Cures and Remedies

If a patient has earache, wrap a tuft of wool round your finger and pour warm ointment over it. Then place the tuft of wool in the palm of your hand and put it over the patient’s ear, so that he will think something comes out. Then throw the wool on the fire (Hippocrates, Epidemics 6.5).

There are many remedies for constipation. Sometimes an enema comprising nothing more elaborate than a small amount of olive oil does what is necessary. But, do not resort even to this method on a regular basis, in case your body should become accustomed to it and forget how to perform evacuations spontaneously (Paul of Aegina, Medical Compendium 1.44).

Someone who is so drunk that he loses his voice recovers his health if he becomes feverish straightaway; if he does not, he dies on the third day. If you come across a person in this condition, wash him in copious warm water and bathe his head with sponges dipped in warm water, then peel onions and put them in his nostrils (Hippocrates, Diseases 2.22).

The tricks with snakes performed by the Psylli do not depend on any particular expertise. They require merely a willingness to take risks and confidence born of experience. Snake venom, like some poisons used in hunting, does no harm if swallowed, but is very dangerous in a wound. It is safe to eat the actual snake, but its bite is fatal. If anyone puts his finger into the mouth of a snake that has been drugged (a trick played by traveling show folk), its saliva is not harmful provided it does not actually bite. This is why it is safe to save someone’s life by sucking the venom from a snake bite. There is just one vital precaution necessary: the person who sucks out the poison must make sure he has no open sores on his gums, or on his palate, or anywhere else in his mouth (Celsus, On Medicine 5.27.3).

There is a weakness of the eyes that allows people to see adequately well by day, but not at all during the night. Women with a regular menstrual cycle are immune to it. The eyes of those who suffer from it should be smeared with the bloody juice that drips from a roasting liver; a goat’s liver is best, and the liver of a he-goat is preferable to that of a she-goat. They should also eat the liver itself (Celsus, On Medicine 6.6).

Remedies for seasickness. It is not easy to prevent a passenger from vomiting the first time he does so, and it would not do any good anyway. That first time is in fact usually helpful. After he has vomited, he should not eat much, nor be offered the usual sort of food. He should have either beans, soaked in vinegar and boiled with a little pennyroyal, or pieces of bread in wine with a fine bouquet, that has been well diluted. He should drink only a little, either very well diluted wine or a mixture of vinegar and honey. … Use the aroma of quinces, thyme, or pennyroyal to counter disagreeable shipboard smells. It is important to look at the sea as little as possible, until one has become acclimatized to life on board, and to be careful to ensure that one’s drinking water is neither muddy, nor foul smelling, nor salty (Oribasius, Synopsis of Eustathius 5.33).

Sexual intercourse is good for lower back pain, for weakness of the eyes, for derangement, and for depression (Pliny, Natural History 28.58).

If a person whispers in a donkey’s ear that he has been stung by a scorpion, the affliction is immediately transferred to the donkey (Pliny, Natural History 28.155).

Dog’s blood is thought to be the best remedy for arrow-poison (Pliny, Natural History 29.58).

Sleep can be induced by: wool-grease either diluted in two cyathi of wine with a pinch of myrrh or mixed with goose-fat and myrtle wine; a cuckoo in a hare-skin pouch worn as an amulet; the beak of a young heron in a donkey-skin pouch attached to the forehead; the beak has the same effect by itself, if soaked in wine (Pliny, Natural History 30.140).

The dried head of a bat worn as an amulet wards off sleep (Pliny, Natural History 30.140).

Touching the nostrils of a she-mule with one’s lips is said to stop sneezing and hiccups (Pliny, Natural History 28.57).

In treating fever, clinical medicine is almost entirely useless. I shall therefore note numerous remedies suggested by magicians, starting with amulets: the dust in which a sparrowhawk has bathed, tied up with red thread in a linen bag. The longest tooth of a black dog. The wasp called the “false wasp”, which always flies alone, should be caught in the left hand and attached under the patient’s chin; other people use the first wasp they see that year. A viper’s severed head, wrapped in a linen cloth, or its heart cut out while it is still alive. The muzzle and the ear-tips of a mouse in a red cloth (the mouse itself being set free again). The right eye plucked from a lizard while still alive, and then wrapped in goat-skin with its severed head (Pliny, Natural History 30.98).

Provided that it is pulled out by the roots and not cut with an iron tool, any plant near which a dog urinates ensures a very rapid recovery from sprains (Pliny, Natural History 24.111).

