By Pablo Alvarez
Last February we opened the exhibit, “The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance,” at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Library. The show explores the early history of Western medicine as illustrated by a selection of archaeological objects, papyri, medieval manuscripts, and early printed books. Among the earliest artifacts on display is a second century AD papyrus with a text from the Greek botanist Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica. Closing the exhibit is the first edition of William Harvey’s Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628). In brief, the exhibit has been designed to inspire future conversations on some vital themes, including the role of religion and magic in healing the soul and body, the persistence of Graeco-Roman methods of diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the multilingual transmission of medical knowledge in both manuscript and printed form.
After having curated several exhibits, I can say that my favorite artifacts tend to be those about which I initially knew less. I did not know much about the medical material hidden in a fascinating book of mysterious origin, the Book of Secrets, erroneously attributed to Aristotle. From Cornelius Celsus (fl. 25 AD) and Paul of Aegina (ca. 625-ca. 690) I learned much on the use of ancient medical implements, particularly about surgical instruments.
And I knew little about the fascinating world of medical amulets, extraordinary witnesses of every-day anxieties about illness and death in antiquity and beyond. Worn as necklaces or bracelets, fever amulets made of papyrus or lead seemed to be everywhere. But even more ubiquitous were medical amulets in the form of gemstones skillfully engraved with symbolic iconography and magical spells. Below is my favorite one: an example of a uterine amulet.
The engravings scattered on this small piece of hematite are fairly standard in this type of amulets. Ouroboros—a snake eating its tail, probably a metaphorical representation of the abyss—encloses a pot with the mouth downward which, resembling a medical cupping vessel for bloodletting, represents the womb. From the bottom of this cupping vessel two curved lines on each side depict the ligaments and uterine tubes discovered by Herophilos of Alexandria. Attached to the pot is a key with a knobbed handle, suggesting that control of the mechanism of opening and closing the womb would facilitate fertility and childbirth. In the upper half of the stone, we see a series of protective deities. On the left, we see the mummy of Anubis, the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in Egyptian religion; in the center is Chnoubis, a coiled serpent with a lion head and six rays around it, believed to prevent abdominal pain and ensure an easy childbirth. On the right is Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood. On the edges, we read a long magical formula in the form of a meaningless babbling repetition of syllables: σοροορμερφεργαρβαρμαφριου[ριγξ]. And on the reverse is a two-line magical inscription: ορωρ | ιουθ.[i]
Finally, since this blog is devoted to the history of recipes, it might be suitable to end this post with the following medical text preserved in a second-century AD papyrus.
This small fragment consists of a single column from a scroll containing a medical treatise in Greek. The subject of the text is dietary recommendations to patients afflicted with constipation. Below is the English translation:
To take the small portion of food, to drink all the previously mentioned liquids, and to drink in addition a little new wine, diluted until somewhat watery. To those who have a persistent constipation hard to clear up, much more than the quantities prescribed are given; but to those who suffer from weakness, less. And a moderate diet is prescribed when the bowels have become more relaxed. The risk of injury to the eyes has been previously mentioned…[ii]
To learn more about the rest of the exhibit, please visit the online version here, or visit us in person if you happen to be in the Ann Arbor area in the next few days. The last day of the exhibit is April 30th!
Pablo Alvarez is Outreach Librarian and Curator at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan. He is currently completing the edition and English translation of Alonso Victor de Paredes’ Institucion, y origen del arte de la imprenta, y reglas generales para los componedores, a Spanish printer’s manual produced in Madrid around 1680.
[i] Campbell Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 49 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950) 274.
[ii] Isabella Andorlini, “Istruzioni dietetiche e farmacologiche,” Papyrology, Naphtali Lewis ed., Yale Classical Studies 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 49–56.