‘One does not learn remedies through books’ (Aristotle)

By Laurence Totelin

My first love: Pellaprat's classic cookbook
My first love: Pellaprat’s classic cookbook

I love reading recipes. I guess that won’t come as a surprise; after all I have been working on the history of pharmacology for over ten years now. But this passion goes very far indeed. My first favourite book was Pellaprat’s Cuisine familiale et pratique (1974), which I dutifully pored over – and tore apart – from the age of one. When I read a recipe book, I feel myself surrounded, at times assaulted, by imagined smells, tastes, and visions (of sugarplums). Of course, I could not have this type of experience without growing up in a family of great cooks; I did not learn culinary skills through books, but through observation and experimentation. Most of my memories of my grand-mother are culinary in nature; and I spent hours sat on a chair in our kitchen watching my mum cook.

When I read the philosopher Aristotle’s statement whereby one cannot learn remedies through reading, I can’t help but agree:

Indeed one does not appear to become skilled in the art of medicine through books. And yet they attempt to describe not only the cures, but also how they might cure and how it is necessary to treat each individual, distinguishing his condition. But while these things seem useful to men of experience, they are useless to the inexperienced.

[Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics10.9, 1181b2-6]

Reading practical literature is useful for those who already have experience, but pointless for others; this does pose an issue when teaching ancient pharmacology in the modern classroom. Still, I believe written recipes, for all their dryness, can offer a very good entry point into a variety of topics. One of my favourite example here is a recipe found in a play by the great comedian Aristophanes. The god of healing, Asclepius, is treating patients who have come to his sanctuary in Athens. One of them is the corrupt politician Neocleides, whom Asclepius is not willing to cure:

Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org
Stele from Oropos (near Athens) showing a healing hero (Amphiaros) healing a patient. Fourth century BCE. Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org

First of all, for Neocleides, a remedy:

Asclepius undertook to knead a plaster, throwing in

Three heads of Tenian garlic. Then he crushed them

In a mortar, mixing them together with verjuice

And mastic. Then he soaked the mixture with Sphettian vinegar,

And he plastered it on, turning out the man’s eyelids,

To make him suffer more.

[Aristophanes, Plutus 716-721]

All three ingredients in this ‘remedy’ (garlic, verjuice and mastic) would have hurt the eyes. However, this recipe is not so far from the ancient medical reality. The ancients did use very strong ingredients to treat the eyes, but applied them outside the eyelid, not inside. Also, Greek medical authors, like Aristophanes, called their ingredients by their place of origin (Tenian garlic comes from Tenos, an Aegean island; Sphettian vinegar comes from Sphettos, a district of Athens). Clearly, Aristophanes was well-versed in ancient medicine. This short recipe, thus, offers a point of entry into the study of temple medicine; political satire; and the transmission of ancient medical ideas in the ancient world.

Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root:  the three ingredients in my 'Greek' deodorant
Dired rose, myrrh, orris (iris) root: the three ingredients in my ‘Greek’ deodorant

Despite finding Aristophanes’ recipe fascinating, I appreciate that it needs much explication, as most ancient recipes do. I cannot expect every student to understand how painful this remedy would have been for Neocleides. I cannot expect them all to know what mastic is. Indeed, I cannot expect them all to have used a mortar and pestle. For these reasons, I have started to bring my experiments with ancient remedies to an audience near you. Recently, at a conference for teachers held at Cardiff University, I have replicated my attempts at producing an ancient deodorant made from iris root, myrrh, dried rose and wine. Passing the ingredients through the group allowed us to discuss our perception of these products; what memories they evoked; what we knew of their culture; etc. I learnt a lot – I hope the audience did too. They certainly left the room with a smile on their face. It remains for me to expand this experiment and re-create remedies with undergraduate students. I know that I will have to fill in health and safety forms, but I believe that it will be worth it. Here is an opportunity to appeal to various types of learning, and I would be a fool not to grab it!

Horse love pills

By Laurence Totelin

In the seventh century BCE, Semonides of Amorgos wrote his now infamous poem on the races of women, each one worse than the next. The mare-woman is perhaps my favourite, the ultimate high-maintenance lady:

Another type a horse with a splendid mane begat.
She turns up her nose at all kinds of work and toil.
She would never touch a mill, nor a sieve
Would she ever lift, nor would she throw dung out of the house,
Nor, for fear of the soot, would she near the oven
Ever sit. Only out of necessity will she make love to her husband.
She washes off the dirt every day,
Twice, sometimes three times; then she anoints herself with perfumes
She always wears her mane combed loose,
Abundant as it is, and strewn with flowers.
What a beauty to look at, she is that woman
For others; for her owner she is a pain,
Unless he is a king or a sceptre bearer
Who can delight in such pleasures.
[Semonides fragment 7, 57-70]

Now Semonides was describing human women here, but he may as well have been berating an actual mare. For in antiquity horses in general, and mares in particular, were considered rather troublesome, especially in their sexual habits.

Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons
Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons

According to Aristotle, horses were the most salacious of animals after men, but unlike civilised Greeks, they had no revulsion for incest:

Horses will mounts their mothers and their daughters. In fact, a herd of horses is not considered perfect, unless horses copulate with their own offspring. [Aristotle, Enquiry into Animals 6.22, 576a18-20]:

In some regions, mares left without a stallion, were said to imagine the pleasures of love and conceive ‘wind-foals’, with the help of the west wind (this story is often repeated in ancient literature, see for instance Vergil, Georgics 3.269-275; Columella, On Agriculture 6.27.4-7). Other mares fell in love with themselves:

There is a rare, but remarkable, form of madness that overcomes mares. If they see their reflection in water, they are seized with a vain love, and as a result, they forget to forage and they become lost to this wasting love disease. [Columella, On Agriculture 6.35]

However, when breeding was required, mares turned cold. They often had to be tied to submit to the stallion (Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.179). And the only way to get a mare to submit to an ass in mule-breeding was to clip her mane, because a long mane made her ‘proud and high spirited’ (Pliny, Natural History 10.179). No wonder then, that the ancients developed love pills to regulate equine desire. The Roman agronomists recommended squill, crushed to the consistency of honey in water, to be smeared on the genitals of the mare; while the stud was made to smell her genital scent (Columella, On Agriculture 6.27; Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8). The Greek Hippiatric treatises, beside similar herbal remedies, have slightly more complicated concoctions:

Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.
Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.

To incite horses to sexual intercourse… the right testicle of a cock; place it in the skin of a ram and hang to the neck of the horse; or the dried right testicle of a deer; reduce to powder and make it drink with milk-honey. For frequent and unpainful sexual intercourse… The flesh of a skink (lizard) in sweet-smelling mixed wine; inject into the animal…  [Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge 10.6 and 15, ninth century CE]

The animals whose testicles were sacrificed to the greater good of horse breeding were, of course, not chosen at random: both the cock and the deer were known for their sexual vigour. Nor was the right testicle an arbitrary choice: the right side was believed to be involved in the production of males.

Such fanciful and expensive aphrodisiacs may never been used on actual mares, but it is significant that they are recorded. Horses were time-consuming and costly animals to keep–animals whose possession was indicative of social standing, very much like Semonides’ beautiful horse-woman, kept entertained by luxurious flowers and perfumes.

Cold, dry and bald

By Laurence Totelin

A few months ago, I read with fascination – and surprise – a post by Jennifer Evans on the treatment of baldness in the early modern period. According to one of her sources (William Drage, a physician and apothecary from Hitchin) anything drying, and in particular sexual intercourse, would be detrimental to he who is thinning on top; women and eunuchs, for their part, rarely went bald because of their moist nature.

I was fascinated to find that the early-modern recipes and remedies listed by Jennifer were very similar to those preserved in texts from Graeco-Roman antiquity. Thus recommendations to cut the hair short; to use a laudanum unguent; to anoint the head with juice of onions/leeks, or with radish oil are all to be found in one of the earliest medical treatises preserved in Greek: the Hippocratic Diseases of Women 2 (chapter 189, 8.370 Littré). Some early modern treatments of baldness that presented, such as Mary Glover’s recipe involving cow’s piss and stinking old shoes, were rather unsavoury, but they pale in comparison with pigeon dung (also listed in Diseases of Women 2.189) or the following recipe, excerpted from Cleopatra’s Cosmetics by Galen:

Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia
Deer hunt on a fourth-century BCE mosaic from Pella. Source: Wikipedia

Another [remedy against alopecia]. The power of this [remedy] is better than that of all the others, as it works also against falling hair and, mixed with oil or perfume, against incipient baldness and baldness of the crown; and it works wonders. One part of burnt domestic mice, one part of burnt remnants of vine, one part of burnt horse teeth, one part of bear fat, one part of deer marrow, one part of reed bark. Pound them dry, then add a sufficient amount of honey until the thickness of the honey is convenient, and then dissolve the fat and the marrow, knead and mix them. Place the remedy in a copper box. Rub the alopecia until new hair grows back. Similarly, falling hair should be anointed everyday. [Galen, Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.2, 12.404 Kühn]

So how is this supposed to work? Ancient recipes do not come with explanation as to their functioning. One must turn to more theoretical texts to find out more. The philosopher Aristotle devoted a long passage of his treatise Generation of Animals to baldness, stating that this affliction is linked to sexual intercourse:

The reason is that the effect of sexual intercourse is to cool, as it is the excretion of some of the pure, natural heat, and the brain is by its nature the coldest part of the body; thus, as we should expect, it is the first part to feel the effect. [Aristotle, Generation of Animals 5.3, 734b. Translation: A.L. Peck]

He went on to explain that children and women do not go bold because they are incapable of producing seminal secretion. Thus, for Aristotle, the cause of baldness is a loss of vital heat through sexual intercourse. Galen, for his part, sees dryness as the cause of the affliction, explaining that women and eunuchs have moist heads, while bald people have dry ones [Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Sixth Book of Epidemies, 17b.5  Kühn]. The physician’s explanation is closer to that found in early-modern treatises: it is through loss of moisture that the hair thins on top.

Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia
Wounded bear. Mosaic from Pompeii. Source: Wikipedia

Where do remedies fit within shifting systems of explanation? The burnt ingredients in the Cleopatra remedy could be interpreted as both warming and drying, while deer marrow and bear fat would have been emollient (moistening). But I would argue that these explanations are too simplistic. One needs to go further and look at what brings cold, dry and baldness together.

In ancient humoural theory, cold and dry were associated with the Autumn season. (Clearly the theory was not devised in the UK!) It is in the Autumn of life that man loses his hair. There is no real solution to the problem, but ‘fertilising’ ingredients such as ashes could perhaps help. Fats from animals born in the spring and hunted in the autumn might also add to the efficacy of the remedy.

Sounds too far-fetched and less ‘rational’ than humoural explanations? Consider the following: Aristotle himself compared hair loss to shedding of leaves, and poets sometimes drew an analogy between lush greenery and animal hair (see for instance Columella, On Agriculture 10.71).  Ancient recipes can always be read in many different ways!

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.

 


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.