A Spider at the Pulse

By Yijie Huang

I received a gift from my supervisor this spring, a vial of “POSITIVITY Pulse Point Oil” from ESPA. As a historian of pulse diagnosis in early modern medicine, I am fascinated by it–not so much by the joyful fragrance, but by what “pulse” indicates in its label. It reminds me of the popular tip to wear perfume on one’s wrists, said to help the scent to spread over the whole body and to last longer. It also reminds me of a story about Robert Boyle (1627-91), a leading natural philosopher and one of the founders of the Royal Society. Among his many accomplishments, Boyle contributed significantly to the corpuscularian philosophy: that matter is made up of numerous invisible corpuscles whose quality determines its overall properties. He was particularly interested in explaining the efficacy of recipes at the corpuscularian level–which shaped his understanding of the pulse.

This is an image of the ESPA pulse point oil box.
ESPA Positivity Pulse Point Oil.

 

Boyle was immersed in a diagnostic tradition, extending from antiquity into the early modern period, in which people took assessed the pulse’s quality (magnitude, speed, strength, hardness) to assess the bodily state, especially the heart. In his Essays of Effluviums (1673), Boyle recounted a seemingly absurd anecdote from German physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637). Some Nicolaus of Florence reported that a Lombard in the city had burned a big black spider upon a nearby flame, then soon after fell into a faint. Although the Lombard’s heart was severely affected, with his pulse scarcely perceivable overnight, he was eventually cured. In the Essays, Boyle discussed how objects release effluvia–that is, streams of minute constituent particles–to cause effects upon the human body. It was by the means of effluvia, he claimed, that ambrosial objects like ambers could perfume the body even one does not wear them next to the skin. Yet effluvia might also bring dreadful threats across distance. Contagious patients carrying them could infect others without physical contact. Poisonous effluvia could kill people in a scarcely noticeable manner. The poor Lombard’s weak pulse warned of such danger. According to Boyle, the vapour of the lit spider was inhaled into the Lombard’s body, resulting in a contactless poison.

While this spider interrupted the pulse indirectly, another spider might be placed exactly there as a cure. Boyle referred to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides (c. 40-c. 90) and the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) who described individuals sealing a spider inside an empty nutshell and binding it to certain bodily parts. The amulet was to prevent ague, as spider–especially its oil–was believed remarkably efficacious in curing agues and quartans (Works, vol. 13, 248).

Nonetheless, Boyle doubted the validity of this type of spider remedy. He discussed a case in which a gentleman wore at his wrist a half of a walnut shell, within which was sealed a great, living spider. He was trying to prevent a coming fit of ague, but (ironically) died from it. Why did the spider kill the man despite being kept separate from his body by the walnut shell? Some physicians’ judgements echoed Boyle’s ideas about effluvia: the spider permeated its malignant steam into the veins near the pulse. Through the circulation of the blood, it finally reached and destroyed the heart.

Boyle paralleled this deadly spider at the wrist with many other noxious amulets, arguing that they probably influence the human body in a similar way. His argument gestures at the invisible fluidity of materials across the skin. Everything penetrates everything, thus toxics applied “outside” the body could have detrimental effects deeply “inside”. This made the pulse more than a site of diagnosis. With poisonous objects attached to it, the pulse could became a fatal portal into the body, potentially allowing the poison to flow to the heart at the centre.

Yet the portal of death may also be the portal of life: what if things put at the pulse were healthful, not toxic? Boyle was aware of this potential method of healing, which he put into practice by tying many herbal, mineral and animal ingredients to the wrist. He referred to them as pericarpia, wrist remedies (in Greek, peri means around, karpos means wrist). Recommending them as incredible cures to a range of diseases from agues to eye ailments, Boyle shared his own experience of a wrist remedy. Once he suffered from a violent quotidian fever, and no normal therapies had proved effective. Eventually, a physician applied to his wrists “a mixture of two handfuls of Bay-Salt, two handfuls of the freshest English Hops, and a quarter of a Pound of blew Currants very diligently beaten into a brittle Mass” and successfully cured him (Works, vol. 3, 420). This remedy should have been prescribed many times; Boyle reported that despite occasional failures, it showed “great Effects” on quotidian, tertian agues and continual fevers.

