Revisiting Laurence Totelin’s Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity

Well, the Dog Days of summer are upon us once again…To help us cope with the heat, we revisit Laurence Totelin’s wonderful post from 2018.  In “Fevers and the Dog Star in Antiquity”, Laurence tells us about the origins of the term “Dog Days” and about various ancient remedies for seiriasis a fever whose name evokes the Dog Star Sirius. Keep cool, everyone! Elaine Leong


By Laurence Totelin

Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:

When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]

The constellation Sirius in the ninth-century manuscript Harley MS 647 . Source: wikipedia

To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.

Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:

Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]

Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.

An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:

The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]

Girl playing with a dog on a Greek funerary stele, second century BCE. Credit: British Museum

Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.

Basel Pharmacy Museum: An Interview

The Recipes Project heads to Basel, Switzerland, to learn about the collections of the Pharmacy Museum. Laurence Totelin spoke with Philippe Wanner,  Barbara Orland, Corinne Eichenberger and Martin Kluge.

The Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

Could you give us a brief overview of your collections? How and when were they gathered together?

In 1924, when the pharmacist and historian Professor Josef Anton Häfliger began teaching at the University of Basel, he donated his private collection of pharmaceutical objects and historical books to the university. Since then, and until his death in 1954, Häfliger worked hard to collect further objects and money to built up a pharmacy museum. He designed the museum to teach first his students, and, second, the wider public about the historically outdated aspects of the apothecary’s work. Materia medica obsoleta, for instance, is the name he gave the room that until today exhibits remedies, drugs and medicinal objects of the three kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal/human), folk medicine and exotica brought from overseas to Swiss pharmacies since the seventeenth century. Häfliger was lucky to purchase further private collections. For instance, he acquired the collection of the Basel apothecary Theodor Engelmann (b. 1851), who had specialized in mineralogy and mineral drugs. Moreover, he was clever enough to impose conditions on the deed of donation. Amongst other things, he determined that the museum should remain part of the pharmacy department and function as an object for study.

The herbarium, the Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

You are located in a beautiful building. Can you tell us a little but about its history?

The museum is located in the so-called “Haus zum Vorderen Sessel”. This building was first mentioned in 1296 when it was used as a public bathhouse fed by water from the “Goldbrunnen” (Gold Well). The most famous part of the building’s history began around 1490, when the book printer Johannes Amerbach opened up a printing house, taken over in 1507 by another famous printer, Johannes Froben. A number of noteworthy humanist scholars, such as Erasmus von Rotterdam, resided and worked here. These writers were joined by recognized illustrators, such as Hans Holbein the Younger. Theophrastus von Hohenheim (commonly known as Paracelsus) practiced medicine in this house as the Froben family physician between 1526 and 1527. Subsequently, the house changed hands several times. In 1814, it housed the first public school for girls in Basel. More than 80 years later it became the Vocational School for Women. Finally, the University’s first Institute of Pharmacy was built up here since 1917 until the year 2000. The scientific collection, since 1925 open for the wider public, remained in the building.

You are a University Museum. What is your relation with the University of Basel?

As a donation of one of the pharmacy professors the collection belongs until today the Department of Pharmacy of the University of Basel. The large lecture room is used for history of science seminars and lectures, but it also belongs to the university facilities.

The Alchemy Room, Pharmacy Museum. Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

The team working at the museum is interdisciplinary. Can you tell us a bit about how your work as a team?

In our museum we are used to work together over disciplinary boarders. Some studied biology some pharmacy some contemporary dance some history or medieval music. Most of the daily working fields like collection traffic, communication, pharmaceutical safety issues or scientific research are personalised and belong to the field of activity of one or two colleagues. For special events or special exhibitions these fields sometimes get newly organised. It is very fruitful to work in an interdisciplinary context where the borders are fluently between science, arts and humanities.

Pharmazie-Historisches Museum Basel

Can you give us a few highlights from your collections? Do you have favourites?

The museum is home to numerous exotic lures and unusual objects (like stuffed alligators, a porcupine fish, the enormous tooth of narwhal, or ‘unicorn’ horns) that apothecaries formerly used to attract the attention of their customers, but which also demonstrated their interests in natural history. The stocks of exotic drugs and objects that colonization brought to early modern pharmacies is quite large too.

What is the most ancient artefact you have? What is the most recent?

