Category Archives: Antiquity

Artifacts at an Exhibition: The Art and Science of Healing at the University of Michigan

By Pablo Alvarez

Last February we opened the exhibit, “The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance,” at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Library. The show explores the early history of Western medicine as illustrated by a selection of archaeological objects, papyri, medieval manuscripts, and early printed books. Among the earliest artifacts on display is a second century AD papyrus with a text from the Greek botanist Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica. Closing the exhibit is the first edition of William Harvey’s  Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628).   In brief, the exhibit has been designed to inspire future conversations on some vital themes, including the role of religion and magic in healing the soul and body, the persistence of Graeco-Roman methods of diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the multilingual transmission of medical knowledge in both manuscript and printed form.

After having curated several exhibits, I can say that my favorite artifacts tend to be those about which I initially knew less.  I did not know much about the medical material hidden in a fascinating book of mysterious origin, the Book of Secrets, erroneously attributed to Aristotle.  From Cornelius Celsus (fl. 25 AD) and Paul of Aegina (ca. 625-ca. 690) I learned much on the use of ancient medical implements, particularly about surgical instruments.

Medical Set with Forceps and Various Hooks; Rome; Roman period; Bronze; 130 x 32 mm (average) KM 1485; Walter Dennison, 1909.
Medical Set with Forceps and Various Hooks; Rome; Roman period; Bronze; 130 x 32 mm (average) KM 1485; Walter Dennison, 1909.


And I knew little about the fascinating world of medical amulets, extraordinary witnesses of every-day anxieties about illness and death in antiquity and beyond. Worn as necklaces or bracelets, fever amulets made of papyrus or lead seemed to be everywhere. But even more ubiquitous were medical amulets in the form of gemstones skillfully engraved with symbolic iconography and magical spells. Below is my favorite one: an example of a uterine amulet.

Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21


The engravings scattered on this small piece of hematite are fairly standard in this type of amulets. Ouroboros—a snake eating its tail, probably a metaphorical representation of the abyss—encloses a pot with the mouth downward which, resembling a medical cupping vessel for bloodletting, represents the womb. From the bottom of this cupping vessel two curved lines on each side depict the ligaments and uterine tubes discovered by Herophilos of Alexandria. Attached to the pot is a key with a knobbed handle, suggesting that control of the mechanism of opening and closing the womb would facilitate  fertility and childbirth. In the upper half of the stone, we see a series of protective deities. On the left, we see the mummy of Anubis, the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in Egyptian religion; in the center is Chnoubis, a coiled serpent with a lion head and six rays around it, believed to prevent abdominal pain and ensure an easy childbirth. On the right is Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood. On the edges, we read a long magical formula in the form of a meaningless babbling repetition of syllables: σοροορμερφεργαρβαρμαφριου[ριγξ]. And on the reverse is a two-line magical inscription: ορωρ | ιουθ.[i]

Finally, since this blog is devoted to the history of recipes, it might be suitable to end this post with the following medical text preserved in a second-century AD papyrus.

Medical text; Egypt; in Greek; 2nd c. AD; Papyrus; 136 x 60 mm; P. Mich. inv. 1469
Medical text; Egypt; in Greek; 2nd c. AD; Papyrus; 136 x 60 mm; P. Mich. inv. 1469


This small fragment consists of a single column from a scroll containing a medical treatise in Greek. The subject of the text is dietary recommendations to patients afflicted with constipation. Below is the English translation:

To take the small portion of food, to drink all the previously mentioned liquids, and to drink in addition a little new wine, diluted until somewhat watery. To those who have a persistent constipation hard to clear up, much more than the quantities prescribed are given; but to those who suffer from weakness, less. And a moderate diet is prescribed when the bowels have become more relaxed. The risk of injury to the eyes has been previously mentioned…[ii]

To learn more about the rest of the exhibit, please visit the online version here, or visit us in person if you happen to be in the Ann Arbor area in the next few days. The last day of the exhibit is April 30th!


