Nit Picking the Greek and Roman Way

By Laurence Totelin

One of the ‘joys’ of parenthood is dealing with lice and nits. In the UK, the NHS helpfully states that ‘there’s nothing you can do to prevent head lice.’ You can only prevent them from spreading like wild fire. This school year, the problem has deepened in England and Wales, as general practitioners have been prevented from prescribing free treatments in an attempt to make savings. Treatments on sale in pharmacies and supermarkets are exorbitantly priced and don’t work particularly well. Cheaper treatments, basically covering the hair with hair conditioner and combing, are extremely time consuming but perhaps more effective in the long run.

Nineteenth-century lice comb, India. The Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images

Fighting off lice infestations in our household this year has made me wonder whether the Greeks and the Romans also dealt with the issue, and if so, how. I discovered that the ancients distinguished between the adult insect, the louse (phtheir in Greek), and its egg (konis in Greek), thereby showing an understanding that one cannot get rid of the pest without removing all eggs. They also recognised that lice can live on the head, the body, and even the eyebrows. They appreciated that the easiest way to treat an infestation was to shave the hair, although perhaps not as assiduously as Egyptian priests, who according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 2.37), shaved their entire body every other day to avoid lice. That method, however, was not available to those who had to wear their hair long for social or cultural reasons. Thus, Herodotus again noted of the Adyrmachidae, a tribe of Libyans, that:

Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs; their hair is long; each catches her own lice, then bites and throws them away. They are the only Libyans that do this (Herodotus 4.168, translation A.D. Godley).

This observation is meant to stress the oddness and otherness of the Adyrmachidae, whose women fight lice in a disgusting manner, without even relying on the social ritual of nit picking.

Delousing. Illustration to the Hortus Sanitatis, fifteenth century. Source: Wellcome Images

What about treatments? Ancient Greek and Roman medical authors offer some possible solutions. The first-century pharmacologist Dioscorides recorded several methods in his De Materia Medica, many of which are still in use today. Some consisted in spreading the hair with a sticky or oily substance, such as cedar oil (1.77.2) or boiled honey (2.82.2), which would presumably have asphyxiated the lice and facilitated a combing process. Others involved smearing the hair with a plant sap (sap of ivy, 2.179.3) or decoction (decoction of tamarisk leaves, 1.87.2), which might have acted as an insect repellent or poison. Dioscorides also recommended the use of alum (5.106.6) and sea water (5.11.1). Perhaps more surprising is his suggestion to give garlic, drunk with a decoction of oregano (2.152.2).

Other medical authors gave slightly more complex recipes for the treatment of lice infestation. Thus, the sixth century author Alexander of Tralles (1.459) recommended a mixture of sodium carbonate, alum, and wild grapes, each in the amount of an ounce, mixed with myrtle oil and smeared onto the head. The seventh century medical author Paul of Aegina for his part claimed that ‘I am always successful when I anoint the head with wild grapes crushed together with vinegar and oil’ (3.3.8).

In short, most of those remedies are highly sensible, if perhaps not entirely effective. But then again, what is ever effective in fighting lice? There were, however, some tall tales circulating in antiquity regarding nits and lice. Dioscorides tells us that authorities whose names were not worth recording ‘say that those who are given [viper flesh] grow lice, which is false. And some add that those who eat vipers become long-lived’ (2.16.1). The trade off for a long life, then it seems, is to eat viper flesh and become a growing field for lice. I’m not sure I would make that trade off!

Tales from the Archives: Lizards and Lettuces: Greek and Roman Recipes for Valentine’s Day

The Recipes Project is now six years old, and that means we host a lot of content! We now have over 700 posts in our archives. (And thank you to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes). But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

This month, we’re featuring a post by our own Laurence Totelin on ancient Greek and Roman aphrodisiacs, which first appeared in 2015 to mark Valentine’s Day. Enjoy!

– The Editor

By Laurence Totelin

As you prepare to tuck into your oysters, followed by a garlicky main course, and a chocolaty desert on Valentine’s night, spare a thought for the Greeks and Romans, whose aphrodisiacs I now present to you. Ancient medical treatises contain numerous recipes for aphrodisiacs. This abundance may give the impression that the Greeks and Romans were a liberated bunch, with a healthy interest in a fulfilled sexual life.

