18 November 2013

Helpful, Harmful and Hallucinogenic Herbs of the Bronze Age

In my novel Hand of Fire, set in what is now Turkey during the Trojan War, I made a lot of people sick. That was the easy part. But when I wanted to cure them, well, that proved more problematic. What were the Bronze Age equivalents of aspirin and Robitussin in about 1300 BCE?

Cuneiform Tablet, David Hawkins Wikimedia
My main character, Briseis, the woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the Iliad, is a hasawa, which I translate as “healing priestess.” Accordingly I had to show the specific cures she used. I had some excellent resources to draw from. Large libraries of clay tablets written in cuneiform have been uncovered, dating to this period. They describe in detail the rites—many of which we would categorize as magical—that could bring a sick person back into harmony with the gods and hence to health. They also list the herbs and roots she would have used as medicines. But scholars usually can’t identify/translate the names of the specific plants mentioned on the tablets.

Hmmm. What’s a responsible historical novelist to do? Early on in my research I discovered a Greek Herbal by Dioscorides Pedanius of Anazarbos. This isn’t an ideal source—he’s a millennium or so after my period, but it’s the earliest listing of medicinal herbs I could locate and such knowledge is traditional and not likely to change dramatically, and this guy did live in Turkey not too far from where my novel is set—near Troy. I combined Dioscorides with some modern information about herbal medicines and did my best uniting that understanding with the cuneiform tablets.

One tablet mentions a plant we can translate—the onion—but this rite demonstrates how differently a Trojan or Hittite healer might approach healing a sick person.

Onion layers, Wikimedia
“Like this onion he peels and throws into the fire—and fire consumes it entirely—whose roots will not take hold in the soil, whose shoot will not sprout, so may the pain of my sin and transgression, the sickness that is in my body, my flesh, my veins be peeled off like this onion.”

This rite uses analogical magic—as with this onion, so with my body. The Bronze Age peoples in the region we now call Turkey and into Mesopotamia believed that illness came as punishment from the gods for offenses by the sick person. So it made sense (to them) that disease could be lifted by the gods if the correct procedure was followed—hence the creative use of onion layers. (Wouldn’t you love to peel away your problems and burn them in a fire? The symbolism is quite compelling.)

In the case of this onion, the actual plant is consumed by fire not ingested by the patient. Another example of this kind of analogical use of plants occurs when a person’s soul or inner state can be “sweetened” by making it like the inside of a grape or fig. The Hittites did not distinguish between mental and physical ailments—they were on to something there. Other times, as we hear from the tablets, plants were used in ways that we more readily identify as medicinal.

Astragalos, Magnus Manske Wikimedia
My character, Briseis, needed something to staunch blood in a wound. Dioscorides tells his reader of astragalos, the root of which can be ground and when sprinkled on a wound, controls blood flow. He mentions helpfully that it is hard to grind, so if Briseis is particularly upset she can be seen to smack that pestle hard and this is all to the good. Later, on Google, I discovered astragalus (Latin spelling) turns out also to be used in traditional Chinese medicine as an energizing tonic not a blood stauncher, but I’m sticking with Dioscorides and hoping that’s what Briseis used. It happens to grow in both Turkey and China, so it makes sense that two separate traditions discovered this handy little shrub.

Henbane, Wikimedia
Historians suspect that hallucinogenic plants might have been used in some ancient religious processes, such as having a priestess “speak” in the voice of a god. I hunted about for a possible plant to include in my book since no such secret information gets reported from the ancient world. I read about henbane, an herb that has curative qualities as well as hallucinogenic ones. Henbane induces sleep and soothes coughs, among other things. But then I found an article describing the experiences of a few unfortunate overdose victims of henbane. They had terrifying visions of wolves attacking them. I immediately did my due diligence as an author. Did henbane grow in ancient Turkey? Is it mentioned in the written record? Yes on both accounts. (Dioscorides includes it in his herbal, although he’s not very helpful about this particular plant.) A plausible case can be made for it. Into my novel went henbane—who could resist wolves? And conveniently I had a character with a chronic cough.

Mullein, Wikimedia
At one point Briseis marvels at the multiple qualities a single plant can offer. She is walking at night with torches made from the mullein plant and she used mullein-leaf infusion earlier that day to sooth the queen’s cough. Mullein is another traditional plant that I had to cull from modern sources and then backtrack to see if it could plausibly have been something Briseis used. But when the queen’s chest hurt from that cough, Briseis took a piece of green wool and tied it on a mouse, spoke the necessary words (words were considered to have intrinsic power of their own), and then sent the mouse away. Off goes the chest pain. Or so the theory goes. This scapegoat method is another common thread in the Hittite and Near Eastern medical/magical traditions, rather similar to the onion rite. My heroine Briseis would have used a combination of herbal and magical processes to bring health and well-being.

So we may not know all the specifics of herbal lore in the Bronze Age, but we can make some educated guesses and combine those with the more solid ground of ritual procedure and end up with a pretty accurate portrayal of what a hasawa, a healing priestess living near Troy, would have done to help those struck by any sort of illness, physical or mental. 

For more about Bronze Age Troy and the Hittite Empire or to hear the announcement of the release date of Hand of Fire, go to judithstarkston.com