IV - Plants and Drugs

Vegetation was the fruit of god’s union with earth. Like any other offspring, some of the children were strong and vigorous, others weaklings. Some trees had wood that was hard and suitable for building houses and ships, others rotted quickly and proved treacherous. Some woods were springy and full of life, and gave the archer his bow. Others cracked easily and served only for kindling.


Some fruits were soft and sweet, but others bitter and full of some strange power that could kill or cure. Man’s first experiments in the use of plants as drugs must have been extremely hazardous. Doubtless he watched first their effects on animals, as the shepherd Melampus is said to have discovered the purging properties of Hellebore by noting its effect on his goats.’ Gradually experience, often painfully acquired, would have given the inhabitants of each locality a primitive pharmacopoeia for their use, and visitors from elsewhere would have introduced new plants and drugs.


Over the course of time a store of experiential knowledge would have accumulated and been made the subject of special study by a few of the elders, the “wise men”.2


Later the physicians were to become a privileged class of people, wielding tremendous power among their fellows, and ensuring a continuance of their position by maintaining strict secrecy over their craft. Our first medical text is a Sumerian tablet from the end of the third millennium,3 listing remedies made from milk, snake-skin, tortoiseshell, salt, and saltpetre, and from plants and trees like cassia, myrtle, asafoetida, thyme, willow, pear, fir, fig, and date.


Later we find an abundance of medical tablets and botanical lists with their Sumerian and Accadian names for the trees and plants, their fruits, barks, saps, and resins, and their preparation and uses in medicine.


This kind of careful cataloguing of plant-life does not appear in the Western world until the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and particularly with Theophrastus ( 72—287 Bc), a pupil of both Plato and Aristotle. His Enquiry into Plants4 lists some 400 species with their forms, habits, habitats, fructification, and cultivation, and their uses. Clearly he must have put the services of his two thousand or so students to good use since he quotes the results of firsthand enquiry in places which he could hardly have visited himself in one lifetime.


He was also able to avail himself of the observations made into local botanical specimens by his contemporary Alexander the Great and his armies as they ranged widely over the Near and Far East. Thereafter we have to wait until the first Christian century for a comparable systematic study of plants. Dioscorides, a contemporary of Claudius and Nero, has left us, in his De Materia Medica,5 a conscious attempt to systematize rather than merely list the drugs he records.


He separates his remedies into their respective vegetable, animal, and mineral sources. His descriptions are terse and acute, and largely free from old wives tales Happily, from our point of view, about the same time Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was writing a rather less “scientific” work, abounding in folk—lore as well as more sober gleanings from earlier botanists.


His Natural History 6 is a mine of information, not so much for his descriptions of the plants and their identifications, many of which are quite unreliable anyway, as for the stories about them which had come down in popular mythology and folk-lore. He describes the superstitions that attended the plant’s extraction from the ground, its preparation, and uses. He gives us stories about how their qualities were first observed by the ancients and why they were named as they were.


Of course, factually his tales are often quite irrelevant, but very often there are elements which relate to a probable decipherment of the name and thus a positive link with another plant or drug listed quite separately. In our quest for the sources of ideas and mythologies, this kind of information is more important than detailed descriptions of the plants’ physiology. Old writings thought to contain secrets of the healing arts came to be highly prized.


Josephus, in the first Christian century, says of the Jewish sect called the Essenes that they display,

“an extraordinary interest in the writings of the ancients, singling out in particular those which make for the welfare of the soul and body; with the help of these, and with a view to the treatment of diseases, they investigate medicinal roots and the properties of stones”.7

Such writings were often ascribed popularly to Solomon, credited in the Bible with knowledge of “trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon, to the hyssop that grows out of the wall” (I Kings 4:33 [Heb 5:13]). Later tradition ascribed to the king even greater powers, “knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men”, as Josephus says elsewhere.8


He adds that Solomon “composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left behind exorcisms with which those possessed of demons drive them out, never to return”. Interestingly, the practice of this kind of Solomonic demonology was not dead in the first century.


Josephus records actually seeing a cure effected by “this very great power”, by one Eleazar, a fellow-countryman, and very possibly an Essene.

“He put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon. Then, as the man smelled it, he drew out the demon through his nostrils, and when the man at once fell down, he adjured the demon never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed.” 9

Identifying the drug-producing plants, then, was not the only factor in early pharmaceutical and medical practice. It was one thing to be able to recognize a drug plant, even to know its popular name; it was another to know how to extract and purify the active ingredient, and, above all, to know the right dosage.


