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Herbal Medicine in the Fantastical Myths of Ancient Greece

The National Herald

Maria Christodoulou, the Greek Herbalist. Photo: Vasilia Christodoulou

Achilles applied a poultice of yarrow to the wounds of his fellow soldiers. Daphne was rooted into a bay laurel tree for protection against the god Apollo. Odysseus held a mullein stalk to defend himself against Circe's mystical powers. These ancient Greek myths blended passion, pain, victory, and defeat with a touch of ancient sorcery. As master storytellers, the ancient Greeks created fantastical stories that have riveted audiences for thousands of years. Let us explore some of these myths and the plants that worked alongside the divine gods and goddesses of our ancient world.

First, a visit to the battlefield, a common scene in antiquity where iron weapons incessantly clashed against the flesh of muscle-toned soldiers. Every ancient Greek leader pursued the chance of victory to lay claim to territories and natural resources, including provisions, healing plants, and open seas. Achilles, son of a king and a sea nymph, was a celebrated warrior and hero of the Trojan War, as described in Homer's Iliad. He was taught the healing arts by Chiron the centaur, who was half man, half horse. In one of his most notable scenes, as painted on a vase from the fifth century BCE, Achilles is depicted tending to Patrocles, his friend and fellow warrior who suffers from a battle wound on his arm. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a plant with tiny fragrant flowers and feathery leaves, was often applied as a poultice, combined with beeswax and honey, to stop bleeding and heal wounds. Other names of the plant include “soldier's woundwort” or “warrior plant” for this very reason. We know yarrow was a favorite of Achilles because the Latin botanical name Achillea is named in his honor. Herbalists today use yarrow to heal internal and external wounds, lower fevers, and decrease inflammation in the liver and kidneys, among other many uses.

The National Herald

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase, tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC from Vulci. (Photo: Altes Museum / Public domain)

Further back in time, the ancient gods and goddesses frolicked on their sacred mountain, joyously coupling up or seeking revenge against transgressions. Apollo, son of Zeus and god of music, was seeking his own enjoyment when he spotted the beautiful nymph Daphne, daughter of a river god. Adamant about his passion (as legend has it, he had been pierced by one of Eros's love arrows), he persisted to stalk Daphne until she cried out to the gods asking for protection against him. Upon hearing her request, her father the river god transformed her into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis), which in Greek, bears her name, Δάφνη. Some accounts describe how the laurel tree became sacred to Apollo, who declared the tree would have eternal youth, never having its leaves turn brown or falling off. And a laurel wreath, placed upon the head, would become a crown of victory and protection. While Apollo did not get what he wanted, we certainly did. The leaves of the laurel tree - bay leaves - are used in both herbal remedies and home cooking for a touch of magic on the digestive system and the imagination.

Finally, we travel to the mystical home of Circe, a powerful goddess and sorceress in Homer's book, The Odyssey. Most notable of her powers, she transformed some of Odysseus' men into pigs using magical herbs and incantations. To save himself from the same fate, Odysseus used the plant moly, a gift from Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Some research suggests the plant was snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), which is native to the Mediterranean and contains galanthamine, an antidote to chemicals that induce a delusional state. Moly was described as having "a black root with a flower as white as milk [and] could not be uprooted by human hand" (The Odyssey, 10.281).

The National Herald

Apollo and Daphne in an engraving by Agostino Veneziano, dated 1518. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public domain)

Circe was the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and the ocean nymph Perse, and lived on the island of Aeaea. While the exact location still perplexes scholars, Mount Circeo, an Italian mountain between Rome and Naples, bears her mystical name, as well the nearby cave, Grotta della Maga Circe. If you visit, be forewarned, as Ovid the Roman poet exclaimed: "Aeneas, I warn you, keep away from Circe's shores!" (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.245).

From yarrow on the battlefield to a woman turned laurel tree to holy moly! - we can revive the magic of our ancestors and develop a deeper connection to these timeless plants.

Maria Christodoulou is a clinical herbalist exploring the practice of ancient Greek herbal medicine as The Greek Herbalist. In a previous lifetime, she lived on a farm in ancient Greece and found the cure for plagues. She researches and writes about medicinal plants in fantastical myths, ancient scientific writings, and artistic representations that have survived for thousands of years. For an adventure through antiquity, visit her website at www.thegreekherbalist.com.