28 November 2011

The Cretan Healer's Handbook

 Opium poppy, narcissus, polion. Ps. Apuleius Herbal
MS Ashmole 1431 ff. 15v-16r. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The manuscript is more than a thousand years old, but the medical information in it
derives from a thousand years earlier, and has been found in use in this century. 

I recently came across a fascinating book, A Cretan Healer's Handbook in the Byzantine Tradition by Patricia Ann Clark, the publication of a document which she studied over many years in Crete.  The document, a handbook of medical cures, or iatrosophion, had been copied in 1930 by Nikolaos Konstantinos Theodorakis, a healer from Meronas, Amari, Crete.

Clark spent years in Crete, talking to other healers and listening to their explanations, and says that there are probably 240 of these iatrosophia in existence.  Most are from the 18th and 19th centuries, but some are earlier.  The contents have been copied over and over since Hippocrates, Galen, and Dioscorides, with cures added in as new substances came to hand, or as Christianity brought new prayers, or as people went off to medical school at Padua and came home with new information.  In 1934 a botanist reported an encounter with a healer-monk who carried with him four manuscript volumes of Dioscorides that he had copied out himself.

 Some of the cures are extremely complex, and one can only think that the patient would get well or die before the medicine was ready.  Like this one for the eyes:

Take a snake, cut off its head and its tail, throw them away and the rest chop it into pieces, put it in a pot and smear it and leave it considerable days until you know that it has formed worms.  Open it, gather the worms and put them in a heavy pot on the fire, roast them, make a powder very fine and put this powder on the eyes and when you have put on a coat of half of a quarter of the amount, have sugar, very fine and put it onto the eye and it cleanses.  Sure.
Other cures sound very like cures the "old folks" knew in the South when I was a child, like this one for warts:
First count how many there are and you take just as many plane tree nuts and you go and pour them out at the banks of a river and when they have rotted, the wars are destroyed.  But you should do it at the waning of the moon.
The phase of the moon was quite important for Southern, and Appalachian, warts. The treatments for toothache are quite like the ones the old folks knew, too:
Take the bulb of an onion and cook it and put it on top of the root of the tooth. . . . (and for a cavity) A little tar and unslaked lime, you should soften it well, the pain disappears and the tooth disintegrates too.
 Suppose hemorrhoids were a problem:
First let him have a moderate, regular life for two days, later take one dram of oak gall, pound it well, put a piece in with wine and have him drink it in the evening and have several pounded onions and garlic and put them in a pot and put in also two bricks, but you should have them well heated in the fire, and from above quench them with strong vinegar and he sits on top and is steamed well, then he drinks again the oak gall and lies down like this.  Do this three times . . .
These iatrosophia have become a field of great scholarly interest but what has fascinated me particularly is that I have found two recipes in Theodorakis' book that I know from 15th-century sources.  One of these 15th-century treatments I have already used here, and that is a note on childbirth from Demetrios Pepagomenos, a noted doctor who himself collected cures from local healers:

Πρὸς δεύτερα γυναικός: παγούρους ποταμίους θὲς ἐπ´ ἀνθράκων καὶ ὑποκάπνισον αὐτήν, ἀγριοκαννάβου ῥίου δίδου πίνειν νῆστις.   For a woman’s seconds [afterbirth]: put river crabs on charcoal and smoke her, give [her] fasting a drink with grated cinnamon wood. 

This is the treatment that Theodorakis copied: 
τά κόκυλά της νὰ θυμιάσης τήν κακόγενην γυναῖκα εὐθύς γενά . . . οἰ τρίχες ὄπου εἷναι στό κουτελόν της νά καπνήσης τήν γυναῖκα τήν κακόγενυν εὐθύς γενᾶ.  (With) the bones of the seal you should fumigate the woman who is having a difficult birth, immediately she gives birth. . . . The hairs which are on the seal's face: you should fumigate the woman having a difficult birth, immediately she gives birth.*
These are close enough -- both use water animals and fumigations -- and the Theodorakis text shows that his source came from two different sources.