There were other complications.


Some drugs were so powerful that they could only be safely administered on certain days, or after lengthy preparation of the body and mind. It was also well known that over-powerful drugs had to be countered with another having the opposite effect, as in the case of the purge Hellebore,10 and with some narcotics which had to be offset with stimulants. To know the correct dosages in these cases required an appreciation of the susceptibility of the patient to the drug’s effects, perhaps the most difficult calculation of all.


Much depended on the recipient’s “fate” allotted him at his birth, the factor that determined his individuality, his physical stature, the color of his eyes, and so on. Only the astrologer could tell this, so that the art of medicine was itself dependent for success on astrology and the considerable astronomical knowledge this presupposed. Just such an astrological chart has come down to us from the Essene library recovered recently from the Dead Sea caves.11


It is written in code, composed mainly by reversing the normal order of the letters, that is, reading from left to right instead of right to left in the usual fashion of Semitic scripts, and substituting Greek and other alphabets for some of the square-letter Hebrew writing found elsewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls.


The document is unfortunately only fragmentary, and has been put together from scores of tiny pieces found scattered on the floor of a cave. Nevertheless, the purport is clear. It is a chart of the physical and spiritual characteristics to be expected of people born in certain sections of the Zodiac. Thus, someone born under the sign Taurus would possess, among other features, long and thin thighs and toes. The spiritual make-up of the subjects was reckoned as so many parts of “light” and so many of “darkness”, the total available for distribution being nine, presumably related to the months of gestation in the womb.


The Taurus person would have a mere three parts of light to six of darkness. More uncouth was the subject whose zodiacal assignment is missing from the text, but whose physical characteristics are marked with a certain coarseness, such as having thick fingers, hairy thighs, and short and stubby toes, and no less than eight parts derived from “the House or Pit of Darkness” and but one from “the House of Light”.


The best-favoured subject recorded in the extant text is a curly-bearded gentle-. man of medium height, with “eyes like black and glowing coals”, well ordered teeth, and fine, tapering fingers, and the opposite apportionment of light and darkness to the last mentioned bully. The Dead Sea Scrolls, like the New Testament, make much of the antagonism between “Light” and “Darkness”, and it is usually assumed that this everywhere is equivalent to “good” and “evil”.


Thus the so— called “Children of Light” are those who do good, and the “Children of Darkness” are those who wantonly harm their fellow-men. However, this distinction is not necessarily what we should call a moral one: the fruits of the “spirit of Truth”, with which Light seems to be identified, begin with “healing”, “peace in longevity”, and “fruitfulness”.


The “ways of the spirit of Falsehood” are greed, wickedness, lies, haughtiness and pride, deceit, cruelty, bad temper, and so on,12 what we should call, in general, faults of intemperance and arrogance, an imbalance of character. We might label such defects as “moral wrong” but in the eyes of the ancient philosophers, they were inherited predispositions occasioned largely by a man’s fate allotted him at birth according to the stars.


Medicine was as much a part of righting this imbalance of “moral” character as religion; the two were, in fact, inseparable.


To administer the drugs correctly one had to know just what were the inherited traits of the patient’s character, and for this enquiry, as our cryptic scroll from the Dead Sea shows, the physician looked to the stars.


The combined arts of medicine and astrology were known and practiced by the Sumerians and their Mesopotamian successors, as we know from their cuneiform records as well as the repute they enjoyed in this respect in the ancient world.

“Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth”, cries Isaiah to “the virgin daughter of Babylon”; “perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you”.

(Isa 47: 12ff:)

Their cultural, if not ethnic successors were the Magi, the “wise men” of Gospel birth story (Matt 2:1).


They were the great drug-pedlars of the ancient world and are often cited by Pliny as sources of therapeutic folk-lore and of the less familiar names of plants and drugs.


He treats them with contempt for the most part, but nevertheless quotes them at great length and says that the philosopher Pythagoras, first in his view to compose a book on the properties of plants, and his colleague Democritus,

“visited the Magi of Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, and so amazed were the ancients at these books that they positively asserted quite unbelievable statements”.

lS Dioscorides quotes them as sources of “special” names of plants under the title “prophets” (prophëtai). This is particularly interesting because the old Sumerian word for “physician”, A— ZU or 1—ZU, literally, “water—, oil—expert” also stands for “prophet, seer”. The name Essene, known otherwise only in its Greek, transliterated form, comes probably from the same root.14


Prognostication was always an important part of medicine.