People have cured oxen of flatulence by drilling a hole in their horns and inserting human bones (Pliny, Natural History 28.8).

King Pyrrhus of Epirus could cure ailments of the spleen by contact with the big toe of his right foot; when he was cremated, it did not burn, and was kept in a casket in a temple (Pliny, Natural History 7.20).

At Natural History 20.50, Pliny lists many medicinal qualities of garlic. For example, it helps in the treatment of asthma, edema, epilepsy, insomnia, intestinal worms, jaundice, mental problems, phthiriasis, quinsy, scrofula, leprosy, earache, toothache, blisters, coughs, sprains, ruptures, tumors, and wounds. The smell of garlic wards off snakes and scorpions. In an ointment it is effective in healing bites from snakes, shrews, and dogs. It helps in adjusting to living in a new location, with a new water supply. It is aphrodisiac. Garlic was, however, thought to have various side effects: blurred vision, flatulence, stomach pains, and thirst.

The human bite is one of the most dangerous. It can be cured with earwax. This need cause no surprise, given that earwax, especially that obtained from an executed person and applied while still fresh, cures even scorpion stings and snake bites. Earwax is also effective against hangnails, as likewise is a human tooth against snake bites, if ground to a powder (Pliny, Natural History 28.40).

I could not abide drinking a potion made of earwax, not even if it meant I would be free from illness evermore (Galen, The Mixtures and Properties of Simple Medicines 12.249K).

Pitch is the best treatment for any imbalance of the humors, and it is used by doctors every day. You should smear it over the whole stomach, and then remove it before it cools. It is enough if you do this twice in succession on the same day (Galen, The Therapeutic Method 10.501K). Elsewhere he complains that, though he swears by pitch-smearing as a way to lose weight, some patients are too vain and obstinate to undergo such treatment (Galen, Matters of Health 6.416K).

Asclepiades, one of the greatest of all doctors, indeed the greatest of all with the single exception of Hippocrates, was the first to discover the merits of giving wine to sick people (Apuleius, Florida 19). This assertion is quite incorrect. For example, the merits of giving particular types of wine to patients are discussed at Hippocrates, Regimen in Acute Diseases 14. Apuleius goes straight on to tell a splendid story of Asclepiades rescuing a man when he was being carried not quite dead to the funeral pyre. He “found life still lurking in him, … wrenched him from the hands of the undertakers,  and brought him back home from the very threshold of the Underworld” – against the wishes of his relatives (who may have already received their inheritance).

If there is no one to suck the poison from a snakebite and there is no bleeding-cup available, the victim should sip soup made with goose meat, lamb, or veal, and then vomit. A live chicken should be cut in two, and the two halves should be placed over the bite immediately, while they are still warm, with the inner part of the chicken in contact with the wound. A kid or a lamb can be used in the same way (Celsus, On Medicine 5.27).

There are many remedies for constipation. Sometimes an enema comprising nothing more elaborate than a small amount of olive oil does what is necessary. But, do not resort even to this method on a regular basis, in case your body should become accustomed to it and forget how to perform evacuations spontaneously (Paul of Aegina, Medical Compendium 1.44).

Country folk have found through experience that a scrofulous tumor can be dealt with by having the patient eat a snake (Celsus, On Medicine 5.28).

After operating unsuccessfully on ulcers, the doctor Antonius gave his patients viper meat to eat, and the ulcers healed with amazing rapidity (Pliny, Natural History 30.117). [Pliny may well be referring to Antonius Musa, the emperor Augustus’s personal physician. We are never told that Augustus suffered from ulcers, but he had such a poisonous personality (he exiled Ovid to the frontier of the Empire) that it is satisfying to imagine him being fed snake meat.]

To be able to screw a lot: grind up fifty pine cones with two ladels of grape-syrup and twenty peppercorns, and drink it (London Magic Papyrus 121 c. 5b).

In order that you may be fit for Venus’s affairs, grind some pepper and mix it with olive oil and honey; when you want to copulate, smear it on your private parts.  …  To make your penis look as if it has grown bigger: soak a panace-root in good wine for three days and, when it is time for copulation, tie it to your thigh. After the business is done, put it back in the wine and store it ready for use in the same way another time.  …  To ensure that no other man can enter your woman: Chop off the tail of a green lizard with your left hand. Let the lizard go, still alive. Hold the tail in the same hand till it stops twitching, and touch your woman and her private parts with it during intercourse (Marcellus Empiricus, On Medicines 33.66).