The most ancient artefacts are supposed to be our mummy artefacts. Indeed, crushed and powdered chunks of Egyptian mummies were used as medicine for various illnesses such as ailments of the lung, of the spleen, stitches in the side and external wounds during the 15th century. However, the various vessels with the inscription Mumia vera aegyptica and Mumia vera and wooden boxes in the museum date back to the 18th century; a glass vessel from around 1920 bears the following inscription: “Engelmann ‘s pharmacy, Mumia vera, Basel Untere Rheingasse 2”. In addition, under the name “Mumia vera” the exhibition shows mummified body parts such as a foot, a head and upper and lower legs shown. Other vessels also contain volatile human brain salt (Sal crani humani volatile), small white and pebble-like chunks, which are marked as prepared human brain bowl (Cranium humanum preap.).  The Pharmacy Museum commissioned the analysis of such and similar fragments. An anthropologist has examined the substances. With respect to the brown chunks, he concluded that it is material that has solidified inside a skull of liquid form. The other Mumia specimens clearly contained coccyx bone, and parts of a human brain shell, which are filled with a shiny asphalt-like mass. How old these actually are remains an open question.

Some of the most ancient artefacts in fact come from Augusta Raurica – a Roman colony near Basel. Roman medicinal tools, a spatula and copies of Roman cupping glasses, in short, the most important equipment of a physician in antiquity, are dated around 50 AC.

The most recent artefact is a playmobil figure — a pharmacist version with the German pharmacy logo.(Original Packing from 2015).

Medicinal jar collections, Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

How can scholars find out what is in your collections? In what ways can they work with your collections? 

The best way for scholars is to contact the museum staff. A direct conversation will figure out the possibility of working with our collection and archive.

 

What’s In an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag?

By Alana Martini, published as part of the Undergraduate Series

I have been fascinated by the world of cosmetics for a very long time, and it appears that I am not the only one. Our love affair with cosmetics is almost as old as humanity itself. Large amounts of red ochre were found, dating roughly from 100 to 125,000 years ago during excavations in South African caves – these are presumed to be have been used to paint the body and the face. One might say that this desire to adorn ourselves with cosmetics is an intrinsic part of the human experience, as it is shared practice across different cultures.

From the various looks we have sported across the centuries, the Ancient Egyptian look stands out as one of the more memorable ones in the history of makeup. This is not a surprise, for the Ancient Egyptians were avid lovers of cosmetics. Their heavily kohl-lined eyes are instantly recognizable and often recreated in Hollywood blockbusters, the most famous portrayal being Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

Earlier on this year, I embarked on a project that involved studying Ancient Egyptian cosmetics and a subsequent reconstruction of a typical “Egyptian look” from the New Kingdom. This research culminated in a short video tutorial. Although cosmetics were used by both genders, my analysis focused on women only. Here are a few of the main conclusions that I have reached along the way:

In the beginning, cosmetics served a practical purpose: to protect the wearer from the harsh rays of the sun. Malachite, one of the principal ingredients used in eye paints, shielded the eyes by absorbing some of the sun’s rays, and the oil they mixed it with would catch the dust from the desert. Another prominent ingredient in eye paints was galena, which helped to prevent and treat eye diseases. Thus, a very popular combination for eye makeup consisted of malachite used as a green eye shadow and galena to line the eyes. It is not clear whether the ancient Egyptians were aware of the properties of their ingredients, but it is known that they were experts in wet chemistry, often creating mixtures that required complex procedures as long ago as 2000 BC.

However, the use of cosmetics for women went beyond practicality. There is strong evidence to suggest that, as most women today, Egyptian women enjoyed applying makeup purely for beautification. I stress the word “women” here, for only they are depicted during acts of beautification on wall reliefs.

Image 1: Painting from the tomb of Nakht depicting three women (Google images)

Judging by the evidence, it appears that women wore more makeup than men which, I suspect, has its roots in their biological difference. For instance, the contrast between facial features and facial skin is more pronounced in women than in men, and women’s use of makeup enhances this and influences the attractiveness of a given face.  In the Egyptian case, the brows were darkened and the eyes lined with kohl to accentuate this contrast. Other colours were used as well; the ancient palette consisted of blue, turquoise, terracotta, and different shades of brown and grey. Many samples of eye paint have been found in graves in the form of a paste (which has dried up over time) or more commonly as a powder.

Moreover, it has been posited that redness in the cheeks enhances “apparent health and attractiveness, particularly in female faces.” To “fake” redness, the Egyptian woman would have used red ochre, a pigment that occurs naturally in the Egyptian desert. This deep burnt orange shade was also most likely used as a lip tint, although there is no definite proof to support this. Red has been a popular choice as a lip colour through time in diverse cultures – the colour red appears to us “exciting and stimulating,” and lip redness makes a woman’s face more attractive and feminine. From my own observations, I strongly believe that this was the case, especially if we consider the vibrant lip shade on the Nefertiti bust.

Images 2 and 3: A side by side comparison between the Nefertiti bust and my modern reconstruction. I have used red ochre, and the reader will note that the lip shade is strikingly similar.