The underlying concept of the body has proven resilient. Under microscopes we observe the porosity of skin under microscopes; by X-rays and infrared photography, we see the deep landscape of the body and its material exchange with the outside environment. Such corporeal facts, many may assume, can only be excavated with the help of advanced visual technologies belonging to our age. But Boyle’s pulse-related discussions are testimony to the provocative insights into the openness and fluidity of the body which far predate our rediscovery of it (Murphy). Early modern people approached these facts using their distinct technologies, including the spider at the pulse. But it is that spider at the pulse that can serve as symbol of how early modern people imagined–and experienced–medical interventions that worked beyond, across, and beneath the skin. 

The spiders at the pulse, Boyle’s wrist remedies, and the ESPA aromatherapy substantiate a probably coherent historical lineage of the pulse as a therapeutic locus. Medical activities we engage in today seldom preserve this notion, as most of us view the pulse simply as the synonym of pulsebeat. In such fashion, pulse becomes nothing but a numerical result, told by counting and clocks, not touch. However, our wrists anointed by fragrances remind that we still enjoy the legacy of the pre-modern recognition of the pulse not only as a means to assess the body, but one to manipulate it. 

References

Boyle, Robert.  Essays of Effluviums. London, 1673.

Boyle, Robert. The Works of Robert Boyle, Electronic Edition, Vols. 3 and 13: Unpublished Writings, 1645-c. 1670, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering and Chatto, 2000.

Murphy, Hannah. “Skin and Disease in Early Modern Medicine: Jan Jessen’s De cute, et cutaneis affectibus (1601).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 94, 2 (2020): 179-214.

 

The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece

By Flint Dibble

We’re so used to modern, twenty-first century recipes. Everything is spelled out to a tee: ingredients, amounts, instructions. But, even if you look at earlier 20th century recipes, the detail is sparser. Techniques and amounts could be optional or elided over since certain knowledge was assumed. Ancient recipes, like those by the Roman chef Apicius, are even worse. There’s so much assumed knowledge, and we’re at such a cultural distance that it’s difficult to know exactly how a meal was prepared (though that doesn’t stop us from trying).

The recent online trend in recipes is recipe-blogging. For these, the detail can be excruciating. You need to read (or scroll) through a personal story about the recipe to get to the ingredients, amounts, and process. Understanding ancient Greek food from literary sources is like having access to the story part of a recipe-blog, without the recipe itself.

The recipe for animal sacrifice in ancient Greece is deceivingly simple: wrap a few bones in fat and burn them to a crisp. But, like many ancient recipes, the closer you examine it, the more questions you have. When you put together all our sources of evidence for ancient sacrifice – literary texts, artistic depictions, and ancient animal bones – the variability in ancient practice refreshes old research angles.

The epic poet Hesiod first described the reasons behind ancient animal sacrifice in a story about Prometheus tricking Zeus. Having chopped up an ox, he arranged two portions: 1) for mortals, Prometheus assigned the meat stuffed in the unappetizing stomach, and 2) while Zeus chose the white bones hidden beneath delicious, glistening fat. Hesiod ends this tale of deception with the offhand comment that ever since then, people have burned white bones for the gods (Hesiod Theogony 557).

But animal sacrifice was everywhere in ancient Greece. At every twist and turn of the story, Homeric heroes sacrificed mythical herds of big, beautiful bulls. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, the sacrificial recipe for a cow at the Palace of Nestor at Pylos is described in epic detail. After it was struck with an ax, and its blood collected in a bowl:

They butchered her, cut out the thighs, all in the proper place, and covered them with double fat and placed raw flesh upon them. The old king burned the pieces on the logs, and poured the bright red wine. The young men came to stand beside him holding five-pronged forks. They burned the thigh-bones thoroughly and tasted the entrails, then carved up the rest and skewered the meat on pointed spits, and roasted it (translation from Wilson 2017).

This scene is an exception. Most of the time, the gory details of sacrifice were assumed knowledge. That said, when mentioned, most often, the thigh-bones were mentioned as burned for the gods.

There are only a few exceptions to this pattern of thigh-bone burning in ancient Greek literature. In Aristophanes’ comedic play Peace (1055), the protagonist notes, after burning the thigh-bones of a sacrificed sheep, that the tail is curling. Scholars have connected this line with the many scenes of sacrificial curling tails painted on Athenian pots. Without this iconographic evidence, we wouldn’t have a clear context for this enigmatic mention in literature.

Pottery: red-figured stamnos depicting a sacrifice.is an altar on a double plinth, on which two rows of sticks set crosswise, are burning, with a large hook or the horn of an ox and a square object in the midst of the flames; beside it stands a bearded, wreathed man, in a mantle, inscribed.
Athenian red-figure stamnos depicting a tail curling on a flaming altar (British Museum 1839,0214.68 CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

A second exception is in the epic myth, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (115-137). Hermes steals a herd of cattle from Apollo, and – to avoid being tracked – he marches them backwards to a cave. Wanting to make it up to the other gods, Hermes slaughters two of the cattle and distributes the meat into 12 portions. Cleaning up the mess, he burns the feet and heads of the cattle in the fire.

