Category Archives: Antiquity

The coral and the seal: an ancient amulet against all ills

By Laurence Totelin

In a recent post, Sietske Fransen and Saskia Klerk introduced a seventeenth-century recipe whose main ingredient was red coral. That ingredient has made several other apparitions in The Recipes Project posts (see here, here, and here). Perhaps it is time it took centre stage. For coral is not any ingredient. We know it to be an animal (a marine invertebrate), but it is only in the eighteenth century that it was finally classified as such. Beforehand, it was generally considered to be a plant, albeit a very peculiar one, as it transformed into stone when in contact with the air. In Greek, coral was at times called ‘lithodendron’, literally, the stone-plant. As such, it was usually included in Lapidaries, treatises devoted to stones and their healing or magical properties. Thus, the Orphic Lapidary describes it as follows:

Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Credit: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia
Perseus with the head of Medusa on a Roman fresco at Stabiae. Photo: Amadalvarez, Wikimedia

For it first grows as a green grass, but not on the ground,
Which, as we all know, gives solid food to plants, but in the sea,
The sterile sea, where are born the seaweeds and the light mosses.
Orphic Lapidary 517-519

According to a legend recounted by the poet Ovid (first century CE), coral was born of the blood of Medusa’s severed head, which the hero Perseus had placed on seaweeds. The plants, as they absorbed the monster’s blood, became harder and redder. Sea Nymphs then sowed the seeds of the newly-created coral into the sea (Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.740-753).

Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570). Credit: Wikipedia
Perseus and Andromeda, by Giorgio Vasari (c. 1570. Source: Wikipedia

Since it had been born from blood, coral was believed to have good blood staunching properties; Dioscorides (first century CE) wrote in his Materia Medica that ‘it cicatrizes; it treats quite effectively blood spitting’ (5.121). Galen (second century CE) preserves several recipes against blood loss that include the exotic coral, including one attributed to Philadelphus the Great (in reference to one of the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt):

Another remedy of Philadelphus the Great for those who spit blood: two obols of coral, four obols of Samian clay, two kyathoi of juice of knot-grass; give two draughts in total. (Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 7.4, 13.80 Kühn)

Unsurprisingly, the other main ingredient in this recipe, the earth from Samos, was also red. In fact, Discorides believed that it was that colour because the inhabitants of Samos mixed it with the blood of a goat (Materia Medica 5.153) – a fact that Galen knew to be false.

Coral had several other properties beside its blood staunching ones. Thus, it is recommended as an ingredient in the following teeth-whitening preparation:

V0022008ETL A coral. Etching. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A coral. Etching. 1793 Published: 1 November 1793 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Coral, etching by F.P. Nodder (1793. Credit: Wellcome Images

Very good remedy to whiten the teeth: red coral, pumice stone, stones of dates, bones of cuttle-fish, and burnt salts; crush and use. (pseudo-Galen, Remedies easily Procured 2.8.14, 14.432 Kühn)

This powder may (or may not) have whitened the teeth, but I am not certain it would have been a good breath-freshener – a bit too fishy for my own liking.

My favourite coral recipe, however, comes from the Cyranides, a collection of magical material in Greek. It suggests using coral wrapped in the skin of a seal as an amulet:

The seal is a quadruped sea-animal. Its skin, whenever it is placed in a house or in a ship, or carried by someone, ensures no ill occurs to whoever carries it.  For it turns away thunderbolts, hurricanes, hailstones, dangers, winds, witchery, spirits, pirates, night visitations, wild beasts, creeping animals, and phantoms. You must use it as an amulet on its own or with the coral stone.  (Cyranides 4.67)

The combination of the seal skin and coral is important here: both ingredients are born from the sea, and are difficult to classify. The seal resembles a fish but is a quadruped; the coral looks like a plant but is a stone. In antiquity, liminal objects – those that fall into two categories, or in neither – were often seen as powerfully magical.

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.