Dioscorides and De Materia Medica - Mandrake and the Nightshades
Type of Spiritual Experience
Folio 90v of the Naples Dioscurides (a manuscript of De Materia Medica) with illustrations of the Mandrake
A description of the experience
From DIOSCORIDES - DE MATERIA MEDICA BEING AN HERBAL WITH MANY OTHER MEDICINAL MATERIALS WRITTEN IN GREEK IN THE FIRST CENTURY OF THE COMMON ERA A NEW INDEXED VERSION IN MODERN ENGLISH BY Tess Anne Osbaldeston and RPA Wood - Introduction
Dioscorides mentions mandragora (mandrake), used as an anaesthetic for amputation or surgery — the patient became ‘overborn with dead sleep’ so that the surgeon could painlessly ‘cut or cauterise’. Dioscorides used the Greek word anaesthesia for insensitivity, a term reintroduced in the nineteenth century.
We find several amusing anecdotes about plants in De Materia Medica. The mandrake was associated with various myths, presumably because the thick tuberous roots resemble the human form. Dogs were used to extract this, as it allegedly screamed when pulled from the ground, deafening human gatherers. No doubt this tale intimidated casual collectors and protected the wild species. It contains hyoscyamine, an anaesthetic used until the introduction of ether in 1846.
The nightshades (circaea and solanum species), employed by eminent poisoners through the centuries, were used to treat numerous ailments including hayfever. Medicinal drinking-cups were made from the wood of Tamarix gallica, and liquid left standing in them was considered beneficial for disorders of the spleen. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this practice was renewed with drinking-cups made from Lignum nephriticum, which gave a brilliant blue fluorescence to water, highly regarded as a specific for diseases of the kidneys.