Anyone who has walked in a European city at night will be familiar with the glow of them: a vivid and snakelike green, slightly eerie when encountered on a lonely street, beautiful in the rain. They were once neon; now most are arrays of ultra-bright Chinese LEDs that blink on and off in intricate patterns. The glowing emerald cross of the pharmacy is among the most familiar symbols in Europe.
When I moved to Lisbon in 2012, however, I was interested to find that the pharmacy on my street bore a striking variation on the iconic green cross. In Portugal, the green crosses of many farmacias contain a small palm tree with a snake wrapped around it, or inside of it.
At first glance, there’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this: the iconography seems to owe its origin to the Sociedade Farmaceutica Lusitana (Portuguese Pharmaceutical Society), the emblem of which has featured a variation on the snake + palm tree + cross motif since the 19th century. But as with many explanations in history, this doesn’t really explain much at all. The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in London glosses the symbol as simply representing the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms.
But this doesn’t satisfy – why a palm tree, in particular? Why Portugal?
As with many things in Lisbon, when we peel back a century or two, we find something surprising. The name of the street on which my local pharmacy was located, Rua do Poço dos Negros, offered a hint: literally translated, it means “The Road of the Pit of the Blacks.” Poço can also be translated as “well,” but as the historian James Sweet notes, this poço was in fact a burial pit, and Rua do Poço dos Negros was the main thoroughfare of a densely populated African neighborhood in sixteenth-century Lisbon known as Mocambo, the Kimbundu word for “hideout.” It was a center for what the Portuguese call feitiçaria, or sorcery, a term that was often employed by Portuguese-speakers in the early modern period to describe the practices of African healers who combined medical cures with religious rites that invoked ancestral spirits and divinities.
The snake and the palm tree were frequent motifs in early modern Portuguese depictions of African and indigenous American medical practices. To a Christian reader, the combination called to mind the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, thereby flagging the supposedly Satanic origins of cures from the non-Christian world.
But it also functioned as a proxy for the exotic and the tropical, showing up in places like the frontispiece illustrations of early scientific works about Brazil and the religious manuals of Catholic monks in Africa. Whenever early modern Europeans wanted to signify that a place was heathen, tropical and exotic, the trusty serpent and palm could be counted on.
To be sure, there were many, many ways of symbolizing the exotic and the colonial in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: alligators, dragons, Chinese maidens toting parasols, and mustachioed Turks with enormous turbans, to name a few. My personal favorite is the moose skull, seashell and pineapple combo that adorns this fanciful anonymous painting of an apothecary shop from early eighteenth century France.
But the snake and palm showed real longevity in the field of medicine and pharmacy, emerging as a common motif for the ceramic jars used to store drugs. Since at least the late medieval period, these jars had functioned as a form of advertising to display the wealth and judicious taste of the apothecary who dispensed drugs out of them: a shop with a full set of colorful Italian-made Maiolica jars, or with the more austere but beautiful blue-and-white Delftware jars favored in England and the Low Countries, promised to be a well-run establishment.
The introduction of new design motifs into drug jars was thus far from a random process. It was guided by the commercial needs of the drug merchant: how do I advertise the purity and potency of the drugs I have for sale? How do I broadcast my links to the Indies, where the most expensive drugs come from? We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find our friends the serpent and the palm appearing as a prominent motif on jars containing tropical drugs by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:
The commercial pathways that carried medicinal drugs and recipes from the non-European cultures of Amazonia, Brazil and Africa also carried symbols. Can the palm and serpent motif of Portuguese pharmacies be directly attributed to this colonial-era transfer of materials and ideas between Europe and the tropical world? It certainly seems that way to me, although I acknowledge that the link is largely circumstantial.
What is more certain is that the larger culture of drug use in Portugal and its colonies was strongly shaped by indigenous American and African influences. Although today the contents of a pharmacy are divided from the domain of recreational drug use by formidable cultural and legal boundaries, this was not the case in the seventeenth century. This was a time when apothecaries freely dispensed opium, tobacco, alcohol and even cannabis alongside more familiar remedies like chamomile tea. And it is here, in the etymologies of three familiar words associated with recreational drugs, that the influence of the colonies upon Portuguese drug culture is most apparent.
Unlike other speakers of Romance languages, who typically puff on tubos or pipes, Lusophones smoke from cachimbos, a term derived from the word kixima in the Kimbundu language of West Central Africa. (This is an especially intriguing etymological origin because pipes are typically thought of as being introduced to Europeans via indigenous Americans, not Africans). From colonial times to the present, at least some of those who used cachimbos were filling them not with tobacco but with maconha, i.e. cannabis, derived from the Kimbundu makaña.
And perhaps they washed this down with a fortifying swig of jerebita, now known as cachaça or sugar-cane liquor, which, according to the historian João Azevedo Fernandes, has a not entirely unexpected point of origin: “the word jerebita very probably originated from the Tupi word jeribá, a species of palm tree.”