This scene is troublesome. There are no parallels in the artistic or literary record. To some scholars of ancient Greek religion, this is an inversion of a typical sacrifice. A literary construct of sorts. After all, the gods here were assigned the meaty human portion. Everything’s mixed up.

But this whole picture is turned on its head when you look at ancient trash: the food remains found in archaeological sites. For a long time, bits of animal bone were ignored in favor of the study of monumental temples or beautiful art. As a zooarchaeologist, I can tell you that when you start looking at ancient trash, the whole picture of ancient Greek animal sacrifice gets messy.

On the one hand, animal bone evidence does somewhat match patterns from literature and art. Most of our burned bones at sanctuaries and temples were thigh-bones. At a few temples, we even have examples of burned tails. More surprisingly, recent evidence shows several sites where the feet (and sometimes heads) of animals were burned. Maybe that scene in the Hymn to Hermes reveals actual ritual practice and not a literary inversion. 

Burned ankle joint
Burned ankle joint from Azoria, Crete. Photography by Jonida Martini.
Feet bones of sheep and goat.
Feet bones of sheep and goats from Azoria, Crete. Photograph by Jonida Martini.

On the other hand, the evidence is also more complicated. Most of the animal bones from ancient Greek sites aren’t burned, including many unburned thigh-bones found in many settlements. Whether this means most animals weren’t sacrificed or that some sacrifices didn’t involve bone burning is unclear.

Plus, even among a pit of burned bones, most of which match one of the patterns above, there are large numbers of exceptions: other anatomical parts that were burned. For example, bones in archaeological deposits from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos do provide evidence for the burning of cattle thigh-bones in feasting contexts, but burned in equal numbers were the jaws and upper-forelimbs (humerus).

The variability presented by this new source of evidence alongside the ambiguities of assumed knowledge means that we need to re-evaluate our evidence. While the burgeoning study of food trash won’t let us recreate all the details of a recipe, it’s an opportunity for us to look upon recipes in old texts with fresh eyes.


About

Flint Dibble is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow in the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion at Cardiff University. His project ZOOCRETE will be examining the role of animals and foodways in ancient Greece, with a specific focus on Crete. His research touches on topics of urbanism, climate change, religious ritual, and everyday life. Flint is also a public scholar with a strong commitment to sharing knowledge widely. He is active on Twitter (@FlintDibble) where he regularly writes Twitter threads with footnotes that present archaeology to the broader public.  

My Soda Bread

By Kathleen Lynch

There was something wrong about the package that was delivered to me at work one early spring morning years ago. It was addressed to me, and the return address also had my surname. But I didn’t recognize the name as a family member, and I didn’t know anyone in the town in Connecticut on the address. So I opened it with some sense that this package wasn’t intended for me, and that sense was amplified when I found inside a pair of house slippers, a zip-top plastic baggie that seemed to hold some dry ingredients, a recipe for Irish soda bread, and a note signed “mom.”

Why did some other Kathleen Lynch’s mom send me her soda bread recipe, never mind the slippers? That was the question I asked when I found a phone number online and called to report that this mom’s package had gone to the wrong Kathleen Lynch. In conversation, the mom assured me that she had addressed the package to her daughter correctly, and that said daughter was in Washington for a congressional internship, staying on East Capitol Street. A closer look at the package’s address confirmed that Kathleen was staying right across the street from my workplace, Folger Shakespeare Library, and that the package had been misdelivered, not misaddressed.

I rewrapped the package, added a note of apology, and left it on the doorstep of a townhouse across the street. I must have asked about her family’s soda bread recipe, noting that mine featured raisins to her caraway seeds. The next day, I had a charming note in return, discussing that Kathleen’s grandmother’s approach to soda bread, “equal parts deference and rebellion towards the old way.” What we shared was an appreciation for a simple bread, easily prepared, best eaten warm out of the oven, and laden with memories of our grandmothers, and for me, a recipe I will always call Aunt Pat’s. But were either of our breads true soda breads? I knew both could be dismissed as “tea cakes,” not soda breads. For some, it is an adamantly held distinction.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the history of soda bread in Ireland. In particular, I wanted to know if the oral history was true that I had heard many decades ago when I spent a year at university in Cork: the British government denied yeast to the Irish. In any Irish cookbook I pick up now, I read the headnote to breads to see if they introduce the history. Though Colman Andrews prefaces his Country Cooking of Ireland with “A Note on Geopolitics,” addressing the still contested terminology for national boundaries and county names, it does not address the specific trade regulations or coercive practices that framed rural subsistence diets. In My Irish Table, local chef Cathal Armstrong calls these “quick breads,” and notes that “yeast would have been too expensive for people in the countryside in the time of the British occupation” anyway.

