It is often said that the “father” of botany as a science was the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus, a student of the famous Aristotle. When one reads his Historia Plantarum or Enquiry into Plants, it is indeed striking how scientific, how technical and sober this work from the 4th century BCE is. We are far removed here from the mythical narrative of Homer’s Odyssey, where the god Hermes comes down from heaven and hands Odysseus the wondrous plant moly to protect him against the sorcery of the goddess Circe. Only two short chapters in the nine books of the Enquiry (translated here and here) even acknowledge ‘superstitious’ ideas of this caliber, and only to roundly dismiss them. One could be easily led to believe that after Theophrastus’ intervention, these superstitions faded away, supplanted by a new and rational outlook, and flourished only among the uneducated and in supposed fringe milieus of esotericists and magicians.
The present poem On Herbs belies such a view. Written by some unknown Greek poet in the period of the Roman empire – centuries after Theophrastus – for a mainstream pagan audience, it demonstrates that the ideas that Theophrastus had sought to banish from serious consideration continued to be of interest to the same kind of cultured readership that valued the classical philosophers. Our poet talks about the herb moly, about the divine power of plants, their mythical connections to the gods, the protocol for safely collecting them, and their ability to avert witchcraft and keep away daemons. The memory of this vital strand of ancient Greco-Roman mainstream culture has been repressed and rendered all but inaccessible to modern readers, but recent scholarship has shown that, irrespective of whether one finds the ideas themselves helpful or harmful, no accurate understanding of intellectual history can be gained without being aware of them.
This is the first translation of the poem On Herbs into English.
[The beginning is lost.]
Camomile cures people with fever
When ground to a fine dust, with rose powder;
The plant is useful to the unwell. In sandy places,
It grows short and very beautiful; physicians gather it
When summer starts and the great Sun is passing,
Having driven the four-horse chariot to the seventh station of the heavens.
(2) Rhamnus (‘boxthorn, buckthorn’)
As a powerful panacea, have rhamnus in your house,
A white-leaved thorny plant growing in hedges.
It is a plant of the night; and it is helpful to mortals
To gather this rhamnus when the waning Moon
Is seen by all mortals in great Olympus.¹
Suspended, it can avert the malignities
Of evil poisoners and envious humankind.²
The first of the blessed (gods) to use this plant
Was Pallas Athenaea, daughter of Zeus Aegis-bearer,
When she had killed Pallas in battle with great force
At the time that immortal gods and mortal Giants,
The most forceful, collided in forceful struggle.
Then the all-seeing goddess, multiform Nemesis
Purified the gods’ temples and statues with rhamnus.³
It is good for young cattle and infants to carry this
Plant against headache and daemons and curses.
For it cures all mortal-destroying baneful poisons.⁴
1: ‘In Olympus’ means ‘in the sky’.
2: I.e., “Worn as an amulet, it can avert the spells of witches and the evil eye of enviers”.
3: Nemesis was called Rhamnusia after the city of Rhamnus, where she was worshipped.
4: ‘Poison’ throughout the poem means something like ‘spell’ or ‘curse’.
(3) Single-stem wormwood (Artemisia)
Pick the namesake plant of Artemis, when the Sun
Is about to raise its red light over the earth;
Men call it toxotis or botryïtis,
Some, pasithea, since it works as a love-charm,
Others, rustics, call it the goddess’ all-night-festival-
Loving lykophrys, having a great gift in the plant,
For it lifts the traveler’s weariness, if they hold
A single-stem in hand; (tied) around the feet, it chases off
All reptiles on the road and terrible apparitions.
Further, it removes blood thickened in the joints
When one takes stems together with rose (stems) and boils them in a pot.
Touch the diseased spot of someone who wishes to sleep,
And you will immediately free them from their great pain.
And it is a great delivery for women suffering in the womb,
It brings strangury and the spasm of opisthotonus to an end,
And it is always ready to banish all suffering and illness.
Now, pick Hermes’ budding
Cinquefoil, Hermes’ gift helpful in all things,
And a dream-giver, because it makes all good
God-given dreams manifest to mortal humans.
For you may heal all trouble when you carry it around the body,
And restrain all distress of the eyes,
Swellings, inflammations of tonsils and uvula, tumor under the tongue,
Joints, pain of sinews and the fence of teeth,
And [unintelligible word] scurvy, mortal-destroying, caused by malignities,¹
And monthly poultices for women in menstruation.²
In warm water, applied as a wash with the hands,
It works against terrors, envies³ and hostile daemons
As an excellent remedy. Therefore, pick the herb
When the mortal-illuminating Moon is waxing, and the Sun
Is about to raise its red light over the earth.
1: ‘Malignities’ are curses, poisons, etc.
2: Literally, ‘childbed’!
3: ‘Envy’ means the evil eye.
(5) Vervain (peristereōn, ‘turtle-dove-plant’)
[The beginning of the section is lost.]
… for the works of the glorious goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite.
