Medicinal Drug Uses

In The Pharmacology of Sacred Plants, Herbs, and Roots, Scarsborough states, “Herophilus could say that ‘drugs are the hands of the gods,’ a significant quotation when one considers that the man who reputedly made this statement was one of the famous medical researchers at the Ptolemaic Museum in the 270s and 260s B.C.” (138).

Later Greek medicine, mainly among Hippocratic physicians stayed tied to the rooted tradition of being a family trade wherein the medical craft was passed down through generations (Scarsborough 140). Scarborough says that “Homeric medicine and drug lore do not exhibit an ‘expelling’ function, although occasional chants might be added after soothing medicines were applied to wounds” (143).


D'Andrea states in Ancient Herbs that rue, in the ancient Mediterranean world, was a powerful antidote for poisons and magic. Moreover, it was the herb of sight. Later, the name ruta was said to be derived from the Greek rhyte, which relates to the drawing of an archer's bow, most likely because of rue's effectiveness in combating so many diseases (D'Andrea 76). Hippocrates also highlighted rue in his materia medica (D'Andrea 76). Rue was also one of the main ingredients used in the famous antidote for poison taken daily in small doses by King Mithridates, who was an early toxicologist. He used it to immunize himself against poisoning (D'Andrea 76).

D'Andrea continues that the Greeks looked at rue as an apotropaic because of its power "to alter conditions they thought were magically induced" (D'Andrea 76). Rue relieved indigestion which was said to be brought on by eating in front of strangers which is a discomfort that was attributed to magic (D'Andrea 76). 

According to D'Andrea, Theophrastus, while classifying rue's characteristics, notes that there is only one kind of rue cultivated. Moreover, Theophrastus states that "rue is exceptional among the pot-herbs because it dislikes fertilizer" (D'Andrea 76). Wild rue, Theophrastus continues, has smaller and rougher leaves and stalks and a stronger, more pungent taste. D'Andrea states, "Dioscorides attributes an unusually large number of remedies to rue, and like Theophrastus he reports that wild rue is sharper than cultivated and that the wild variety is unfit for food"(76). The rue best eaten is grown near fig trees, most likely because rue prefers a sheltered place. D'Andrea writes, "Dioscorides also stresses the power of rue as an antidote for poisons: drunk in wine, the leaves taken by themselves, or with walnuts or figs. Mixed with polenta and applied to the eyes, it relieves pain. Rue juice warmed in a pomegranate rind makes good ear drops" (76).

D'Andrea writes that there are eighty-four remedies attributed to the use of rue. Rue is also among the chief medicinal plants now and it was also highly regarded in the Antiquity. Rue also has an amazing effectiveness in improving eyesight. Dimness is dispelled by anointing the eyes with rue juice along with Attic honey, or even by touching the corners of the eyes with the pure ruejuice. Moreover as a food, rue is beneficial raw, boiled, or preserved. This final rue remedy is offered-- because "eating rue slows down the generative process, it is prescribed for frequent amorous dreams" (D'Andrea 76).


D'Andrea states in Ancient Herbs that medicinally, many remedies are made with saffron as it "discourages intoxication, induces sleep, and is aphrodisiac" (80). Moreover, there are saffron ointments for the eyes and ears. Crocus sativus, saffron, also "produces the flavoring, medicine, and dye used by the Greeks and Romans" (80). This is the plant that is still used today. Poisonous meadow saffron, "colchicum autumnale, was also known to the ancients: Dioscorides warns against it and calls it kolchikon. Excellent saffron grew wild in Italy, but the Romans preferred to buy the cultivated, prepared form from Greece." (D'Andrea 80).



Wilkins and Hill state, “Drugs too are mentioned in Helen’s soothing drug that is added to wine, and in the special root of moly, which Odysseus is given to counter the magic of Circe”(257).

Both the opium poppy, wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) contain psychotropic chemicals. Hillman continues, “common wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) has been used for centuries as a mental stimulant and anxiolytic-- a drug that quells anxiety” (73). Greek and  Romans also made special wine with this plant that is very bitter (Hillman 73). Hillman states that the chemical that is responsible for wormwood’s physiological effects is called thujune, the drug produces mind-altering effects in humans which are described as self-confidence and artistic inspiration. Molecularly, thujone is a potent neurotoxin.

