Rachel Bushkuhl


Ch. 5 Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots

John Scarborough


I. A few Good Men

Thophrastus of Eresus (c.370-288 B.C.)

a. Inquiry (300 B.C.) contains herbal pharmacy and lore as well as morphology.

b. rhizotomoi- "rootcutters"- standards of knowledge ranging form magic to rationalism

Herophilus- researcher at Ptolemaic Museum in 270-260s BC

c. "Drugs are the hands of the gods"

** Characteristic blend of scientific and divine in the classical approach to pharmacy


II. Initial Intellectual Context: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

A. pharmakon- Magic, charm or enchantment but used by Homer to mean drug

1. Uses range from harmful to beneficial

B. Circe: uses one drug to turn men into swine but "the other drug" to put them back in proper forms. Homer uses his own "drug" more powerful than Circe's because it is a gift from Hermes.

C. Egypt- many drugs, every man a physician,

D. "Opium poppy" and description of it in episode of Gorgythion's death- would have been familiar to audience of Iliad

E. Treacherous females "know" the plants and drugs but are not sole users of pharmakov

F. Geographical settings evidence that this is not just mythological.

G. 'Profession" of medicine- "family trade"

H. demiourgoi- medicine man, sometimes less than expert though the word used to mean "physician"

I. Celsus- Homer doesn't consider internal diseases or medical theories- "treated wounds with knife or drugs"

J. Homeric lack of concern regarding naming except in association with deities, events or repeated epithets. Nomenclature arises with philosophers and philosophy.

K. Combination of theurgy and practical application of drugs- in Homer natural causes for illnesses with theurgic explanation for disease.

L. Elysian plain- pharmakia neither feared nor used for cures

III. From Homer to Theophrastus

A. Hesiod- practical botany but little on presumed properties of plants

B. Pre-Theophrastean concern for plants and properties indicates thinking on magic and agriculture, pants and herbal remedies

C. Faulty theories of Orphics on plant respiration

D. Cited uses of herbs in Musaeus, Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesiod.

E. Pindar on Asclepius: incantations, surgery, potions, amuletic drugs- these were the acceptable practices of medicine.

F. Playwrights indicate "common knowledge" of drugs in fifth C.

1. Sophocles- Rhizotomoi (Rootcutters), Aristophanes- Peace and Lysistrata

2. Macrobius- notes precautions mentioned in harvesting roots as well as descriptions. These would have been familiar to the citizens.

3. Hymn to Demeter- Pennyroyal potion- contraceptive properties, functions in birthing and nursing. Used in Lysistrata

a. Uses verified by Hippocratic writers, Dioscorides and Galen

b. Recent discoveries also verify its potency as abortifacient and contraceptive

IV. Theophrastus and Botanical Folklore

A. alexipharmakon- averters.

B. Squill- a bulb- b/c it is long lived can be an averter. Does not say that it is, just tries to explain why others may believe it to be.

C. Depicts other practices and tries to explain them. "Why are particular plants associated with religious or magical practices?"

D. More Squills: Theognis notes its pungent property, Hipponax relates squills to scapegoats. They are also related to other cleansing rituals (katharma) as well as remedies for coughs or asthma

E. Pharmakon to pharmakos-- the poison becomes the poisoner

F. The structure of Inquiry book IX meets the problem of combining morphology and the common comprehension of practicers

1. Substances that act on non living bodies:

a. Gum Arabic- makes water thicker

b. Marsh mallow- thickening agent

i. Used for fractures, coughs and wounds

ii. Cool word associations: althaia= marsh mallow, althaino= to heal, althexis= a healing- deliberate use by Theophrastus

2. Orchis: combines the pharmacological observations of use as an aphrodisiac and anaphrodisiac with the common perceptions

G. Medicinal Properties of Herbs

1. Sources

a. Rhizotomoi- professional herbalists

b. Pharmakopolai- drug venders

c. Theophrastus has to separate myth from useful fact, does not dismiss beliefs associated with physical properties but neglects "superstition"

H. Murky differences between "objective" observations and differences of homage as well as magic and religion

1. Edelstien tries to classify plants in three neat divisions, but this can't work because almost all physicians would use drugs for not only scientific but also magical or religious reasons.

V. Definitions, Herbs, and their Properties: Greco-Roman Interpretations

A. Definition: muddled by Theophrastus when taken from his sources: ends up with a substance that has healing powers and is made up of roots, leaves, juices and fruits.

B. Toxicology: understood by Nicander of Colophon c. 140 BC, who borrowed from Apollodorus

1. Agricultural lore is present

C. None of the works on plants and herbs had an organizing principle regarding how drugs worked.

D. Dioscorides: Materia Medica

1. Classified by drug affinity or what the drugs did to the patients

2. Example: Black Hellebore: accounted limited to affinity although the "lore" is mentioned

E. Organizational schemes reverted back to older methods, but Dioscorides remained influential until the Renaissance

F. Galen of Pergamon and Paul of Aegina: "drugs by degrees" methods, based on ancient notions of humors and qualities, remained dominant system until 1850s

VI. "Hermetic" Medical Astrology and Herbal Pharmacology:

A. Hermetic texts

1. Medical revelations by Hermes Trismetgistus, Asclepius and others

2. Thessalus: Powers of Herbs: names 7 herbs associated with planets and 12 herbs for the zodiac signs, as well as plants linked to 15 stars

3. Galen thought of medical astrology as a diagnostic technique

4. Chicory (pg. 155) named by Thessalus as a heliotropic or sun plant- encompasses a number of Greco-Roman traditions including technical approaches as well as the information from the Papyri Graecae Magicae

5. Pepper and Ginger in Thessalus: evidence of flourishing trade with the Far East

VII Sacred Plants in the Magical Papyri

A. Greek, Coptic and Demotic texts mention 450 pharmaceutically active substances in spells, incantations, formulas and imprecations

B. Date to Roman and Byzantine Egypt (30 BC- 600 AD), give insights on the understanding of Jewish, Christian and pagan perception

C. The necessity of ritual to rhizotomoi suggested in the "spell for picking a plant"- the herbalists recited spells and performed rituals in gathering the herbs necessary to their craft, gods are often invoked in the rituals.

D. A contraceptive recipe:

a. Typical ingredients, and two potent herbs, henbane and bittervetch

b. Amuletic powers, symbolism involving frogs

E. Gynecology- Soranus of Ephesus- finest tract until Enlightenment

a. Lodestone- relation to women's problems, acknowledged as having no real effect but may bring cheerful attitude when used as an amulet

F. Interpretations: pg 159

a. These speak for themselves- code names for different ingredients used in spells- gave scribes power and prestige because they knew the secrets


1. Females did not hoard rituals, they may have been the main characters for various rituals, but men were also commonly active. "Greek and Roman men were as fond of creating fantasies about women as are modern men." Men would have taken an interest in the early sexual medicines

2. Magicoreligious concepts are probably linked with the traditions of the Near East including Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt.

3. Greek and Roman perceptions of causes of properties in plants fused religious and empirical data. Just as in almost every other aspect of Ancient Greek life, there is a very, very weak line drawn between secular and divine.

4. The common people had a sophisticated command of drug compounding.


Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Honors Colloquium on Greek Religion. Spring 2002