All upon earth call it turtle-dove-plant,
But others ‘masculine’ (arsenikon), or the straight dove-plant (aristereōn),
Others again call it supine, humble upon the earth [unintelligible word].
For there are two plants of very similar leaves:
The straight stretches the growth of its fibers up towards Aphrodite,
The supine lies low;¹ but both have the greatest power.
If you want to heal trouble of the eyes,
Bind straight vervain around your body
While the sun circles the infinite cosmos,
And you will end dimming blindness of the eye.
Headache too is lessened by it immediately
And it is efficacious at driving away weariness when ground up with an acidic liquid.
It also nicely ends swelling and inflamed tonsils at once.
It will also be splendid for you to love women
And to make them love you, because it has powers for sex.
If a man is having a fever, take this plant’s
Twigs and simply stand before the patient,
And immediately, you advert the daemon, to approach no more.
1: The reference seems to be to Verbena officinalis and Verbena supina.
(6) On small dittany
Take care to gather the dittany plant, boy,
Which the immortals themselves have revealed to us, with attention,
So that you may see the power of the plant and its useful effects.
For when the body of dittany is dry, crush it in your hands
Like barley-groats, drop it into Dionysus¹
– Who is rightly shielded by the blessed Curetes –
And wrap it in fawnskin, wear it around your body, and you will have
An incomparable foe against all beasts of the earth.
All physicians, for whom it is a saving remedy,
Carry it in a vessel against wet
Wounds, and it fills in foul ulcers after purging them.
And when thorns stick under the skin or around the body,
Plaster the whole spot and it will come out by itself.
Trouble of the spleen will also be lessened by it at once,
Dry and crushed; apply it (shaped) like barley groats.
And in the hidden and private parts (of the body),
You will heal inflammatory illnesses with these poultices.
Pick the herb in spring and the heat of the waning dog days.
1: ‘Dionysus’ refers to wine, the god’s discovery. The mention of the Curetes is purely a literary
(7) On salvia
All humans who dwell on the earth call this plant
Salvia (elelisphakos), others ‘the divine’.
For it resolves ill-ending chills and troubling coughs,
And it heals all wounds and maleficences¹
When mixed with rose oil and melted bees-wax,
As well as trouble of the spleen and lientery
When it is drunk in equal parts(?) with much wine.
It heals those who spit blood when it is taken as a drink,
And as for women’s wombs, it cleanses all
Monthly menstruation² when boiled with raging fire.
And all abominable women³ who devise
To make [unintelligible words]
To abort a beautifully formed embryo.
2: Again, the poet used a word that means ‘childbirth’ but seems to mean menstruation.
(8) Savin, cypress, lavender cotton
Ponder crooked-minded father Kronos’ plant, too,
Which humans on life-giving earth
Call lavender cotton, for it is a great and strong
Remedy for the throat, the ear, and the tonsils,
Because a god gave it to mortals as a salvation,
And he gives it cure dropsy and hip-disease.
This plant was discovered by many-named Osiris,
The ruler¹ of the Egyptian land and Canopus,
Who had healed some preeminent one among short-lived (humankind) through its power.
1: Or ‘guardian’.
(9) On great centaury
Now indeed, I shall speak clearly and keep no secret from you
About the root said to be the discovery of Kronos’ son, the centaur
Chiron the mighty, which he saw in the valley of wooded
Mount Pelion, when he came across it in the snowy glen.
Deep-flowing Achelous gave rise to it, and it was declared
Good for all things by Paiēōn Asclepius the bountiful,
And named panacea, because it brings an end to all
Festering sufferings and blows of calamity for mortals,
And it is a great delivery for women suffering in the womb.
It also brings strangury and stones to an end in a day.
I exhort you to pick it when the mortal-illuminating Sun
Is about to raise its red light over the earth,
In the season of spring, when all things are filled out;
For it has many cures and heals all suffering.
(10) Oxeye daisy
Collect Ilithyia’s box-eye
When the mortal-illuminating Moon is waxing, fair boy,
Against the terrors that arise¹ and hostile daemons,
Envies and evil women and baneful poisons.
Everyone calls this plant the brow of Zeus.
[A part of the text has been lost.]
The pretty, well-rounded blossom shines golden.
The plant’s roots should be taken when someone’s
Teeth hurt, immediately chewing it alone,
Spit it out at once, and the discharge will go out (with it).
If someone has a compressed and stopped stomach,
Boiled (oxeye) cleans it out without complaint or pain.
1: Either feelings of fear or terrifying apparitions (daemons).
Look for the queen of all plants, boy,
When Sirius is rising – during the dog days,
And when the nightshining goddess among the stars,
The Moon, appears full, and about to join the Sun,¹
(Look for) pasithea, which all the kings² gifted
To Leto’s son Paean, the god in great Olympus.³
Naming it peony,⁴ he gave it to his son⁵ on expansive
Earth, to have the flower as a mortal-healing panacea.
Rhea’s people once called it pentorobos and the cymbals
Of the Phrygian Mother, Queen of the blessed.⁶
The Cretans, the lords of highborn Zeus’ Mount Dicte,
Call it by the name of the immortal land.⁷
All the blessed gods call it glykysidē,
Immortal seed with beautiful blossoms on both sides.
