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:

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

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!

Say – horse – cheese

By Laurence Totelin

Last time I blogged for the Recipes Project, I talked about mares. I’d like today to return to mares, their milk and the cheese made with it.

Gold Scythian belt buckle with horse. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Gold Scythian belt buckle. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

These were not delicacies that the Greeks and Romans themselves enjoyed. Instead, they had observed their consumption among the Scythians, a series of tribes, often nomadic, inhabiting large expanses of Eurasian steppes in antiquity. The Scythians, and their taste for mare’s milk and cheese, were a topic of fascination among the classical Greek authors. The historian Herodotus devotes a long passage to the way in which the Scythians milked their mares: they used slaves they had blinded for that purpose. One slave blew into the mare’s vulva with a bone tube, while another milked the mare (Histories 4.2). This is a well-known and much discussed passage among ancient historians. Enough to state here that much appears to have been lost in translation between the Scythians and Herodotus’ source! The Greeks did not drink milk themselves on a regular basis (although they used it in medical context), and established a linked between ‘otherness’ or ‘barbarism’ and milk drinking.

What will retain me today is the use of the mare’s cheese recipe in a physiological analogy. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the fifth century BCE or the beginning of the fourth) was very fond of analogies, some of which are rather wacky. In the passage that concerns me, he compares the physiological process whereby a bad humour is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese:

If the man is not purged, as the humour is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Source: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Image Credit: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

This is a rich and surprising passage. It mentions four humours, but those are not the four humours we all know (bile, phlegm, blood and black bile). Instead, we find bile, blood, phlegm and water. It is relatively little known that there is only one text in the Hippocratic Corpus that mentions the four humours that would become, under the influence of Galen, canonical: Nature of Man. The number and name of humours varies from one Hippocratic treatise to the next. Our author has a predilection for his ‘water’, the heaviest of all his humours, which he compares to the heavy portion to the Scythian milk. One wonders why this Greek author has chosen a Scythian process as a comparing point. The Greeks did make cheese, but their cheese was of the soft type, kept in brine. They did not make butter and hard cheeses. They did not churn (shake) their milk. The recipe the author provide is reasonably clear, although I would personally find it difficult to make cheese by following it. Looking forward to my feta-based dinner now!

Horse love pills

By Laurence Totelin

In the seventh century BCE, Semonides of Amorgos wrote his now infamous poem on the races of women, each one worse than the next. The mare-woman is perhaps my favourite, the ultimate high-maintenance lady:

Another type a horse with a splendid mane begat.
She turns up her nose at all kinds of work and toil.
She would never touch a mill, nor a sieve
Would she ever lift, nor would she throw dung out of the house,
Nor, for fear of the soot, would she near the oven
Ever sit. Only out of necessity will she make love to her husband.
She washes off the dirt every day,
Twice, sometimes three times; then she anoints herself with perfumes
She always wears her mane combed loose,
Abundant as it is, and strewn with flowers.
What a beauty to look at, she is that woman
For others; for her owner she is a pain,
Unless he is a king or a sceptre bearer
Who can delight in such pleasures.
[Semonides fragment 7, 57-70]

Now Semonides was describing human women here, but he may as well have been berating an actual mare. For in antiquity horses in general, and mares in particular, were considered rather troublesome, especially in their sexual habits.

Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons
Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons

According to Aristotle, horses were the most salacious of animals after men, but unlike civilised Greeks, they had no revulsion for incest:

Horses will mounts their mothers and their daughters. In fact, a herd of horses is not considered perfect, unless horses copulate with their own offspring. [Aristotle, Enquiry into Animals 6.22, 576a18-20]:

In some regions, mares left without a stallion, were said to imagine the pleasures of love and conceive ‘wind-foals’, with the help of the west wind (this story is often repeated in ancient literature, see for instance Vergil, Georgics 3.269-275; Columella, On Agriculture 6.27.4-7). Other mares fell in love with themselves:

There is a rare, but remarkable, form of madness that overcomes mares. If they see their reflection in water, they are seized with a vain love, and as a result, they forget to forage and they become lost to this wasting love disease. [Columella, On Agriculture 6.35]

However, when breeding was required, mares turned cold. They often had to be tied to submit to the stallion (Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.179). And the only way to get a mare to submit to an ass in mule-breeding was to clip her mane, because a long mane made her ‘proud and high spirited’ (Pliny, Natural History 10.179). No wonder then, that the ancients developed love pills to regulate equine desire. The Roman agronomists recommended squill, crushed to the consistency of honey in water, to be smeared on the genitals of the mare; while the stud was made to smell her genital scent (Columella, On Agriculture 6.27; Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8). The Greek Hippiatric treatises, beside similar herbal remedies, have slightly more complicated concoctions:

Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.
Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.

To incite horses to sexual intercourse… the right testicle of a cock; place it in the skin of a ram and hang to the neck of the horse; or the dried right testicle of a deer; reduce to powder and make it drink with milk-honey. For frequent and unpainful sexual intercourse… The flesh of a skink (lizard) in sweet-smelling mixed wine; inject into the animal…  [Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge 10.6 and 15, ninth century CE]

The animals whose testicles were sacrificed to the greater good of horse breeding were, of course, not chosen at random: both the cock and the deer were known for their sexual vigour. Nor was the right testicle an arbitrary choice: the right side was believed to be involved in the production of males.

Such fanciful and expensive aphrodisiacs may never been used on actual mares, but it is significant that they are recorded. Horses were time-consuming and costly animals to keep–animals whose possession was indicative of social standing, very much like Semonides’ beautiful horse-woman, kept entertained by luxurious flowers and perfumes.

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!