an animal (a marine invertebrate), but it is only in the eighteenth century that it was finally classified as such. Beforehand, it was generally considered to be a plant, albeit a very peculiar one, as it transformed into stone when in contact with the air. In Greek, coral was at times called ‘lithodendron’, literally, the stone-plant. As such, it was usually included in Lapidaries, treatises devoted to stones and their healing or magical properties. Thus, the Orphic Lapidary describes it as follows:

Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Credit: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia
Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Photo: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia

For it first grows as a green grass, but not on the ground,
Which, as we all know, gives solid food to plants, but in the sea,
The sterile sea, where are born the seaweeds and the light mosses.
Orphic Lapidary 517-519

According to a legend recounted by the poet Ovid (first century CE), coral was born of the blood of Medusa’s severed head, which the hero Perseus had placed on seaweeds. The plants, as they absorbed the monster’s blood, became harder and redder. Sea Nymphs then sowed the seeds of the newly-created coral into the sea (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.740-753).

Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570). Credit: Wikipedia
Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570. Source: Wikipedia

Since it had been born from blood, coral was believed to have good blood staunching properties; Dioscorides (first century CE) wrote in his Materia Medica that ‘it cicatrizes; it treats quite effectively blood spitting’ (5.121). Galen (second century CE) preserves several recipes against blood loss that include the exotic coral, including one attributed to Philadelphus the Great (in reference to one of the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt):

Another remedy of Philadelphus the Great for those who spit blood: two obols of coral, four obols of Samian clay, two kyathoi of juice of knot-grass; give two draughts in total. (Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 7.4, 13.80 Kühn)

Unsurprisingly, the other main ingredient in this recipe, the earth from Samos, was also red. In fact, Discorides believed that it was that colour because the inhabitants of Samos mixed it with the blood of a goat (Materia Medica 5.153) – a fact that Galen knew to be false.

Coral had several other properties beside its blood staunching ones. Thus, it is recommended as an ingredient in the following teeth-whitening preparation:

V0022008ETL A coral. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A coral. Etching. 1793 Published: 1 November 1793 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Coral, etching by F.P. Nodder (1793. Credit: Wellcome Images

Very good remedy to whiten the teeth: red coral, pumice stone, stones of dates, bones of cuttle-fish, and burnt salts; crush and use. (pseudo-Galen, Remedies easily Procured 2.8.14, 14.432 Kühn)

This powder may (or may not) have whitened the teeth, but I am not certain it would have been a good breath-freshener – a bit too fishy for my own liking.

My favourite coral recipe, however, comes from the Cyranides, a collection of magical material in Greek. It suggests using coral wrapped in the skin of a seal as an amulet:

The seal is a quadruped sea-animal. Its skin, whenever it is placed in a house or in a ship, or carried by someone, ensures no ill occurs to whoever carries it.  For it turns away thunderbolts, hurricanes, hailstones, dangers, winds, witchery, spirits, pirates, night visitations, wild beasts, creeping animals, and phantoms. You must use it as an amulet on its own or with the coral stone.  (Cyranides 4.67)

The combination of the seal skin and coral is important here: both ingredients are born from the sea, and are difficult to classify. The seal resembles a fish but is a quadruped; the coral looks like a plant but is a stone. In antiquity, liminal objects – those that fall into two categories, or in neither – were often seen as powerfully magical.

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