What does all of this tell us about Ancient Egyptian practices regarding cosmetics? Egyptian women, like many women today, enjoyed applying cosmetics to their face. Although an authentic Egyptian look would appear caricature-like in today’s society, there are certain elements that could easily be identified in a modern woman’s routine – the red lips or the kohl-lined eyes, for instance. Contemporary women try and achieve similar results as their Egyptian predecessors, just not in the same intensity. Beautification was an important part of a woman’s life, and it proves that we are not so dissimilar after all. The desire to adorn ourselves remains every bit as strong as four millennia ago.


References

Betrò, M. 2017. «Bello come il cielo»: il senso del bello nell’antico Egitto. Storia Delle Donne, 12(1), 81-96.

Corson, R. 2003. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. London: Peter Owen Publishers.

Eldridge, L. 2015. Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. New York: Abrams Image.

Lucas, A. 1930. Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 16(1/2), 41-53.

Manniche, L. 1999. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. London: Opus Publishing Limited.

Mikkelides, B. 2012. Colour psychology: the emotional effects of colour perception. In Best, J. (ed.): Colour Design: Theories and Applications. Oxford: Woodhead Publishing.

Russell, R. 2003. Sex, beauty and the relative luminance of facial features. Perception 32, 1093-1107.

Stephen, I. and McKeegan, A. 2010. Lip color affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness. Perception 39, 1104-1110.

Walter, P., Martinetto, P., Tsoucaris, G., Brniaux, R., Lefebvre, M.A., Richard, G., Talabot, J., Dooryhee, E. 1999. Making make-up in Ancient Egypt. Nature volume 397, 483–484.

Watterson, B. 1991. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Smelling of Roses in Ancient Rome

By Laurence Totelin as part of the perfume series

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Source: Wikimedia

The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) had a knack for depicting the — sometimes imaginary — luxurious excesses of the Romans. In The Roses of Heliogabalus, he represented a banquet hosted by the emperor Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Vast amounts of delicate rose petals are drifting onto the banqueters, some of whom appear to be asleep, perhaps after drinking too much. Look more carefully, however, and you will note that some are inert but have their eyes wide open — they are dead, suffocated under the oppressive roses.

Alma-Tadema’s inspiration for his painting was a story preserved in a collection of emperors’ biographies called the Historia Augusta (21.5). There, the emperor is said to have smothered his guests with violets and other flowers — no roses then — released from a reversible ceiling. The guests were unable to crawl from under the roses and died; it is unclear whether the emperor had intended for this to happen. If the story is true, Elagabalus might have emulated another infamous Roman emperor, Nero (54-68 CE), who also had a reversible ceiling in his palace, which opened up to scatter flowers and spray perfume (Suetonius, Nero 31).

It would be impossible to count the flowers on Alma-Tadema’s canvas, but one would guess that they are in their thousands. Imagine a heap of a thousand fresh roses. Imagine their scent.

One thousand roses is the exact number we find mentionned in a second-century letter from Roman Egypt preserved on papyrus. Apollonios and Serapias write to Dionysia to apologise for having sent only a thousand roses for the wedding ceremony of Dionysia’s son, Serapion:

There are not yet many roses here — rather a shortage — and from all the farms and all the garland makers we had difficulty in putting together the thousand which we sent you via Sarapas, even by picking the ones which should have been picked tomorrow. We had as many narcissi as you wanted so we sent you four thousand instead of the two thousand you ordered (P. Oxy. 3313; translation John Muir)*

Cupids hanging rose garlands. Roman Fresco, end of the first century CE. Getty Centre. Source: wikimedia.

One thousand roses is also the number we find in the first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides’ recipe for rose perfume (Materia Medica 1.43). The recipe is long and complex and involves several stages. What is clear, however, is that the petals of ‘1000 unmoistened roses’ are left to steep overnight in 20 litrai 5 oungiai of olive oil (approximately 6.7 kg — equivalence between ancient and modern weights and measures is difficult to establish). The petals are then squeezed out, and the same amount of fresh petals can be added to the oil. Dioscorides notes that “the oil accepts the addition of rose petals up to the seventh insertion and no more.”

Imagine then that oil into which the petals of no less than 7000 fresh roses have been inserted. The head spins. Imagine too the feeling of that perfume on your skin. The thick oiliness of it. Let me tell you a secret: I feel queasy at the very thought of it. I can’t quite fathom the work involved in picking this extraordinary amount of thorny flowers, in detaching the petals without bruising them too much, in squeezing them out by hand. Yet that work was carried out, and in antiquity, it was probably carried out by enslaved people. Roses can be oppressive in more senses than one!


Muir, John. 2009. Life and Letters in the Ancient Greek World, London and New York: Routledge.