Tag Archives: Aristophanes

‘One does not learn remedies through books’ (Aristotle)

By Laurence Totelin

My first love: Pellaprat's classic cookbook
My first love: Pellaprat’s classic cookbook

I love reading recipes. I guess that won’t come as a surprise; after all I have been working on the history of pharmacology for over ten years now. But this passion goes very far indeed. My first favourite book was Pellaprat’s Cuisine familiale et pratique (1974), which I dutifully pored over – and tore apart – from the age of one. When I read a recipe book, I feel myself surrounded, at times assaulted, by imagined smells, tastes, and visions (of sugarplums). Of course, I could not have this type of experience without growing up in a family of great cooks; I did not learn culinary skills through books, but through observation and experimentation. Most of my memories of my grand-mother are culinary in nature; and I spent hours sat on a chair in our kitchen watching my mum cook.

When I read the philosopher Aristotle’s statement whereby one cannot learn remedies through reading, I can’t help but agree:

Indeed one does not appear to become skilled in the art of medicine through books. And yet they attempt to describe not only the cures, but also how they might cure and how it is necessary to treat each individual, distinguishing his condition. But while these things seem useful to men of experience, they are useless to the inexperienced.

[Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics10.9, 1181b2-6]

Reading practical literature is useful for those who already have experience, but pointless for others; this does pose an issue when teaching ancient pharmacology in the modern classroom. Still, I believe written recipes, for all their dryness, can offer a very good entry point into a variety of topics. One of my favourite example here is a recipe found in a play by the great comedian Aristophanes. The god of healing, Asclepius, is treating patients who have come to his sanctuary in Athens. One of them is the corrupt politician Neocleides, whom Asclepius is not willing to cure:

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org
Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

First of all, for Neocleides, a remedy:

Asclepius undertook to knead a plaster, throwing in

Three heads of Tenian garlic. Then he crushed them

In a mortar, mixing them together with verjuice

And mastic. Then he soaked the mixture with Sphettian vinegar,

And he plastered it on, turning out the man’s eyelids,

To make him suffer more.

[Aristophanes, Plutus 716-721]

All three ingredients in this ‘remedy’ (garlic, verjuice and mastic) would have hurt the eyes. However, this recipe is not so far from the ancient medical reality. The ancients did use very strong ingredients to treat the eyes, but applied them outside the eyelid, not inside. Also, Greek medical authors, like Aristophanes, called their ingredients by their place of origin (Tenian garlic comes from Tenos, an Aegean island; Sphettian vinegar comes from Sphettos, a district of Athens). Clearly, Aristophanes was well-versed in ancient medicine. This short recipe, thus, offers a point of entry into the study of temple medicine; political satire; and the transmission of ancient medical ideas in the ancient world.

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root:  the three ingredients in my 'Greek' deodorant
Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root: the three ingredients in my ‘Greek’ deodorant

Despite finding Aristophanes’ recipe fascinating, I appreciate that it needs much explication, as most ancient recipes do. I cannot expect every student to understand how painful this remedy would have been for Neocleides. I cannot expect them all to know what mastic is. Indeed, I cannot expect them all to have used a mortar and pestle. For these reasons, I have started to bring my experiments with ancient remedies to an audience near you. Recently, at a conference for teachers held at Cardiff University, I have replicated my attempts at producing an ancient deodorant made from iris root, myrrh, dried rose and wine. Passing the ingredients through the group allowed us to discuss our perception of these products; what memories they evoked; what we knew of their culture; etc. I learnt a lot – I hope the audience did too. They certainly left the room with a smile on their face. It remains for me to expand this experiment and re-create remedies with undergraduate students. I know that I will have to fill in health and safety forms, but I believe that it will be worth it. Here is an opportunity to appeal to various types of learning, and I would be a fool not to grab it!

Garlic and fertility testing in the Greek world

By Laurence Totelin

In my last blog post, I discussed some ancient gender tests. This month, I turn to Greek fertility tests. In the Greek world, women only entered full womanhood upon conception and delivery of a child, preferably a boy. Infertility seriously damaged a woman’s status in her community. It is therefore no wonder that one of the treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of some sixty texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) was devoted to the issue of barrenness: On Sterile Women. This tract includes a few fertility tests, aimed at predicting whether a woman will become pregnant or not.

Representation of garlic in the famous 'Vienna Dioscorides' manuscript (512 CE)
Representation of garlic in the famous ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript (512 CE)

Tests by means of which you will know whether a woman will be pregnant. If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant: give to drink butter [or a plant called boutyron] and the milk of a woman who has borne a male child, whilst she is fasting. If she vomits, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not.

Another: Let her wrap some oil of bitter almonds in wool and apply as a pessary. Check in the morning whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

Another test for the same purpose: apply pessaries that are not particularly strong. If she has pains in the joints, suffers from clattering teeth, dizziness, and yawning, there is more hope that she will pregnant than if she who does not suffer from any of these afflictions.

Another: Having washed and peeled a head of garlic, apply it to the womb, and see the next day whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant, let here drink finely pounded anise in water, then let her sleep. If she itches around the navel, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not. [On Sterile Women 214]

Every single one of these tests would deserve a long explanation, especially since possible Egyptian parallels exist for some of these recipes. Here, however, I will focus on the second and fourth tests, the almond oil and garlic tests. Both rest upon the assumption that women have a sort of tube (a hodos) that runs through their bodies, with two openings: the mouth of the face and the mouth of the womb (=the vagina). In a healthy woman, whose tube was not obstructed, a smell could travel easily from the lower to the upper mouth – hence the use of such smell test.

The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies. Garlic too was associted with sexuality and fertility, although the links are not particularly easy to interpret. In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Women at the Thesmophoria (a festival in honour of Demeter), women use garlic to conceal the smell of wine after a night of drinking and sex with their lovers (v. 495). Garlic masks the smells associated with sex and pleasure. Similarly, according to the historian Philochorus (third century BCE), at the festival of the Skirophoria (a festival in honour of Athena and Demeter), ‘women ate garlic in order to abstain from sex, so that they would not smell of perfume’ (FGRH 328 F 89). Thus, Philochorus presents garlic as an-aphrodisiac, a clear opposite to those perfumes used in sexual foreplay.

The sceptic will no doubt say that garlic was chosen simply because it is a strong smelling, ‘windy’ plant, whose scent would travel easily through the body. Yet, there seems to be something that links it to women and sex in the ancient world. An admittedly much later document, a sacred law from the sanctuary of the healing god Men at Sounion in Attica (IG II2 1365) informs men that they should cleanse if they have been in contact with garlic, pigs and women — a rather puzzling combination unless you know that ‘piggy’ was Greek slang for the vulva.