Category Archives: Antiquity

Healing words: Quintus Serenus’ pharmacological poem

Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of ancient science to modern readers is its predilection for verse. The ancient Greek and Romans could express the most complex scientific and medical notions in poetic form. Thus, many pharmacological recipes in Greek and Latin were cast in verse. These poetic recipes can be divided – very roughly – into two categories: those that are filled with metaphors and riddles that readers must decode; and those that use verse to assist memory through the means of rhythm and uncomplicated poetic imagery.

The verse recipes of Quintus Serenus (or Quintus Serenus Sammonicus: very little is known of this author, who lived at the end of the second – beginning of the third century CE) fall somewhere between these two categories. These remedies, collected in the Liber Medicinalis (Medical Book), include numerous learned references, but do not require advanced riddle-solving skills from their readers. Serenus borrowed most of his recipes from older pharmacological authorities, such as Pliny the Elder (first century CE), but added other some material, in particular magical recipes.

Serenus’ best known recipe is undoubtedly the ‘abracadabra’ recipe, which include the first known occurrence of that magical word. It recommends writing the word on a piece of parchment, which is then used as an amulet in the treatment of a particular type of fever:

One possible representation of the 'Abracadabra' amulet. Source: Wikipedia
One possible representation of the ‘Abracadabra’ amulet. Source: Wikipedia

Much more fatal [than other fevers] is that which is called ‘hemitritaios’
In Greek words; this in our language
Nobody could express, I believe, and neither did parents wish for it.
Write upon a piece of papyrus the word ABRACADABRA
And repeat it more times underneath, but take away the last letter
So that more and more individual elements will be missing from the figure,
Those which you constantly remove, while you retain the others,
Until a single letter remains at the end of a narrow cone.
Tie this to the neck with a linen thread; remember that!
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-9; for more information on this poem, see Peter Kruschwitz’s great blog]

Serenus used inscribed parchment as a healing ingredient in at least another recipe. This is a recipe to treat insomnia in people suffering from fevers:

Not only does the most loathsome fever consume wretched patients,
It further deprives them of longed-for sleep,
Lest they should benefit of the heavenly gift of peaceful sleep.
Therefore inscribe a piece of parchment with random words,
Burn it, then drink the ashes in hot water.
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis 54.1-5]

With such recipes, it not surprising that historians of magic have paid more attention to Serenus than medical historians. It is very easy to dismiss such practices as hocus pocus. I would argue, however, that one should not take Serenus’ recipes at face value. Certainly, these are real recipes which Serenus collected from various sources, but did Serenus intend his readers actually to prepare them? It is always difficult to gage an author’s intention (and reader’s response), but it is still worth noting that in the first lines of his work, Serenus wrote:

Phoebus [Apollo], protect this health-giving song, which I composed
And let this manifest favour be an attendant to the art you discovered [medicine].
[Quintus Serenus, Liber Medicinalis, preface 1-2]

Serenus, then, calls his poem a ‘salutiferum carmen’, a ‘health-giving song’. This poem is healing because it contains healing recipes, but it is also healing in itself, as a piece of poetry. The idea that poetry could heal – or at least alleviate pain, or sweeten harsh treatments – was a common one in Roman culture. In particular, the Epicurean poet Lucretius had compared the role of poetry in philosophy to that of honey as a sweetener to a bitter medicinal preparation (De Rerum Natura 1.936-942).

I would suggest that for Quintus Serenus poetry in itself is healing: listening to mellifluous words can heal, especially when they pertain to pharmacology. In this context, recipes that have words as their main ingredient, as in the case of the ABRACADABRA recipe or the recipe against insomnia, become particularly significant. Not only can a poem heal; it can be dissected into its basic components – random words and letters – and still retain much of its power.

 

 

 

Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.

Removing Arrowheads in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

By Aileen Das

For a doctor is a man worth many others

cutting out arrows and applying soothing remedies.

– Homer, Iliad XI.514–15

Warfare was a reality for most ancient Romans and Greeks. Free men were often recruited to serve in the army either at home or abroad to further the expansion of their city or empire’s sovereign territory. Arrows were frequently used in pre-modern combat because of the relative ease of their manufacture; they could be cheaply produced from material ready at hand, such as bone, glass, wood, bronze, and iron. For those attending the wounded on or off the battlefield, it was important to know how to extract arrows and treat their wounds. Homer emphasizes the value of this area of medical knowledge when he exclaims that a doctor who possesses the skills to “cut out arrows” and “apply soothing remedies” is highly prized (Iliad XI.514–15).

