Sweet as Honey

By Laurence Totelin

Yesterday I read some press releases about a fascinating Welsh research project (based at my University: Cardiff University) that will screen Welsh honey for antibiotic properties.  The aim is to find the Welsh answer to Manuka honey, by driving bees to flowers with the highest antibiotic properties. This project, if successful, will no doubt have significant positive medical, ecological, and economic implications. The press release mentions the use of medicinal honey since the Middle Ages. One should never take press releases too literally, but the history of employing honey medicinally goes much further than the Middle Ages. I will focus here on the Greek and Roman periods of antiquity, but honey was used in many cultures well before the Greeks started using writing.

A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source: wildwinds.com
A coin from ancient Ephesus, representing a bee. Source: wildwinds.com

Honey is one of the most common ingredients in Greek and Roman pharmacopoieias. It was taken orally as well as applied to the body.  What interests me here is the great care the ancients took to differentiate between types of honey. In particular, ancient recipes frequently and consistently ask for Attic honey. For instance, the Hippocratic text Internal Affections (end of the fifth, beginning of the fourth century BCE) has the following recipe for a ‘hip-disease’:

If this [previous treatment] does not help, purge with the following remedy: crush half a kotyle of cumin; chop into pieces an entire gourd, of the small and round variety, in a mortar; sprinkle with the finest red Egyptian natron, in the amount of a quarter of a mina; roast; pound finely; put these ingredients in a pot; pour in a kotyle of oil, half a kotule of honey; a kotyle of sweet white wine, and two kotylai of juice of beet. Boil these [ingredients] until they have the right consistency; pass them through a cloth; add to them a kotyle of Attic honey, if you do not want to boil they honey together with the other ingredients. If you do not have Attic honey, use some of the best honey and heat up in the mortar. If this clyster preparation is too thick, add the same wine to the recommended thickness. Use this as a clyster. [Hippocratic Corpus, Internal Affections 51]

Several interesting things here: first, the Attic honey is not the only ‘ethnic’ ingredient in this recipe: it also contains Egyptian natron. This use of geographically-qualified ingredients is a characteristic of ancient recipes. Second, the author understands that not everyone will have access to Attic honey and suggests using the best possible honey available if that is the case. Third, the recipe recommends not to boil the honey together with the other ingredients, possibly indicating an awareness that heat destroys some of the qualities of honey.

The Hippocratic authors do not tell us what made Attic honey special, but other medical authors tell us that Attic honey (and in particular the honey of Mount Hymettus) was special because the bees fed on thyme, which was itself an important medicinal herb. Some writers produced lists of plants that produced the sweetest honey (thyme, violets, asphodel, iris), and those that should be avoided (spurge, thapsia, wormwood, wild cucumber). According to Palladius, a fifth-century CE agronomist, these plants had to be avoided because their bitter taste would prevent the creation of sweetness (1.37).

The Greeks and Romans also mention poisonous honeys. The historian Xenophon (fourth century BCE) describes the effect of a poisonous honey to be found in the land of the Colchians (East Coast of the Black Sea, modern Georgia).

And swarms of bees were numerous there, and the soldiers who ate the honeycombs all went out of their mind, vomited and suffered from diarrhoea, and none of them was able to stand up; but those who had consumed only a little appeared like those who are extremely drunk; while those who had taken a lot seemed like mad or even dying men. Thus many lied there as if there had been a defeat, and there was much despondency. But the next day nobody had died, and around the same hour as they [had taken the honey], they came back to their senses. And on the third or fourth day they got up, as if after a poisoning (pharmakoposia). [Xenophon, Anabasis 4.8.20-21].

Unfortunately, Xenophon does not tell enough about the flora of the region to make a hypothesis about the nature of the plants upon which these bees fed. Pliny the Elder also describes a poisonous honey from Heracleia Pontica (on the Black Sea, modern Turkey), this time produced from a plant called ‘the goat killer’ (Natural History 21.74). I wonder whether modern apiculturists are aware of such poisonous honeys, and whether these dangerous honeys, taken in small doses, could be used medicinally? In any case, there is much scope for honey bioprospecting, and I wish my Cardiff colleague the best of luck!


4 Replies to “Sweet as Honey”

  1. You might be interested to google ‘tutu honey’. It’s not the pretty thing it sounds. Highly toxic.

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