And those who dwell around Egypt, the Sun’s (land),
All call it by the name aglaophōtis,⁸
Because of the light of bright fire the flower radiates.
Gather it when the dog-star rises, prudent boy,
Before the great sun runs over the infinite circle,
Lest the gods harm you in mind and prudent counsel
Because you ignore the time I told you to observe.
For there is no carelessness among the immortals,
Wherefore they call it kynospastos⁹ on Olympus.
The blessed immortals also call it ephialteia,¹⁰
Because suspended, it can avert the malignities
Of terrible poisoners and the envies of humankind.¹¹
And it is powerful against terrors, daemons, curses,
And fever beginning with shivers for the patient,
And nocturnal and diurnal and hard quartan fever.
The guardians of great Zeus also guard it,¹²
The three hundred and sixty angels above.¹³
When the herb is planted in the mountains,
It is said that daemons chase off the inhabitants of that place.
1: I do not know what is meant. A conjunction of sun and moon would be during new moon, not
full moon – and a full moon sets as the sun rises.
2: I.e., all the gods, a punning explanation for peony’s alternate name pasithea, ‘of all gods’.
3: If Olympus means heaven, then Paean (Apollo) is the sun.
4: Paeon (whence peony) is an alternate form of Paean.
6: Kymbala are the instruments associated with the Mother of the Gods (‘the blessed’ being the
gods). The name indicated may have been simply ‘cymbals’, I suppose.
7: I do not know what name this refers to.
8: ‘Of brilliant light’.
9: A different explanation of the name is found in Claudius Aelianus, On the Nature of Animals 14.27, where he reports that the plant has to be pulled out by a dog (which is what kynospastos implies) because digging it up by hand is destructive to the gatherer. Even when this is done, the dog dies as soon as sunlight hits the roots of the plant.
10: ‘Of nightmares’.
11: I.e., witches and the evil eye.
12: That is to say, they guard against fever. Perhaps an allusion to rituals in which the guardians of celestial degrees were invoked for healing.
13: Presumably the guardians of each of the 360 degrees of heaven; also compare, loosely, the 30,000 daemons of Zeus mentioned by Hesiod.
(12) On hulwort
You should carry a cluster of hulwort on your body
Against apaulismus coming from Ether, which
Humans call the terrible sacred disease, amplaciotis,
But others, an evil lunar curse on the body.¹
It can also cure fatigue when the herb is ground up
With vinegar and poured over the extremities of the feet.
1: Some of these refer to epilepsy.
(13) Moly (here perhaps ‘black garlic’)
Gather the roots of moly against baneful poisons
Of irksome poisoners and the envy of humankind.¹
For Hermes gave this to Laertes’ son Odysseus,
To carry this bound around the body as a protection
When he went to Aeaea island, to Circe’s famed
House, and his anxious heart wrestled with his mind.
He did not know how he could free his companions
Until the messenger, the Argus-killer,² gave him this,
Having dug it from the earth, resembling a flower
White as milk, brilliant, fruit-bearing, but inside
Like a narcissus, with roots of dark appearance.
For you will heal all poisons baneful to mortals.
Carrying this plant around the body, you will chase off foes.
1: In other words, as an amulet against witches and the evil eye.
(14) Sea oak (i.e. ‘sargassum, gulfweed’)
But the holy oak that sits in the gulfs of the sea,
A leafless growth upon all waves – it is honored,
And preferred by Poseidon himself, king of the sea,
And all upon the earth talk about it –
Take it with skillful mind and prudent counsel,
When far off the goddess of Olympus, the Moon
Is seen to wane, and mix it with fragrant rose oil,
And anoint the forehead when you come to an issue;
At once a helper¹ will follow you, fearing the plant,
Because it is a cure and defense against all enemies,
As many as the earth carries, and the marine swell.
It also produces(?) a fetus [unintelligible word] carried in the belly.
Also have it against terrors which arise in the night,
Evil envy of humans and baneful illnesses;
It protects the house and it averts the abominable,
Because whenever hostile people withdraw, it closes,
But when they draw near, then it opens its stems.
Allmother Nature invented all this; No longer marvel
Because of divination or birds² spreading their wings
Far, humankind; for this is greater.
1: ‘Helper’ is feminine. I do not understand what is meant here, and how it relates to the “issue” (pragma) mentioned just before or to the “cure and defense against enemies” referred to next.
2: Birds as omens; this was one of the principal types of divination.
Gather sacred dewy chrysanthemum from the earth
Before the great sun runs over the infinite circle,
And carry it around your body, inside your clothes.
Suspended, it can avert the malignities
Of irrational poisoners and envious humankind.¹
1: Witches and enviers, who cast the evil eye.
[The end of the poem is lost. This section is extant only in a prose summary.]
One should drink hedge-mustard (ground to) powder against stomach pains. If you throw 7
seeds into a house, conflict will arise (in the household).