While medical texts from antiquity offer detailed surgical instructions for extracting arrows from patients,some non-medical authors advocate the use of pharmaceuticals to remove these weapons. For example, in the Natural Histories (8.41), Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) remarks that the perennial dittany is useful for extracting arrowheads, because it causes the point to fall out when placed on the wound. He adds that dittany’s power was first discovered by hunters, who observed that arrows became dislodged from wounded stags who grazed on this plant.

Cretan Dittany (Origanum dictamnus) Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Cretan Dittany (Origanum dictamnus). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The engineer Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC) recommends the application of honey and cerate–wax mixed with oil, lard, and sometimes other medicinal ingredients–to treat arrow wounds (Mechanical Syntax V.96.15–19). These substances are styptics, having the ability to staunch blood flow and bind flesh. Moreover, honey is recognized today as having anti-bacterial properties, and thus would have helped prevent infection in arrow wounds.

Medical treatises from the medieval Islamicate world contain a range of recipes for extracting arrows. Largely based on ancient Greek medical sources, these treaties were rendered into Arabic by translators working in Baghdad from the eighth to tenth centuries.

But authors often included information derived from non-Greek sources or from their own experience. In his manual Book for al-Manṣūr (VII.25), the Persian doctor Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. c. 925, known as Rhazes in Latin), who treated patients in hospitals in Ray, Iran and Baghdad, mentions several ‘extractive drugs’ (adwiya jādhiba) that possess the power to draw out thorns and arrowheads from flesh. Each drug is made of a honey base and compounded respectively with ammoniac salt, narcissus bulb, and reed root. None of these recipes appear in surviving Greek sources, so al-Rāzī may have added them on his own authority.

Certainly, al-Rāzī had some experience of dealing with arrow wounds, for in the Book of Experiences, a record of around 900 cases that al-Rāzī personally treated or supervised, a student describes al-Rāzī’s ecounter with a male patient wounded in the thigh by an arrow.[1] In this case, al-Rāzī does not attempt to extract the arrow from the man’s body, but recommends a drying diet to alleviate his pain. It is possible that al-Rāzī never actually employed in practice the extractive drugs listed in Book for al-Manṣūr, but instead copied these recipes from either a lost Greek or contemporary Arabic source.

Compared to other Arabic medical writers, Ibn Sīna (or Avicenna, 980–1037) provides the most complex list of extractive drug recipes for removing arrows in his influential medical encyclopedia the Canon of Medicine. Born in what is now Uzbekistan, Ibn Sīnā studied medicine as a young man and served as a courtier to several local rulers. Ibn Sīnā relates several extractive drug recipes that are prepared from plant and animal materials (IV.4.2.10). Like al-Rāzī, Ibn Sīnā highlights the extractive powers of reed root and narcissus bulb, but he does not instruct the reader to mix these plant products with honey. Rather, the former should be crushed on the wound and the latter, added to a plaster of gillyflower and birthroot.

Bulb of Narcissus species (Daffodil)  Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Wellcome Images
Bulb of Narcissus species (Daffodil). Image Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Wellcome Images.

Ibn Sīnā also advises the use of skinned frogs, which supposedly has the power to uproot teeth. And so, when placed on arrow wounds, it will draw out even the most adherent points. Ibn Sīnā includes the recipes as a supplement to his surgical instructions, but does not disclose whether he tried any of them in his own practice. As in antiquity, surgery remained the most reliable, if risky, method of getting the point.

[1] Al-Rāzī, Kitāb al-Taǧārib: maʿa dirāsa fī manhaǧ al-baḥṯ al-ʿilmī ʿinda al-Rāzī, Ḫālid Aḥmad Ḥarbī (ed), (Alexandria 2006), 294.

 

Nicander’s snake repellant recipe. Part 2: pastoral horror and rustic remedies

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Today we return to Nicander’s snake repellant recipe, this time with a new focus: the dramatic setting where calm countryside hides a range of dangers, and the protagonist whose life is so full of bloodthirsty snakes that he resorts to covering himself in rose-scented snake goop.

Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. Source: Wikipedia
Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. Source: Wikipedia

There is something very odd about the world Nicander is showing us: the poetry’s style, vocabulary, and allusions to mythology are the product of elite, urban culture under Pergamene court sponsorship (see here for more on King Attalus, who was Nicander’s patron). And yet, the poet seems to be writing advice for an audience that goes on frequent walks through snake-infested paths, sleeps in snake-infested places, and threshes their own wheat frequently enough to need large batches of snake repellant. Granted, it is plausible that ancient elites could have been concerned about snake encounters while travelling, or when spending nights at rustic estates. However, the sort of person who would be looking up snake lore in Nicander’s poetry would not be doing so on his threshing break!

This is where genre comes into play: Nicander is writing a kind of poetry in which rustic protagonists in rural settings are expected. In antiquity, didactic poems concerning nature were usually written as if meant to help outdoorsy farmers, no matter how urbane the actual author and audience. But Nicander’s world comes with a key difference – a clever subversion of pastoral fantasy: Nicander’s narrator is leading us not through an orderly rustic landscape, but through a snake-infested scorpion-encrusted tour of horrors.

A rose as illustrated in the Anicia Dioscorides, a 6th century copy of an ancient pharmacy manual. Source: http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/herbs/vienna-disocorides/
A rose as illustrated in the Anicia Dioscorides, a 6th century copy of an ancient pharmacy manual.

This is where the non-snake ingredients of the recipe — the deer, wax, and rose oil — come into play. First, the roses. Theophrastus, a philosopher and botanist predating Nicander, mentions that rose oil is so useful for covering up other smells that perfume merchants on the point of losing a sale would overpower their customers’ ability to smell properly by wafting rose oil at them.[1] One can imagine that the end product of a snake-and-deer soup could benefit from the odor masking properties of rose oil! Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. [2] The presence of salt also accounts for the puzzling “Finely ground” grade mentioned in the recipe.

Deer marrow is also an apt addition. While not a rare species, deer are a rural creature available primarily to country folk and those in cities wealthy enough to buy game meat. Even then, getting fresh deer marrow (as Nicander specifies) would give an urban druggist difficulty.[3] Deer antler was regularly used in smoke-screens against snakes, and Dioscorides, an author of the first century CE, maintains that the marrow also can drive off wild beasts. So here too an ingredient that is in keeping with the pharmacy of the ancient world also adds a thematic touch of rustic flavor to the poem’s setting.

Nicander’s wax is almost an afterthought, a common ingredient likely added for consistency’s sake. Beeswax, then as now, could make a runny mixture (like snake-deer-rose stew) into a more workable topical lotion.

So what should we make of Nicander’s recipe?  This sort of poetry was the ‘infotainment’ of its day. He entertains and educates by making connections to stories and images that are familiar to his audience, much the same way that Neil DeGrasse Tyson uses stories, myths, and animation technology in his Cosmos series. Although not himself a scholar of toxicology, Nicander worked from texts written by the experts of his time, and natural philosophers of subsequent generations treated the Theriaca as a reliable source.[4]

As for the recipe itself, there is no way to know whether anyone actually wandered the ancient Mediterranean countryside looking for mating snakes to toss into their next batch of snake repellant, but Nicander gives clear directions that include the elements one expects from less literary recipes. There are probably traces of actual folk practice inspiring the passage, but it’s nearly impossible to say which elements those are.

Nor should one try to divorce the elements of Nicander’s recipe from each other; on the contrary, there is therapeutic value in reading a finely crafted recipe, even if you never whip up your own batch. Everything about this passage is tailor-made to grasp an elite audience’s attention, first by creating a sense of urgent horror as a familiar setting devolves into a poisonous nightmare, then provide comfort in the form of human knowledge and power.

The recipe itself is therapy via fantasy for human beings who have had it with all these snakes on their plains.

[1] Theophrastus De Odoribus 10

[2] Theophrastus De Odoribus 8.

[3] See Dalby Food in the Ancient World, p. 114.

[4] Scarborough discusses the full range of sources in “Nicander’s Toxicology