Sexual scene on one of the walls of the lupanar at Pompeii. Photo: Laurence Totelin, October 2014

Certainly, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of sexually-themed Greek and Roman objects over the years. Many, like those found at Herculaneum and Pompeii, were hidden away for decades in ‘Secret Rooms’ in museums, only to come to full light quite recently. One has to be careful, however, not to look at such objects with too modern a gaze. Many had ritual purposes: they were meant to ward off various dangers. And among the perils the ancient feared most was infertility, human, animal, and vegetal. Barrenness of the earth would bring hunger; human barrenness would mean the end of the family line. I believe it is in this context that ancient aphrodisiac recipes are best read.

One of the most impressive collection of aphrodisiacs is to be found in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. Euporista’ is the title of several ancient medical recipe collections. It simply means ‘Remedies easily procured’, that is, remedies whose ingredients are relatively easy to find, and whose preparation is relatively simple. This particular collection of Euporista is attributed to Galen in the manuscripts, although it is quite clear that Galen himself did not write it. The chapter on aphrodisiacs starts as follows:

Aphrodisiacs for the penis: these stretch the penis and lead to sexual union: pine-cones, pepper, parsley, fillings deer’s penis, turpentine, of each the same amount; mix with honey, and give to drink in wine. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

This recipe is quite clearly meant to be used by men! It explicitly states that it will stretch out the penis. It features one of the most common ancient aphrodisiac ingredients – deer’s penis – with herbal ingredients. The deer’s penis is very large and was therefore considered useful as a sexual stimulant. Two of the herbal ingredients (pine-cones and pepper) present themselves as seeds, which again had links with fertility. Pseudo-Galen then gives several other similar recipes, most of which seem passably palatable, with the exception of the following:

Another [aphrodisiac]: when the bull defecates after sexual intercourse, mix clay with the pat from the bull, and coat the penis with this poultice. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.2]

Perhaps one had to have reached a certain level of desperation to make use of that particular remedy. A man under less pressure might have prefered to consume cow’s milk, which features quite often in ancient aphrodisiacs.

Aphrodisiacs could be more complex than those preserved in the pseudo-Galenic Euporista. For instance, the seventh-century author Paul of Aegina transmits the following recipe:

Man orchis (saturion), the penis of deer, of each 2 drams, seed of rocket, pellitory, barley (?), wax, of each 2 drams, turpentine, 1 dr., 3 eggs of sparrows, 3 geckos, pine or iris oil, a sufficient amount. Steep the live geckos in vinegar until 40 days have passed, smearing the vessel [containing the gecko] with dung. [Paul, Medical Collection 7.17.84]

Satyr on a red-figure cup, sixth-century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

The Greek name of the man orchis, saturion, does more than hint at its alleged aphrodisiac properties: this is the plant of the Satyrs, the companions of the god Dionysus, usually represented with huge erections. This plant, like other orchids, has a bulb that can be perceived as resembling a testicle (the Greek word for testicle is – you may have guessed – orchis). Beside this most powerful plant, the recipe also boasts herbal ingredients, deer’s penis, gecko, sparrow’s eggs, and dung.  The gecko deserves special attention. It is a type of lizard whose kidneys in particular were reputed for their aphrodisiac powers. This is what the pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) had to say on the topic:

They say that the part around the kidneys of the gecko, in the amount of one dram drunk with wine, has such a sexually-stimulating power, that the intensity of desire must be checked by drinking a broth of lentil with honey, or the seed of lettuce with water. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.66]

Now the lettuce has always been reputed for its soporific properties – recall Beatrix Potters’ story of the Flopsy Bunnies. Of course, sleep is the worst enemy of sexual intercourse, and if you fall prey to sleepiness, pseudo-Galen gives us a recipe to prevent sleep immediately after his chapter on aphrodisiacs:

Against sleep: Write upon the surface of a bay leaf and secretly place it on the head [of the patient], uttering ‘konkofon brachereon’. [Pseudo-Galen, Euporista 2.3].

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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.

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.