From Pest to Prescription

By Cadance Butler

It is possible to find all sorts of fascinating treatments and remedies in the veterinary texts of late antiquity. While plants are the most common components of pharmacological remedies, minerals and animals were also incorporated with some frequency. Many of these cures appear to have been relatively painless; however, others can quite easily be counted within the category of uncomfortable remedies, either for the animal being treated, the animal being used as part of the treatment, or, in some especially unfortunate cases, for both parties.  

When considering the use of animals as ingredients, it is important to evaluate the source of each zoological component. While some animal parts and byproducts are made available to veterinary care providers secondhand (i.e. after a pig has been slaughtered for sacrifice or human consumption, some of its fat is used in an ointment), other animals are used either in their entirety or are killed primarily for their veterinary properties. Whereas the former could be seen as a way of making practical use of what would otherwise be waste, the latter indicates a greater allocation of resources to the healing of animals.

A head louse (Pediculus humanus). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

In a treatment for stomach pain, the 4th century CE veterinary writer Pelagonius recommends the following:

Place three human lice in the right ear of the horse in such a way that they are not named but are removed immediately from any little article of clothing. (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 122)

As can be seen in Dr. Totelin’s post earlier this month, Greek and Roman medical authors were not only well aware of the problem posed by lice, but also recommended a variety of treatments for their removal. The desire to prevent lice infestations also extended to livestock, as is made clear in ancient agricultural treatises, especially with regards to poultry. For instance, Varro (116-27 BCE) suggests manually removing lice from the birds which are already infected (Varro, On Agriculture 3.14), whereas Columella (4-70 CE) recommends removing all of the feathers from the head and from under the wings as a preventative measure (Columella On Agriculture 8.7.2)

Because of these efforts to prevent lice from infesting livestock, it seems somewhat counterproductive to intentionally introduce the parasites to a new host, assuming that the horse was free from lice in the first place. While human lice (Pediculus humanus) and equine lice (Haematopinus asini and Damalinia equi) are different species which cannot survive on the other’s host, it is unclear whether or not that was known in antiquity, as the agricultural and veterinary writers refer to all lice as pedes or pediculi. The requirement for human lice here, alongside the specific directions for collecting the lice, likely indicates a magical element to the treatment, rather than an acknowledgement of different lice species. Regardless of the louse’s inability to survive in its new home, horses have highly sensitive skin in their ears, and I cannot imagine that having lice placed inside them would have been a particularly pleasant experience.

The larva and fly of a house fly (Musca domestica). Coloured drawing by A.J.E. Terzi. Credit: Wellcome Collection

As disagreeable as the lice might have been, however, Columella’s remedy for a horse with difficulty urinating sounds exponentially more unpleasant. He states:

If [the horse] does not produce urine, the remedies are almost the same. For oil mixed with wine is poured over the flanks and hindquarters, and if this has not been sufficiently beneficial, insert a small suppository of reduced honey and salt into the hole through which urine flows, or a live fly, or a grain of frankincense, or a suppository of bitumen is inserted into the natural places. (Columella, On Agriculture 6.30.4)

Much like lice, flies were widely recognized as pests in antiquity. Besides tormenting animals with their general presence (Varro, On Agriculture 2.5.14), flies are capable of both exacerbating existing wounds and causing serious new ones. According to Columella, for instance, preexisting wounds should be anointed with a mixture of pitch, oil, and aged axel-grease in order to prevent a fly, and subsequent larva, infestation (Columella, On Agriculture 6.16.3). Furthermore, he then claims that flies can cause so many sores in dogs’ ears during the summer that their ears are damaged beyond repair (Columella, On Agriculture 7.13.1).

The logistics of depositing a live fly within a horse’s urinary tract aside, the process would have been challenging, likely painful for the horse, and almost certainly would have resulted in the fly’s eventual death. As much as the plight of the poor fly makes me shudder, however, the treatment was held in high enough regard, or was enough of an oddity, that Pelagonius included it in his own veterinary treatise approximately three centuries later (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 162). As in the case of the lice, it is unclear why a creature typically considered to be harmful to the health of livestock suddenly becomes the means by which a suffering animal is healed. In both of the remedies discussed above, animals typically considered pests are employed as healing agents. Occasionally, harmful creatures, such as the shrew, are used to treat injuries that they themselves have inflicted (Pelagonius, Ars Veterinaria 279); however, the use of live pests to treat an unrelated illness is something else again. Ultimately, heedless of the horse’s real discomfort, the lice and (somewhat incredibly) the fly are sacrificed for the perceived greater good.

Cite this blog post
Joshua Schlachet (2019, April 25). From Pest to Prescription. The Recipes Project. Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

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