Scarsborough says that it is reasonable to assume that Greek audiences of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. were acquainted with the powers and properties of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) Playwrights have indicated that was a common knowledge of drugs and herbal remedies in the fifth century B.C.and that “such pharmaceutical lore was generally accepted simultaneously in both magicolegendary and empircal-practical ways”(Scarsborough 143). Scarborough continues, “Mentions of herbs or drugs in the  plays can be presumed to be understood by Athenians who sat through the productions” (143). The opium poppy, mentioned in the Iliad, when ripe are slit for their valuable drippings in the spring. Poets and playwrights reference the pain-killing drug and other substances knowing the Greek listeners were familiar.

Scarsborough states, “Homer couches his account of mixing opium with wine in a context of god-delivered and god-derived powers and knowledge, and it is again a woman (Helen, daughter of Zeus) who possesses this specialized skill, making a link with the drug and sexual sorcery recorded of Circe” (140). However, the lore of drugs and poisons was not gendered in administration, both men and women gathered pharmacological data. Moreover, the use of sexual drugs, like pennyroyal, was not the particular knowledge of just women, but men as well (Scarsborough 145).

Scarsborough continues, “the ‘profession’ of medicine is mentioned with some respect by Homer, and it is significant that those who are knowledgeable of matters medical and herbal were among the few traveling, skilled craftsmen made welcome in the settlements of Homer’s world, perhaps a reflection of a continuous and gradual infiltration of medical and herbal lore from the Near East and Egypt” (140).

Riddle points out in Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine: Recognition of Drugs in Classical Antiquity how many of the plants used in Ancient pharmaceutical drugs are difficult to place in modern terminology; however, that "there are familiarities with such drugs as colocynth seeds, chaste tree, garlic, cress, onions, thyme, and juniper."

“The comparison of the Hippocratic drugs with the modern guides unveils a surprising correspondence”(Riddle). Many things that we, in modernity, mainly only consider as foods now were listed in the Hippocratic guide to drugs were, “blite, cucumber, turnip, lentil, medlar, cress, and, possibly, black cumin and asphodel” (Riddle). Moreover, there animal products that were found in a pharmacognosy guide were “eggs, castoreum (from beaver), and horn... calcium in the horn may have some physiological effects” (Riddle). Riddle mentions botanicals such as, “cotyledon, hares tailgrass, ceterach, thorny bunet, lepidium, shepherd's purse, rocket salad, hartwort, alexanders, samphire,  horse fennel,  caucalis,  daucos,  and potter's earth” (Riddle).While dangerous class of roots include Thasia garganica L., the deadly carrot, and Conium maculatum L., hemlock. Meanwhile pennyroyal was associated with the functions of birthing and nursing newborns for many centuries.

In antiquity, the word drug referred to more than just what would be found in a physician’s medicine box, for instance pharmakon, the Greek word for drug could either be helpful or harmful. It also means medicine, poison, unguents, perfumes, and any other concoction that was applied to the human body. For Romans, the use of the single word, drug, was not used; however, medicamenta meant healing drugs, while venena meant poisonous drugs. Meanwhile, they did not do much to distinguish the practice of medicine from the administration of drugs (Hillman 35).

Hippocrates, his greatest admirer, a Roman physician, Galen, and Dioscorides, a Greek physician made some of the greatest contributions to medicine. Also Theophratus, a prominent student of Aristotle’s, is most commonly known as the father of modern botany which cover many things including medical application. The Classical world’s understanding of the beneficial use of botanicals is not covered as it should be in modern chemistry, biology, and pharmocology. Many of their botanical medicines were very effective and potentially show dependable cures for today (Hillman 43). However, many plant species they used are extinct or are at least genetically modified and lack biodiversity. Plants that were used in antiquity though, that were considered medicinal botanicals, were “cabbages and radishes to more exotic species like saffron and yarrow, antiquity’s herbs, trees, and shrubs”(Hillman 43). Moreover, classical society also found its way to exploit the animal kingdom to pursue potential drug sources:  from animal excrement, congealed fat, body fluids, to ground up organs, wings, hooves, fins, and dangerous venoms (Hillman 43). Examples of how animal products were used include jellyfish to relieve gout, dog urine to treat leprosy, and locusts for urination problems (Hillman 43). Hillman states, “Their abiding belief that nature provided all sorts of cures for man’s ills convinced them that insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, crustaceans potentially possessed substances capable of alleviating human suffering”(Hillman 43).




Other Drugs and Their Uses
Medicinal Drug Uses