Conference Report: Traditions of Materia Medica: 300BCE–1300CE

By Sean Coughlin

On 16–18 June 2021, members of the research group A03 at the DFG-funded SFB 980 ‘Episteme in Motion’ and the Institute of Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität in Berlin (Sean Coughlin, Christine Salazar, Lisa Sherbakova, Kristiane Hasselmann, Philip van der Eijk) held a conference called Traditions of Materia Medica: 300 BCE–1300CE. Over the three days, 25 speakers and over 50 guests from around the world met remotely to share research on the history of theoretical pharmacology in the immediate vicinity of Galen of Pergamum.

One goal for the conference was practical: to bring each other up to speed on what we’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic. Another was programmatic: to test the hypothesis that Galen’s writings on pharmacology constitute a key moment in the history of theoretical pharmacology, one that brought about an acceleration of pharmacological research and reflection. Speakers explored the hypothesis from the perspective of history of medicine, philosophy and science, Egyptology, philology, botany, chemistry and lexicography, focusing on Galen’s sources, his own work, and the work of those who followed him.

Image courtesy of Sean Coughlin

Galen’s Immediate Predecessors (3rd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE)

Among studies of Galen’s immediate predecessors, we heard from edition and translation projects that are bringing Galen’s pharmacological antecedents more clearly into view. David Leith (Exeter), working on the fragments of Asclepiades of Bithynia, presented part of his work into the pharmacology of Asclepiades and his school, many of whom, like Julius Bassus and Niger, were authorities for Dioscorides and Galen. Irene Calà (LMU Munich), critically editing books 10 and 14 of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Books, presented recently identified fragments of recipes from the Herophileans, Andreas of Carystus and Apollonius Mys. Costanza de Martino (Humboldt) discussed the structure and sources of Philumenus’ On Poisonous Animals and Their Remedies, part of her project producing a new edition, translation and study of this work. And Amber Jacob (NYU) presented her project editing 1st–2nd c. CE demotic medical papyri from the Tebtunis temple library, which represent some of the few surviving sources for Egyptian medicine of the period and the intercultural exchange of Greek and Egyptian pharmacology.

Galen of Pergamum (mid-2nd – early 3rd c. CE)

We also had presentations from edition and translation projects of Galen’s pharmacological works. Caroline Petit (Warwick) introduced methodological questions raised by her work on “Rethinking Ancient Pharmacology” and her edition of Galen’s treatise On Simple Drugs (Simples), which draws on Greek, Syriac, Arabic and Latin traditions. Caterina Manco (Paul Valéry – Montpellier) presented a study of Galen as reader of Dioscorides based on her forthcoming edition, translation and study of the botanical books of Galen’s Simples, books 6–8. And John Wilkins (Exeter) presented a comparative study of the ‘theoretical books’ (books 1–5) of Galen’s Simples, which he is translating for the Cambridge Galen Series, and their implementation in the ‘catalogue books’ (books 6–11).

Work on the history and philosophy of pharmacology was presented by P. N. Singer (Einstein Centre Chronoi), who discussed his work on epistemological and metaphysical issues raised by Galen’s notions of ‘changes through the whole substance’ and ‘tests’ of drugs. Simone Mucci (Warwick) presented on the relationship between imperial head-physicians (ἀρχιατροί) and antidotes in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods via Galen’s On Antidotes. And Krzysztof Jagusiak and Konrad Tadajczyk (Łódź) compared sitz-baths (ἐγκάθισμα) remedies in Galen’s work on Compound Drugs According to Kinds and in the pseudo-Galenica.

