All posts by laurencetotelin

I am a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University (United Kingdom). My research focuses on the history of Greek and Roman pharmacology and botany, with a special emphasis on gender. I have my personal blog, Concocting History, where I discuss more recipes and at times experiment with ancient concoctions:

Cold, dry and bald

By Laurence Totelin

A few months ago, I read with fascination – and surprise – a post by Jennifer Evans on the treatment of baldness in the early modern period. According to one of her sources (William Drage, a physician and apothecary from Hitchin) anything drying, and in particular sexual intercourse, would be detrimental to he who is thinning on top; women and eunuchs, for their part, rarely went bald because of their moist nature.

I was fascinated to find that the early-modern recipes and remedies listed by Jennifer were very similar to those preserved in texts from Graeco-Roman antiquity. Thus recommendations to cut the hair short; to use a laudanum unguent; to anoint the head with juice of onions/leeks, or with radish oil are all to be found in one of the earliest medical treatises preserved in Greek: the Hippocratic Diseases of Women 2 (chapter 189, 8.370 Littré). Some early modern treatments of baldness that presented, such as Mary Glover’s recipe involving cow’s piss and stinking old shoes, were rather unsavoury, but they pale in comparison with pigeon dung (also listed in Diseases of Women 2.189) or the following recipe, excerpted from Cleopatra’s Cosmetics by Galen:

Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia
Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia

Another [remedy against alopecia]. The power of this [remedy] is better than that of all the others, as it works also against falling hair and, mixed with oil or perfume, against incipient baldness and baldness of the crown; and it works wonders. One part of burnt domestic mice, one part of burnt remnants of vine, one part of burnt horse teeth, one part of bear fat, one part of deer marrow, one part of reed bark. Pound them dry, then add a sufficient amount of honey until the thickness of the honey is convenient, and then dissolve the fat and the marrow, knead and mix them. Place the remedy in a copper box. Rub the alopecia until new hair grows back. Similarly, falling hair should be anointed everyday. [Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.2, 12.404 Kühn]

So how is this supposed to work? Ancient recipes do not come with explanation as to their functioning. One must turn to more theoretical texts to find out more. The philosopher Aristotle devoted a long passage of his treatise Generation of Animals to baldness, stating that this affliction is linked to sexual intercourse:

The reason is that the effect of sexual intercourse is to cool, as it is the excretion of some of the pure, natural heat, and the brain is by its nature the coldest part of the body; thus, as we should expect, it is the first part to feel the effect. [Aristotle, Generation of Animals 5.3, 734b. Translation: A.L. Peck]

He went on to explain that children and women do not go bold because they are incapable of producing seminal secretion. Thus, for Aristotle, the cause of baldness is a loss of vital heat through sexual intercourse. Galen, for his part, sees dryness as the cause of the affliction, explaining that women and eunuchs have moist heads, while bald people have dry ones [Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Sixth Book of Epidemies, 17b.5  Kühn]. The physician’s explanation is closer to that found in early-modern treatises: it is through loss of moisture that the hair thins on top.

Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia
Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia

Where do remedies fit within shifting systems of explanation? The burnt ingredients in the Cleopatra remedy could be interpreted as both warming and drying, while deer marrow and bear fat would have been emollient (moistening). But I would argue that these explanations are too simplistic. One needs to go further and look at what brings cold, dry and baldness together.

In ancient humoural theory, cold and dry were associated with the Autumn season. (Clearly the theory was not devised in the UK!) It is in the Autumn of life that man loses his hair. There is no real solution to the problem, but ‘fertilising’ ingredients such as ashes could perhaps help. Fats from animals born in the spring and hunted in the autumn might also add to the efficacy of the remedy.

Sounds too far-fetched and less ‘rational’ than humoural explanations? Consider the following: Aristotle himself compared hair loss to shedding of leaves, and poets sometimes drew an analogy between lush greenery and animal hair (see for instance Columella, On Agriculture 10.71).  Ancient recipes can always be read in many different ways!

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.

Gender Testing in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

In my last post for this blog, I examined the role of rennet (in particular, seal’s rennet) in Greek and Roman medicine. As it often happens in research – or at least in mine – once I start looking into something, I can’t stop finding related texts. So over the last two months I have stumbled across quite a few recipes with rennet and/or with seal products. The following recipe caught my attention and gave me some ideas for today’s post. It comes from the Cesti, a collection of recipes and precepts, compiled by a certain Julius Africanus in the third century CE. This collection is not preserved in full, but fortunately there is an excellent recent edition with English translation of the extant fragments.[1] The fragment that interests us explains how to produce male and female horses:

A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus
A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus

But a male [horse] will be born according to technique if one smears the genitalia of the male horse with hare’s blood and rennet {which is curdled milk extracted from the stomach of a new-born hare}. But a female will be born if one smears the private parts of the female horse with goose fat together with terebinth resin for three days in succession, and positions it for impregnation by the male horse

(Cesti F28. Translation: William Adler).

In ancient theories of reproduction, male semen was thought to act as rennet in cheese making: it coagulated the blood in the female womb. It therefore made sense to choose that ingredient in order to produce a male horse. Using hare’s rennet added to the potency of the recipe, as hares are particularly fertile.

I don’t have such a good explanation for the use of oily and fatty ingredients to produce a female horse: maybe these were chosen because females were considered to be fatter, spongier than males. Gender selection was not, however, limited to horse breeding. In human reproduction too males were preferred. This is plainly clear from, among other things, gender determination tests preserved in one of the Hippocratic treatises, Barren Women (chapter 216):

Those pregnant women who have freckles on their face will give birth to a girl. Those who keep a beautiful complexion, more often than not, will give birth to a boy. If her nipples are turned upwards, she will give birth to a boy; if downwards, to a girl.

These tests simply reflect the stereotypes of the day, whereby a baby girl is less desirable, and will therefore make her pregnant mother look less desirable, with her freckles and drooping breasts. I had never paid much attention to the following tests, but they are probably even richer in meaning:

Take some of [the woman’s?] milk, knead it with flour and shape into a little loaf. Heat it up on a low heat. If it burns, she will give birth to a boy. If it opens up, she will give birth to a girl. Collect some of the same milk on leafs and expose it to the heat. If it coagulates, she will give birth to a boy; if it spreads, a girl.

These recipes draw upon the association between the womb and an oven – the ‘bun in the oven’ metaphor. When exposed to the oven/womb heat, everything that is male (and by nature hotter and more compact) will coagulate and heat up further; everything that is female (and by nature cooler and more liquid) will liquefy further. The ‘female loaf’ will also gape like a mouth (the literal translation of the verb ‘diachanēi), probably evoking the female sexual organs.

Would a family have taken action when such test indicated they were expecting a girl? It is impossible to tell. It is worth noting, however, that a pregnant woman usually only starts producing milk that can be expressed towards the end of her pregnancy, unless she is feeding an older child already. If it is indeed the milk of the pregnant woman that is needed in these recipes, the tests could only have been carried out late in the pregnancy. Any intervention at that stage would have been extremely risky.

[1] M. Wallraff, C. Scardino, L. Mecella, C. Gillar and W. Adler (2012), Iulius Africanus: Cesti. The Extant Fragments, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.