Theophrastus on Amulets

1 Introduction

In Enquiry into Plants 9.19.2, Theophrastus comments on what we might call the magical uses of plants, and rejects them. Specifically, he comments on periapta, objects “bound around” the body, and the use of herbs to protect against pharmaka, a word that means both “poisons” and something like “curses, harmful spells”.

2 Translation

But the matter of amulets (periapta) and the so-called protections against curses (alexipharmaka), both for the body and for the house, seems rather naive and incredible. For example, they say that according to Hesiod and Musaeus, sea-starwort (tripolion) is useful for every good undertaking, and so they set up a tent and dig it up at night.

And what is said about good repute and fame is the same or worse; for they say that the plant called snapdragon (antirrhinon) brings about fame. This plant is similar to bedstraw (aparinē), but it has no root and the fruit has something like a calf’s nostrils. And someone who anoints themselves with it achieves fame.

And one also becomes famous if they crown themselves with the flower of gold-flower (eleiokhrysos), besprinkling it with an unguent of unfired gold. Gold-flower has a golden flower, its leaf is white, the stem is thin and hard, and the root is thin and close to the surface. They use it in wine against poisonous bites, and they burn it and mix it with honey to make a plaster for burns.

Now things of this sort, as was said previously, comes from people who want to exaggerate their own skills.