Pablo Alvarez is Outreach Librarian and Curator at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan. He is currently completing the edition and English translation of Alonso Victor de Paredes’ Institucion, y origen del arte de la imprenta, y reglas generales para los componedores, a Spanish printer’s manual produced in Madrid around 1680.

[i] Campbell Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 49 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950) 274.

[ii] Isabella Andorlini, “Istruzioni dietetiche e farmacologiche,” Papyrology, Naphtali Lewis ed., Yale Classical Studies 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 49–56.

Editing the Recipes Project – 5 Years On: A Recipe for Happiness

Editorial: This is the third of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Laurence Totelin

When Lisa Smith, Elaine Leong and Amanda Herbert invited me to join the editorial team of The Recipes Project in the Autumn of 2014, I felt elated. I was so happy to join what I knew would be a supportive team of editors. My contribution was to solicit posts from scholars working on ‘ancient’ material, and I started in my editorial role with a series on Greek and Roman Recipes in January 2015. Since then, we have had a post on pre-1500 recipes almost every month, which is extremely pleasing.

Before I joined the editorial team, I had been blogging for The Recipes Project for two years. I wrote my first post  for TRP while on maternity leave with my second son, G. That leave, which blissfully lasted an entire year, was a turning point in my career. I had been extremely lucky to gain an open-ended lectureship in Ancient History at Cardiff University, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle my job with motherhood, that is, with one son, T. As is often the case, my research was suffering: students – quite rightfully – come first for a lecturer. How was I going to cope with a second child? How would I ever find time to write articles, let alone books (gasps)?

Home, health and happiness
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Blogging was the solution. It quite simply saved my research career. I started blogging on my own blog, Concocting History, and The Recipes Project around the same time, at the beginning of 2013. With blogging, I discovered that I could take a few ancient recipes and write an entertaining (well, at least I hope) piece in a couple of hours. It was all so different from ‘traditional’ academic writing, where it can take years for an article to see the light of day. Of course, blogging cannot entirely replace that slow process of maturation that happens when writing academic articles, but it can certainly complement it. And I also discovered that I could apply the discipline that I had learnt from blogging, that of writing a short piece of research in a given amount of time, to article and book writing. Gone were the leisurely days I could devote to research – at least for the foreseeable future – but I could now write faster and in a more targeted way.

The benefits of blogging do not end there. The wonderful TRP community allowed me to meet so many new people, some virtually, others in person, and to engage with their ideas and material. One of my favourite way of blogging is to respond to another post. Thus, I particularly enjoyed responding to Jennifer Park’s post on curdled milk in the breast. I was learning to open up my horizons and become more adventurous.

And adventures I have had since then. Among other things, I have started using recipes in teaching; I have written pieces  on recipes for The Conversation; and I have taken part in a MOOC on Health and Wellbeing in Antiquity on the invitation of Helen King, another TRP author. Blogging has given me a lot of confidence where I was filled with self-doubt.

Scholars working on recipes know perhaps better than most that there is no recipe for happiness. But we also know that working with historical recipes can bring a great deal of pleasure. To do so in the supportive environment of The Recipes Project, one that is based on collaboration and encouragement, is particularly joyful. Do join us!




Cookery, Ancient and Modern

By Henry Power

This post is about two sort-of-recipe-books published in the first decade of the eighteenth century. When I say sort-of-recipe-books, I mean that although both of them are full of culinary precepts, neither is likely to have been used in the kitchen. But taken together, the two books give an insight into the cultural tensions of the early eighteenth century.

Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1705, Martin Lister published an edition of the recipes of the Roman cook Apicius. Subscribers to the volume included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; this was a work destined for the shelves of the great and the good. Lister was, as the title page makes clear, a medical man – chief physician to Queen Anne. Apicius on the other hand was, on the other hand, largely associated with gluttony and intemperance. In his lengthy Latin introduction, Lister tries to rescue Apicius from the charge of gluttony—and indeed to stress the health-giving properties of his recipes. Generations of moralizing historians had argued that the fall of Rome was at least partly down to excessive gourmandising. Lister takes the opposite view: the barbarian sack of Rome halted the Romans’ development of healthy, nourishing seasonings and sauces.

Lister was, in the parlance of the time, a ‘Modern’. That is to say, he believed in the continuing progress of human learning since antiquity. He also believed in the application of modern scholarly techniques to ancient texts, and in studying a broader range of texts and topics than the fairly narrow classical canon than had traditionally been taught in schools and universities. His edition of Apicius is thoroughly informed by these principles: it presents one of the most neglected and marginal classical texts with all the apparatus of modern scholarship, and it also builds on the knowledge of that text – bringing Lister’s scientific knowledge to bear on Apicius’ recipes.

One contemporary reader found such an expenditure of scholarly labour ridiculous: the application of considerable intellectual resources to a book about anchovy sauce and stuffed dormice. William King, a fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was firmly an ‘Ancient’. He frequently bemoaned the fact that the Moderns were disregarding and denigrating the staples of the canon: above all, the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Lister’s Apicius was evidence of the skewed priorities of the Moderns, and King hit upon the perfect way of satirizing it.

In 1708, King published a book-length poem called The Art of Cookery. Though the short title indicates a conventional recipe book, the long subtitle points to a more literary origin. The book is, we are told, written ‘in imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry: with some letters to Dr. Lister, and others: occasion’d principally by the title of a book publish’d by the doctor, being the works of Apicius Coelius, concerning the soups and sauces of the antients.’ One of the strangest works of eighteenth-century satire, King’s Art of Cookery is a rewriting of Horace’s Art of Poetry (the most famous work of classical literary criticism) in which gastronomic instructions take the place of poetic ones at every opportunity.

To give one example, Horace’s insistence that poetry should be charming (or ‘sweet’) as well as beautiful is applied to pastry:

Unless some Sweetness at the Bottom lye,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the Pye? (p. 71)

One of the poem’s satiric targets is the importance attached by people like Lister to material that was previously considered trivial. Horace wrote his poem so that future writers could emulate the great epics of Homer and Virgil; these hallowed precepts were now being applied to mere cookery. In one of the prefatory letters addressed to Lister, King ironically bemoans the fact that gastronomy is not properly taught in schools:

For what hopes can there be of any Progress in Learning, whilst our Gentlemen suffer their Sons at Westminster, Eaton, and Winchester, to eat nothing but Salt with their Mutton, and Vinegar with their Roast Beef upon Holidays? What      Extensiveness can there be in their Souls? … and as to Sauces, they are in profound ignorance. (pp. 3-4)

King has another target in his sights. The Art of Cookery records, in its odd way, the huge expansion of English diet at the turn of the eighteenth century. Sometimes, King confronts head-on the increasing diversity of food served in England, as in this passage (which corresponds to Horace’s advice about the use of recently-coined words in poems):

Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare,
Such alterations should at least be Rare
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare? (p. 61)

Just as a scholarly turn to marginal authors like Apicius is threatening the status of canonical authors such as Homer and Virgil, so the general enthusiasm for such-newfangled delicacies as mushrooms and mangoes is threatening plain, traditional English cookery, as exemplified by roast beef and mutton. That anxiety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century England; what is interesting about King is that he associates this perceived alteration in diet with a Modernizing tendency to value novelty above all else.

And for King it is the ‘soups and sauces of the Antients’, as encountered in Lister’s edition of Apicius, which are the ultimate symbol of modernity.

Henry Power is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently editing (with Nicholas McDowell) The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714, to which he is contributing two essays: one on ‘Learned Wit and Mock Scholarship’, and the other on ‘Recipe Books.’

How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.


BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.