Multiple editions of Aunt Pat’s soda bread recipe. Credit: author.

 

Whatever the longer history of Irish hearth-based home cooking of breads in ‘bastibles’ or cast-iron, three-legged pots, the soda bread recipe took its recognizable shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of baking soda into Ireland. Combined with sour milk or buttermilk, this agent worked to create “a very light and palatable leavened wheat bread that can easily be produced at home,” as Regina Sexton reported in A Little History of Irish Food. And as Armstrong adds, “most households in Ireland have their own recipe for quick breads passed down through the generations.”  In stressing ease and simple ingredients and tools, these authors all lightly skirt the question of impoverishment in old Ireland. For the spread of this breadmaking through Ireland also tracks the years of famine, death, sporadic relief efforts (including by English Quakers), the introduction of maize meal by the British government to offset the failing potato crops, and mass emigration.

I still don’t know the documented history of yeast in Irish baked goods. None of Sexton’s historical recipes in her “Cereals” section include it. I do understand how the oral history holds open the wounds of oppression. At the same time, I see welcome new cooking traditions taking hold in Ireland. They are based on the riches of land and seas, and often influenced by the work of the Allen family at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork. Each of the authors above gives credit and expresses gratitude to that family. These new traditions speak powerfully to the work of nourishment and healing that food can do.

Slices of soda bread. Credit: author.

 

Memories are slippery things, formed and reformed over time and across experiences. In looking for a printed copy of “Aunt Pat’s” soda bread, I had to consider if I shouldn’t start calling this “Aunt Maureen’s” recipe, given that Aunt Pat—my mother’s sister—told me once that she adopted her recipe from Aunt Maureen—my father’s sister. So maybe it’s a Lynch recipe rather than a Gibbons one. On finding multiple printed copies of a recipe I haven’t consulted in years, I was also taken aback that Aunt Pat listed shortening as the fattening agent. That doesn’t make the bread any more satisfying to a purist, but it holds the memories of poverty closer. Or does it only speak to its time? Kathleen wrote to me that her mother made so many substitutions in the name of a healthier loaf that the “result was a dry, unpredictable rock.”

If in its purest form, soda bread does without even sugar and butter, is that not also a reminder of resourcefulness of the subsistence farmer? If Kathleen and I and all the sisters and daughters of our economically-deprived foremothers add those embellishments for a richer loaf, don’t we do it to carry forward traditions rather than be bound by them? In sitting down to a cup of tea and a slice of steaming hot soda bread with generous dabs of butter, don’t we keep their memories alive?

Irish Soda Bread

  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2 cups seedless raisins
  • 1 ½ cup buttermilk (or substitute whole milk with 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar per cup milk)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. baking soda

Simmer raisins in pan of hot water. Mix and sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Work in butter with fingertips until it resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in drained raisins. Combine buttermilk, egg, baking soda. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just moistened. Do not overmix. Bake in greased medium baking dish at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

I think of this as my Grandma Gibbons’ soda bread recipe, and I’ve adapted it from the recipe my Aunt Pat contributed to her garden club cookbook years ago. But Aunt Pat tells me she took it from my Aunt Maureen on the Lynch side of the family. So I pass it along from both the Gibbonses and the Lynches of County Mayo.


About

Kathleen Lynch researches and writes about the Protestant spiritual autobiography and the communities of devotion that gave rise to them. She is the executive director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She tweets @thatklynch. Her only regret about a year spent in Cork, Ireland as an undergraduate is that it predated the opening of the butter museum there.

Garcinia Longings

By Rini Barman

My digestive tract goes for a toss once seasons are about to change in Assam. I am speaking of that eerie intermediary period when the winds, too, aren’t very sure which direction to follow. With rising temperatures and global warming each year, weaker tummies only go from bad to worse. One cannot predict when the ghastly phenomena of multiple burps or dumps might occur. I have tried everything—eating bland, working out, sleeping early, chucking out midnight Netflix, and even taking mild antacids. 