A second recipe from Theodorakis is for fever.  Part of the prayer reads:

ἠ δὲ τιμία σου κεφαλή ἔκραζε καὶ ἔλεγε πιρετός δυταίος τοῦ θεοῦ, . Σ . Μ . Κ . Λ . Σ . Μ . Τ . Ρ . Θ . ἀμήν. Ἠλί, ἠλί, λιμά σαβαχθάνι τούτέστι θεὲ μου, θεὲμου, ἴνα τὶ μὲ ἐγκατέληπεις τόν δουλον του θεοῦ. . . . χριστός εὐηγγγελήσθη φύγε ρίγος. χριστός ἐγενήθη φήγε ρίγος. Ξριστός ἐβαπτήσθς φύγε ρίγος ἀπό τόν δούλον τοῦ θεου. . . . Ιησοῦς Χριστός νικά καὶ βασιλεύει εἰς τούς ἀιώνας.  And your holy head (of John the Baptist) cried out and said, 'Fever of the second, third and fourth both days and nights, flee from the servant of the Lord,  . Σ . Μ . Κ . Λ . Σ . Μ . Τ . Ρ . Θ .  Amen. Ili, ili, lima savachthani, this is, my God my God to what purpose do your forsake me, the servant of the Lord . . . Christ is proclaimed, flee fever chill.  Christ is born, flee fever-chill.  Christ is baptized, flee fever-chill from the servant of the Lord. . . . Jesus Christ triumphs and rules forever".
Compare it with Michael of Rhodes' prayer for fever:
Sava Sava episava che Sava. Pasqua ton evreon. To Sava. Ectes tetartin oran Oiisus demonya epechefalisen diaton psicron to rigos, to proton to defteron to triton to tetarton che ton padote feuge rigos poreton demonochefale apo ton dulon tu Theu Michallin, stomen chalos agios o theos, steonen meta fovu. Agios ischiros agios athanatos eleison imas. Angelli Michail, Gavriil, Uriil, Rafail, apo rigos voithi.   Savas, Savas, Bishop Sava. Passover of the Jews. Saviour! Yesterday at the fourth hour, O Jesus, the demon leaped on my head – chills – the first, the second, the third, the fourth – continually. Chase away the chills, take the demon-head from the servant of God, Michael. We cry, Good God, Holy God! We cry out in fear. Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, save me from the chills! Return to health!*  

There is great similarity between the two fever prayers, which are certainly for malarial fever, and if you think they are somewhat overwrought, you have never known the desperate fever or the bed-rattling chills that come with malaria.  I knew malaria well as a child in West Africa, and I have a visceral response to these prayers.  

Theodorakis and Michael have other similar cures, such as when Theodorakis says that repeating the Credo (τό πηστεύω) three times is a cure for scrofula, and Michael says that three repetitions each of the Pater noster and the Ave Maria will allow a woman to give birth.  I suspect I could find many more similarities between Pepagomenos and Theodorakis.  The image at the top of the page is of the opium poppy: it was used by both healers.  Theodorakis' cures give such an awful view of the possibilities faced by pre-hospital populations, it is a great comfort to know that at least opium was known, and sometimes available, to them.

* Trans. DW.


  1. I remember as a child in the 60s being told that to get rid of warts you must "throw them to the moon"; but I never had any ...

    The villagers of Agalas in Zakynthos used to climb down the steep cliffs, tied with a rope, and swim into the sea caves where the seals rested. This is what two 18th century visitors have written. They had to stab them or shoot them in the head because that was the only way to kill them. But they only took their skins and fat. I did, once, find the skull of a seal washed out on a sandy beach though. In centuries past it may not have been such a rare occasion.

    Best regards,


  2. Exactly the kind of comment I hoped someone would make. 400+ readers of this and you are the only one to respond.

  3. Could you tell me the page number of the Clark`s book related to this recipe from Theodorakis for fever?
    Thank you!
    Alexandar, Belgrade

  4. Page 133. If it is important to you, write me off-line & I can send you a scan.

  5. Dear "Nauplion",

    Thank you very much for this prompt answer!

    Best wishes,


I will not publish Anonymous comments.