Tag Archives: Theophrastus

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


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.