Mother used to say I have a cursed tummy when none of her ‘gut’ suggestions worked. And a sour stomach is a lot to deal with. Imagine the dreariness amidst the super fast-paced nature of life—the speeding cars under the terrace, the local shopkeeper screaming to set up his tiny outlet of edible greens, the small children taking their dolls to the street for they now have no place to play. No time to slow down a bit and look back at the concrete urban disasters one has cooked for oneself.

When I asked their parents about their nonchalance, they told me the grapes are all sour. I had invited them to my terrace—I thought, well let’s have some thekera (garcinia peduncalata). Most of them had homes outside Assam. They’d not really tasted it and thought it was some black-coloured leaf.

Dried garcinia pieces. Credit: author.

 

My weekends are now often occupied in drying fresh thekera and storing it in small containers. I befriended a local fruit-seller; he too knows that an ill person has a dozen medical bills and he’d rather not fleece them. His name is Hemendra Deka, Hemen for short. His wife left behind twin daughters whom he has to feed by selling fruits and veggies by evening and milk by day.

Tangy Liaisons

Local proverbs tell us one shouldn’t eat anything sour alone: ‘sakala tengati okole nakhaba’. Doing so irritates the tummy more. The idea here is that sourness stimulates enzymes and makes one crave it more—greed, after all, is a vice. Thus, sharing sour fruits and vegetables is a sign of caring for each other—a kind of intimacy even. Elderly women also believe harsh tanginess can be injurious to health, and must be balanced out with sweeter stuff (like sugar syrup and jaggery) at weddings and social events. But to totally cut it out is to miss out on the spice of tanginess altogether. The term ‘tenga hoi gol’ implies it has gone all to waste—this is used liberally from rotten food to relationships. There’s also ‘tenga lagise’ as a synonym for tiredness to mean ‘I am now bored and sick of it.’ The reference to unpleasant tastes and rotten food as having gone ‘sour’ is quite interesting. 

Tanginess Spectrum

Basking in the winter sun isn’t a distant memory to me. I still find excuses to do it while peeling lemons, oranges, tamarinds, and other stuff like mixing chillies and salt with robab tenga, our very own pomelo (Citrus Maxima). The locals also consume the tender leaves of the edible garcinia and add them into their curries. A slight addition also adds a distinct flavour. The Northeastern region of India is home to a lot of piquant species—there’s a tanginess spectrum and a rich, rich palette. One cannot pin it down to an either/or.   

Sun dried garcinia pieces turn blackish. Credit: author.

 

To me, the sourness of thekera isn’t like lemon or the abundantly available elephant apple, ou-tenga—both of which are mostly consumed raw. But thekera is usually sun-dried and for usage later on. Amongst the diverse sour plants and fruits, thekera has a kind of moderate tanginess—the reason why it balances the stomach. Available and consumed across Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, it works wonders with reflux ailments. Powdered thekera is a medicinal potion to ease digestive problems like dysentery; it also helps menstrual aches heal. 

No Quick Fixes

During that time of the month, I crave some tangy eating, unlike my cousin sisters who don’t have lemons or anything sour to prevent too much bleeding. What I do is dip one or two slices of thekera into boiled lentils or my fish curry. For those who enjoy more tanginess, you can soak thekera overnight in water and use it as a souring agent in your dishes the next day. My mother used to add thekera in case other kinds of vegetables like tomatoes were not as sour as she expected them to be. It worked as a quick fix back when I was a child. 

But life now is very far from such quick fixes. Hemen told me new fruits in the market are mostly chemically-ripened and that there is cutthroat competition. Local sellers are desperately juggling to make ends meet. “Raising daughters is no mean feat—you too must be careful, don’t eat tangy stuff all the time, tummies can be delicate at this age”, he advises me with his ‘fatherly’ basics, as he puts some thekera into my bag. 

I think of him dearly very often, wondering what his daughters might look like and how difficult it is to make do without a parent. My summer evenings are no longer filled with rum and whiskey but with thekera-flavoured water. Perhaps life too is going to be more of the same—a choice between dried tanginess and raw acidic toxins. I guess one has to keep swimming! 

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

The Thekera Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 3 slices of dried thekera (soaked overnight in water)
  • Ice cubes
  • Rock salt
  • Sugar or honey
  • 1 medium glass of chilled water

The next day, strain the water  into a separate glass. Mix 4-5 tbsp of that into a glass of water. Add honey/ sugar and salt to taste. Add the ice cubes. Your humble cocktail is ready.

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

 


About

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. Her interests include art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. Her essays have appeared in esteemed national dailies and magazines. She tweets @barman_rini.