As a cure for any sort of gout, you should have your patient, when he has an attack, stand on the sea shore – not the dry beach, but at the water’s edge – with his feet on a black electric eel.  He should do this till he feels numbness in his whole foot and his leg as far as the knee. This not only stops the pain on this particular occasion but prevents it recurring in the future. Anteros, the Emperor Tiberius’s freedman responsible for inheritances cured himself using this method (Scribonius Largus, Prescriptions 162).

When a wound caused by a mad dog is not properly treated, the patient usually develops a fear of water (what the Greeks call hydrophobia), and he is tortured simultaneously by thirst and by fear of water. There is little hope for victims of this condition. The only remedy is to throw him suddenly into a swimming pool. If he does not know how to swim, he is left to sink and drink, then pulled to the surface, the process being repeated more than once. If he can swim, he is pushed under several times, so that he is filled up, however reluctantly, with water. By this means, both his thirst and his fear of water are relieved (Celsus, On Medicine 5.27.2).

The brain of a land hare (eaten roasted) is good for the trembling that comes from fear, as well as rubbed on or eaten for teething in children. The head burnt and rubbed on with bears’ grease or vinegar cures baldness. The curds (taken in a drink three days after the menstrual flow) are reported to cause sterility. Likewise it stops excessive discharges of the womb and bowels. It helps those with falling sickness, and taken as a drink with vinegar it is good against poisons, especially for curdling of the milk [while breastfeeding], and for the bites of vipers. The blood rubbed on while warm cures sunspots, vitiligines [form of leprosy], and freckles (Dioscorides, Medical Material 2.19).

Even rust counts as a remedy. … Smeared on as an ointment, it cures bald patches.  Mixed with wax and myrtle oil, it clears up scabs on the cheeks and pustules anywhere on the body.  Mixed with vinegar, it reduces swellings round the genitals.  In an unguent, it mitigates the pain of gout (Pliny, Natural History 34.152).

Whenever the root is left behind after a tooth has been extracted, it also should be taken out immediately, using a pair of pliers which the Greeks call a “rhizagra” (Celsus, On Medicine 7.12). [Rhizagra is a grimly ominous term, for it means literally “root hunter”. Other such tools were the odontagra (“tooth hunter”), used for pulling teeth, and the ostagra (bone hunter”), used for removing not only bone splinters from wounds but also a dead fetus from the mother’s womb.]

Another procedure for dealing with hemorrhoids is to have the patient squat between two supports. When you then examine him, you will find that the region between the buttocks near the anus is puffed out, and blood is seeping from the anus. If the lump in the sheath is soft, you should remove it with your finger. Doing this is no more difficult than running your finger between the skin and the flesh of a sheep when its fleece is being removed. Keep talking while you are working, so that the procedure will be over before the patient realizes it is being done (Hippocrates, Hemorrhoids 4).

When people are eating, they often swallow fish bones and other such things, which then stick in various parts of the throat. Any bones that are visible can be extracted with a purpose-made forceps, but other methods are needed for bones stuck further down in the gullet. Some doctors recommend swallowing rather large pieces of food, such as a lettuce stalk or a bit of bread. Others bid the patient swallow a small piece of soft, clean sponge tied with a thread, and then, holding on to the thread, draw it back up as often as necessary, till the bone sticks to the sponge and comes up with it (Paul of Aegina Medical Epitomes 6.32).

According to Theophrastus in his On Inspirations, music is useful in the treatment of many ailments, both mental and physical, such as fainting, panic attacks, and long term mental disturbance. He claims that pipe music cures sciatica and epilepsy (Theophrastus frg. 88).

The Pythagoreans used incantations to counter some illnesses, and they believed that music contributed greatly to health, provided that it was used appropriately. They also used phrases chosen from Homer and Hesiod to correct faults in the soul (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 29.164)

When all the symptoms are in agreement, like a choir with all its members singing in tune, then you can proceed confidently with treating your patient (Galen On the Method of Treatment 11.9K).

There are certain symptoms from which doctors understand the onset and progress of illnesses, and indeed it is said that there even some types of dream that give insight into a person’s health (Cicero, On Divination 2.142).

Dreaming about boxing is altogether bad. It foretells not only disgrace, but also actual loss, since the face becomes disfigured, and there is loss of blood, which symbolizes money. Such dreams are lucky only for those who earn their living from blood, by which I mean doctors, animal sacrificers, and cooks (Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams 1.61).