There were also two fascinating diachronic studies. Laurence Totelin (Cardiff) explored the nature, subject and variety of works called Euporista (“easily procured substances”) from their origins in Apollonius Mys via Galen to Theodorus Priscianus (4th c. CE). And Alessia Guardasole (CNRS – Sorbonne Université), who is working on an edition of Galen’s Compound Drugs According to Places, demonstrated how recipes change over time using the example of the diacodyon (διὰ κωδυῶν, “prepared with poppies”), from Galen to Theophanes Chrysobalantes (10th c. CE)

Galen’s Descendants (3rd – 13th c. CE)

Among scholars working on pharmacology after Galen, Petros Bouras-Vallianatos (Edinburgh) presented his work contextualizing ingredients from Asia in Galen, Late Antique and Byzantine medical works, exploring the reception of Arabic pharmacological lore into Greek and Latin sources. Anne Grons (Philipps-Universität Marburg) presented work on the systematization of ingredients in medical recipes preserved in Coptic pharmacological texts from the 4th–11th c. CE.

Matteo Martelli (Bologna) explored dry medicines, dyes, and alchemical xeria via the etymology of the term elixir, beginning with Arabic and Latin traditions and taking us back to their antecedents in Greco-Egyptian alchemy. Maciej Kokoszko (Łódź) looked at recipes for sweet sauces from Anthimus’ On the Observance of Foods and their pharmacological roots. Zofia Rzeźnicka(Łódź) proposed a theoretical basis for the ingredients of several recipes for peelings and scrubs in Aetius of Amida. And Lucia Raggetti (Bologna) discussed the creative weaving of ancient pharmacological, medical, and philosophical works (Hermes, Galen, Dioscorides, Aristotle) with technical and artisanal knowledge in Malmuk, Cairo of the 7th H/13th CE in the work of Kaylak Qabǧāqī.

Experimental, Lexicographical and Botanical Approaches

We also heard from several groups taking broadly empirical approaches to the history of pharmacology. On the chemical and biochemical side, Manuela Marai (Warwick) presented her work comparing the activity of drug combinations found in Galenic recipes to that of the individual components. Effie Photos-Jones (Glasgow) presented surprising results from the experimental work of her Wellcome Trust-funded group, “Greco-Roman Antimicrobial Minerals,” on the chemical and biological activity of Greco-Roman mineral preparations (lithargyros, psimythion, molybdos). Members of the ERC-project Alchemeast at Bologna, Matteo Martelli and Lucia Raggetti, included their work on replications of ancient alchemical recipes. And Sean Coughlin(Humboldt, Czech Academy of Sciences) introduced a new interdisciplinary research group funded by the Czech Science Foundation, “Alchemies of Scent,” that will replicate the methods of Greco-Egyptian perfumery using analytical chemistry and Greco-Egyptian literary and archaeological sources.

On the botanical and lexicographical side, Maximilian Haars (Philipps-Universität Marburg) gave an overview of his new DFG-funded project producing an encyclopedia of all medicinal plants and herbal drugs in the Galenic corpus—approximately 1,500 entries. And Barbara Zipser (Royal Holloway University London) and Andreas Lardos (Zurich) presented a new interdisciplinary methodology from their project “Plants and minerals in Byzantine popular pharmacy: a new multidisciplinary approach” for the identification of medicinal plants that can provide a more solid and replicable starting point for pharmacological screening.

Hopefully, this brief overview conveys some sense of the variety of research projects exploring Galenic pharmacology and its immediate predecessors and descendants. For those interested, abstracts for the talks are available here.

A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.


“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r


In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v


The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.


[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019,

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.




Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.

Revisiting Christopher Heaney’s How to Make an Inca Mummy

In this last “revisiting” post in our August 2020 series, we return to a piece by Christopher Heaney in 2016 to learn about sixteenth-century Europeans and their use of the dead in medical recipes. Practitioners believed that preserved bodies were powerful ingredients — but as Heaney shows, whether these bodies originated in Egypt or in Peru, what it meant for these bodies to be non-white, and whether they could or should retain a sense of gender, was a matter of debate. 
Thank you for joining us this month as we explored the intersections of race, medicine, sexuality, and gender in recipes! –AH

Christopher Heaney

As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.