The language of medicinal plants from the ancient world through modern times

Dr. Alain Touwaide in the beginning of this month mesmerized his audience presenting the “Hyppocrates’ Legacy: Greek Medicine in the Mediterranean and Beyond” showcasing his 40+ years of research experience as a classicist and scholar of the Byzantine world, taking us on a “medicinal plant journey” from Ancient Greece (Hellas), the Mediterranean and Middle East, through the Byzantine Empire and Middle Ages,the west, and tying in our modern times. A speaker of 12 languages, university lecturer and researcher, and Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions; Touwaide, with the support of Emanuela Appetiti (cultural anthropologist, Touwaide’s wife and research partner) gave his audience a true “intercultural” lesson of sorts.  He helped us travel back to the days of Pedanius Dioscorides (Πεδάνιος Διοσκουρίδης) of Anazarbus (the then ancient Hellenic world, now modern Turkey) through Byzantine and modern times… Medicinal plants (e.g. Δρακόντιον) from archaeological representation, art, to actual plant.

johnson_papyrus_fragment_of_an_illustrated_herbal-_wellcome_l0045048

Johnson papyrus fragment of an illustrated herb

How fascinating to learn about the circulation of information via a papyrus and how this may have had effect on translation, since this medium was often recycled — the ancients and those through the middle ages printed on top of other manuscripts in order for this information to eventually reach the ‘commoners.’ We wonder, what has been erased at the base!??

Furthermore, the Greek concept of “ιατρό σόφια” or “γιατροσόφια” (meaning wisdom of medicine passed on from your grandmother) may indeed be one of those very useful things to more carefully look into –an oral and written tradition carried through the ages to our modern days. Indeed, we see that most of the world still uses traditional plants as therapies — these “traditional”,”alternative” or “complementary” medicines (see World Health Organization for the differentiating definitions), may be plants or herbs we use in our everyday cooking like basil and garlic, or for stress and pain reduction like lavender and peppermint. As a matter of fact there are several webpages dedicated to grandma’s medicinal knowledge or “γιατροσόφια” like this one and one interesting one that is tied to the “Agion Oros” (Mount Athos holy mountain, Northern Greece).

Since Greece is among the top three biodiversities in the world, could this not be cultivated more systematically in turn to produce and retain knowledge, create more jobs, and even tourism by rebuilding some of those ancient sites for consulting on medical care the revitalizing of the Ἀσκληπιεῖον – Asklepieion as a way to help the country look to something more positive in the midst of the ongoing crisis for the last almost ten years? Rumor has it that the Greek WWF may be thinking of more serious plant biodiversity proposals in the near future, we hope so!  The first ‘hospital’ was created by the “Asclepiads” inspired through Hippocrates’ original work (we all recall the Hyppocratic Oath), these ancient physicians  followed the cult of Asclepius and the temple of healing. The most well-known asklepieia in Greece today are the Asclepieion in Kos & the Asklepieion of Epidaurus — more that existed in the ancient Hellenic world, some are found in modern-day Turkey.  As an aside, it seems that there is a catalogue of physician’s “oaths” affecting the code of ethics that doctors still use today (anyone want to do a linguistical comparative study in context of the various historical times?).

Dr. Touwaide referred to terms like “diffusion of pharmacotherapies” or reconstructing the “life of the book” (pressed plants in books, etc.), and how the knowledge of a book was transmitted to common people — diffusion through translation (Arabic science is rooted in Greek science) as he showed us remnants from Arabic Baghdad of the 9th century….even in arabic one can clearly see mention of certain terms within the texts and even the image of Asclepius shown in a more culturally-specific and acceptable form that would be more geared for the middle east arabic-speaking world. Indeed we share a common language and interest, can this not overcome any modern-day barriers?

staffasclepius

Modern symbol in U.S. Medicine, the caduceus

The Asclepius staff is pictured in the U.S. as Herme’s “Caduceus” a universal images used for modern day medicine but there is so much more to those snakes than even we know (healing snakebites, etc.). It turns out that the original staff by Asclepius had one snake and nothing to do with ‘wings’…. this was exclusive to the messenger god Hermes, so another case of mistaken ancient-to-modern identity!

Thanks Alain…just in time for winter and thinking of prevention and healing of our common colds the flu, health problems I’m sure we all experience and likely natural cures that stand the test of time…

Advertisements

One thought on “The language of medicinal plants from the ancient world through modern times

  1. Hannah Rivera says:

    It is really interesting to hear about this type of “alternative” medicine passed on from our grandmothers. It seems to me that it is these treatments and methods that always do the trick when more modern and mainstream medicine fails us. To me these traditional medicines are synonymous with Greece and its culture. Here in Athens, acquaintances almost always suggest some form of “alternative” solution before modern medicine. I think this is definitely something that Greece should focus on developing more systematically.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s