“It is most excellent for a physician to cultivate special insight (pronoia, knowing things about the patient without being told them)”, writes a contributor to the Hippocratic Collection (after 300 BC).


“Since he fore— knows and foretells the past, present, and future... men would have confidence to entrust themselves to his care... By an early forecast in each case he can tend aright those who have a chance to survive and by foreseeing who will die... he will escape blame.”

However, there was much more to this pronoia than merely knowing who was likely to be in a position to pay your bill at the end of the treatment. The physician had to be able to communicate with the spirit world, to exercise influence over the gods and demons that controlled health and sickness. Bach disease and each part of the body had its own demon.


To know its name was to tap some of its power and use it on behalf of the patient. So Jesus enquires of the unclean spirit his name and is thus able to banish him into the unfortunate pigs (Mark 5:9). The Greek word daimön derives, through the Persian dew (there is a strong linguistic affinity between m and w), from a probable Sumerian original *DA.....U_NA, meaning “having power over fertility”.


The demon thus had the power of affecting, for good or ill, birth and death and the various stages of health in between. The medicinal drug had similar powers, and the Hebrew word for “be sick”, dawah, and its cognate noun in Arabic meaning “medicine”, come from the same root. So the demon of health and sickness and the drug are radically one and the same.15


If it was vital for the doctor-prophet to know the names of the disease—demons he was trying to counteract, it was just as important to be able to call upon their opposite numbers, the powers of healing contained in the drugs. These were the angels whose names formed an important part of the Essenes’ secret knowledge, to preserve which the initiate was put under “tremendous oaths”.16


The basic principle is the same when Josephus’ friend Eleazar called upon the name of Solomon as he administered the prescribed root,17 and Peter pronounces the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth over the lame man (Acts 3:6), an incantation tried with apparently less success by “the seven sons of Sceva” (Acts i9i3f.).


Since all life derives from the divine seed, it follows that the most powerful healing drug would be the pure, unadulterated semen of the god. Some plants were thought to have sap or resin approximating to this, their “purity” or “sanctity” in this regard being measured by their power as drugs to kill or cure or intoxicate. In Sumerian the words for “live” and “intoxicate” are the same, TIN, and the “tree of life”, GESIITIN, is the “vine”. Similarly in the Greek amos and the Hebrew yayin, “wine”, there is probably a common Sumerian root *IA_u_Nu, semen—seed.18


The use of the name Jesus (Greek iesus) as an invocation for healing was appropriate enough. Its Hebrew original, yehöshiia’, Joshua, comes from Sumerian *JA_U_ShIJ_A (ShuSh), “semen, which saves, restores, heals”. Hellenized Jews used for “Joshua” the Greek name IasJn, Jason, very properly, since iasón, “healer”, and the deponent verb iaomai, “heal”, come from the same Sumerian source.


In the New Testament taunt, “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23), we probably have a direct allusion to this meaning, as we certainly have in Jesus’ title “Saviour”, Greek sötër, the first element of which reflects the same Sumerian word ShU, “save”, and so is rightly used in Greek for saving from disease, harm, peril, etc., and is a common epithet of Zeus and kings.


The fertility god Dionysus (Greek Dionusos) , whose cult emblem was the erect phallus, was also a god of healing, and his name, when broken down to its original parts, IA-U—NU—ShUSh, is almost identical with that of Jesus, having NU, “seed”, only in addition:

“Semen, seed that saves”, and is comparable with the Greek Nosios, “Healer”, an epithet of Zeus.19

The fertility deity, then, appeared in all living beings, but in some more than others.


Those plants especially endowed with power to heal or kill, the drug plants, became the subject of study among the witch-doctors, prophets, and priests of the ancient world and their experiential know.- ledge was passed on within their professional communities and zealously guarded.


As well as the names and identities of the plants, they preserved those of the disease demons and the protective angels whose power was needed to secure and use the precious drugs. Furthermore, an essential part of “healing” or giving life was to know the patient’s physiological and psychological makeup, and the degrees of the “spirits of light and darkness” that he had been granted by fate at his birth.


These traits of character and bodily constitution could be determined by astrological means, so that the early doctors were also astrologers. He was also a prophet, a prognosticator.


The arts of healing and religion were inseparable.


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