Category Archives: Galen

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.

How to grow your beard, Roman style

Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia
Septimius Severus, one of the bearded Roman emperors (193-211). Source: Wikipedia

For those who have missed it: male facial hair is currently in fashion. While almost none of my students sported a beard five years ago, it now looks as if they all do (the real proportion is probably 25%, but this is not the point of this post). Beards go in and out of vogue, and have done so for centuries. Thus, the first Roman Emperors, and those who emulated them, were clean shaven or had short beards, but from the middle of the second-century CE, wearing a beard became all the rage.

Ancient medical texts offer us some useful advice on how to care for precious facial hair. Thus Galen (second century CE) and Aetius (sixth century CE) transmit recipes to ‘blacken’ (that is, dye darker) the beard. These involve metallic ingredients that have been calcinated. But perhaps the most interesting series of recipes for the beard come from a treatise attributed to Galen, but not actually by Galen: The Remedies Easily Procured (De Remediis Parabilibus):

Preparations to grow locks of hair and the beard, if hair is falling out: mix beet with myrtle oil and maidenhair (polytrichion) and anoint the hair. Or crush equal amounts of maidenhair (adianton) and gum-ladanum with grape-seed oil, myrtle oil or mastic oil and anoint. Another: gum-ladanum with Aminaean wine and myrtle oil, crush together until it has the consistency of honey and anoint the head in the bath. It is best to use maidenhair (adianton), which some call ‘polytrichion’ (literally, many-hairs), mix a seventh part with gum-ladanum and anoint. (Pseudo-Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 3, 14.502 and 580 Kühn)

Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia
Maidenhair. Source: Wikipedia

As the author explains, the plant that works best in promoting beard growth is that called adianton by most people in ancient Greek. Other people, however, called it polytrichion, that is, the ‘many-hair plant’. That plant is a fern known as ‘maidenhair’ in English and Adiantum capillus-veneris L. in botanical Latin. That is, the name in all three languages refers to the alleged effect this plant has on hair growth.

The other interesting ingredient in these pseudo-Galenic recipes is ladanum/ledanum, which is the gum produced by Cistus shrubs. The historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE) is the first to tell us the tale of how this gum was gathered in Arabia, the land of perfumes:

But ledanum, which the Arabians call ‘ladanon’, occurs in manner which is even more amazing [than cinnamon]. For the best smelling thing comes from the most stinky one. For it is found in the beards of he-goats, where it occurs in the same way as gum from a tree. It is used in many perfumes, but the Arabians mostly use it as incense. (Herodotus, Histories 3.112)

Herodotus makes it sound as if ladanum grows in the beards of he-goats. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides, several centuries later, gave a much more plausible account: the gum is so greasy that it sticks to the beards of goats, male or female – Dioscorides is not sexist towards goats! – when they graze on the tree that produces ladanum. Dioscorides also tells us that ladanum prevents hair from falling off, but does not single out beard hair. It is probably the story that ladanum ‘comes from’ the beards of goats that gave rise to the belief that it is somehow good for human beards.

Gents, next time you groom your beard, do give a thought for those Arabian goats growing gum in their goatees!





The Torture of Therapeutics in Rome: Galen on Pigeon Dung

By Caroline Petit

Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?

You’ll thank me later

In my previous post, I presented a comic parody of an ancient eye-remedy. That recipe, created by the comedian Aristophanes, was too horrid to be true. Yet eye-remedies were far from pleasant in the ancient world. Witness the achariston, the ‘thankless’. There are various recipes for acharista (that’s the plural of achariston) preserved in ancient medical writings. The following one, transmitted by Galen, is representative of this lovely (not) type of medicament:

Oculist stamp  Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester  Herefordshire This stamps bears the inscription: 'Titus Vindacius Ariovistus',  Source: British Museum
Oculist stamp
Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester
This stamps bears the inscription: ‘Titus Vindacius Ariovistus’,
Source: British Museum

The so-called ‘thankless’ against persistent flows of tears. Physicians who used it, in Egypt only, were succefsul, especially when using it on rustics: cadmia, 16 drams; acacia, 8 drams; burnt, washed copper, 8 drams; opium, 4 drams; seed of tree heath, 4 drams; myrrh 4 drams; gum, 16 drams. Take up with water. Use with woman’s milk.  (Galen, Remedies according to Places 4, 12.749 Kühn).

It is fair to say that this remedy, before curing any flow of tears, would have made the eye cry some more. Each of the ingredients, taken separately, might have had a beneficial effect on the eye, but this remedy just goes for the rather brutal approach of accumulating as many unpleasant ingredients as possible. Thankfully, perhaps, the remedy had to be applied with woman’s milk,a very mild product, which midwives still recommend today for a baby’s sticky eyes.

These ingredients were crushed in a mortar, mixed with a small amount of water, then moulded into ‘lozenges’ and dried. These lozenges were light and easy to carry around. When a physician needed to apply the medicament, he (or the patient) crushed one of the lozenges and mixed it with a liquid – here woman’s milk. The remedy was then applied to the eyelids. Not that this particular recipe specifies any of this… One needs to have read quite a few ancient eye recipes to fill in the gaps left by Galen.

This recipe, on the other hand, gives some interesting and unusual details. The remedy was used ‘in Egypt only’. Eye-ailments seem to have been common in the land of the Nile, and eye-remedies are recorded in hieroglyphs on papyri from the Pharaonic period, going as far back as the second millennium BCE. By the time of Galen (second century CE), Egypt was a Roman province, whose elite spoke Greek (yes it’s all rather confusing). The ‘physicians’ mentioned in the recipe above were probably Greek-speaking, although it is not possible to exclude the possibility of Egyptian-speaking physicians.

Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.  Source: Wellcome images
Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.
Source: Wellcome images

The recipe also specifies that the remedy was particularly successful when used on ‘rustics’. The ancients believed that ‘rustics’ and members of the elite required different types of medicaments. Where peasants could cope with harsh, but very effective remedies, rich people, softened by their luxurious ways of life, needed milder concoctions.

Thankless eye-remedies did not just exist as texts in recipe books; they are also attested archaeologically. Ancient oculists used stamps to mark their medicines (the ‘lozenges’ I described above). Numerous stamps have been preserved. Some of these carry the inscription ‘acharistum’ (the Latin form of the Greek word achariston). One can just imagine a mother telling her reluctant child suffering from an eye disease: ‘You will thank me later’… or perhaps not!