Ancient And Classical Herbals

Ancient Egyptian Herbals


Note - work in progress.

Much of the information in this section is derived from the list of Ancient herbals / books of medicine which was set forth by Wallis Budge, the great Egyptologist, in his 1928 book "The divine origin of the craft of the herbalist". Budge reported that all of these papyri were written after 1800 B.C. but may well have been copies of much older texts, which are now lost to us.

The prescriptions in these ancient books, according to Budge, were mostly plant-based; with around 5/6 of the ingredients being of vegetable origin. The Egyptians' knowledge of herbalism appears to have been considerable - and Budge reports that Hippocrates and other writers incorporated the work of the Egyptian herbalists into their own texts.

According to a papyrus in the British Museum, (number 10051, Salt [presumably Henry Salt the 19th cent. Egyptologist] 825) vegetable substances were considered divine in origin. The blood, sweat and tears of Horus, Ra, Osiris and other Deities, upon falling on the ground, turn magically into plants - especially those held in reverence as medicines or used to make incense.

Budge was of the opinion that official schools of herbalists were in existence in Egypt as early as 3000 BC.

The Egyptians were known to use plant oils at least as early as 2500 BC. The names of 7 holy oils are listed on tablets in the British Museum and the oils were used in tombs of the Old Kingdom (around 2500 BC.)

Several oils are mentioned in the Ebers papyrus, including olive oil, however the exact identity of the others appears to have been lost. The use of medicated oils appears to have been well known at this period - and the Ebers mentions over a dozen prescriptions for salves and ointments. Herbs were boiled in honey and oil, or in oil alone in order to extract their ingredients. Also, both men and women of the period used perfumed oils to anoint their bodies.

Another practice well known to the ancient Egyptians was the use of henna as a decorative cosmetic. Egyptian women stained their nails and lips with henna; also it was used to anoint the eyelids of the dead.

"Ebers Papyrus" (c.1550 B.C.) Egyptian Papyrus. The largest known record of ancient Egyptian medical practice. Astonishingly, some of the remedies advised by the Ebers Papyrus are still in use today - although some sound quite strange to us. Not only herbal treatments are covered but also remedies of various other kinds. [1] Other ancient Egyptian papyri, some even older, also contained plant-based medical prescriptions. [2]
Extant versions:
The great medical papyrus at Berlin [number 3032], published by Brugsch and Wreszinski.
The medical papyrus in the British Museum [number 10059].
The Hearst papyrus, published by Wreszinski in 1912.
The Kahun papyrus, published by Griffith.
The Edwin Smith papyrus (described at length in Recueil d'Etudes Egyptologiques, Paris, 1922, p.386 ff.

Sumerian And Assyrian Herbals

Wallis Budge gives a lengthy description of the herbals of these ancient peoples. A (medical?) tablet, found in the library of Ashurbanipal, and now in the British Museum (K 4023), includes a footnote stating that it was copied from a tablet which had been written "in the 2nd year of the reign of Enlil-bani, King of Isin, circa 2201-2177". There is also a reference given to a tradition (presumably of herbalism?) from the time of "the ancient rulers before the flood which was in Shurippak".

Copies of medical tablets have also been found at Ashur - and these are reported to be several centuries older than those of Nineveh. Budge states, interestingly, that there was no way of knowing whether the Sumerians were indeed the discoverers of the medical arts which they were using. Budge hints here at the possibility of an earlier civilization whose works have been lost in the mists of time.*

Fortunately for us, many of the clay tablets found at Nineveh by Layard appeared in both Sumerian and Assyrian forms. Ashurbanipal was a great scholar and boasted that he had "even learned the ancient language of the Sumerians" - which by his day was considered antique and rare. Much of our knowledge of these ancient people rests upon the lifetime of devoted scholarship of Ashurbanipal.

In the early part of the 20th century various attempts were made to translate the numerous Assyrian tablets found at Nineveh. However it was not until the work of Thompson that serious progress was made with regard to Assyrian medical texts. He wrote a monograph on Assyrian medicine, called the Assyrian herbal and published in London in 1924. This work was based upon 120 cuneiform fragments from the British Museum, on 660 medical tablets which he had previously published copies of in his work Assyrian Medical Texts (Oxford 1923) and on the work of earlier scholars.

As a result of this work, Budge reported that the Assyrians used around 250 plants in medicine. To this number is added around 120 mineral drugs, alcohols, honey, various kinds of milk and around 180 other substances not identified.

The Assyrians made an attempt at botanical classification of plants, grouping for example grasses together. Thompson was of the view that the knowledge of the doctors of Nineveh was considerable. He even traces the etymology of numerous plants from Sumerian names through Greek and Arabic, to the names by which they are known in the modern era. Examples of plants used in herbalism by the Assyrians include apricot, asafoetida, saffron, galbanum, turmeric, flax, mandrake, almond, poppy, sesame and many more. In those times however the herbalist was also a magician-priest who drove out evil spirits from the bodies of the afflicted.

It appears that Mesopotamian people may have had herb gardens: A tablet in the British Museum (# 46226), describes 73 aromatic plants in the garden of King Merodach-Baladan II of Babylon (721-710 and 703-702 BC.)

* Budge made similar observations about Egyptian culture, stating that the hieroglyphic system showed no signs of a development period; appearing fully formed. Despite his vast knowledge of Egyptology, Budge stated that he was unable to place a start date on Egyptian civilization. He considered it possible that both the Sumerians and the Egyptians inherited their knowledge from an even earlier civilization - perhaps both from the same one. It may therefore not be possible for us to ascertain the beginning of the craft of herbalism.

Further reading:
Assyrian medical texts from the originals in the British Museum (PDF)
Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine (Writings from the Ancient World) - JoAnn Scurlock (2014)

Ancient Greek Herbals

Curiously, not only for Sumerians and Egyptians considered their medicine systems to have been given to them by their Gods, but the Greeks held a similar view. The original Greek god of medicine was Asklepios, reported to be the son of Apollo and Coronis. Asclepius is said to have lived around 1250 BC. He carried a staff with a serpent coiled around it. This symbol of life was known as the Rod of Asclepius and is still associated with medicine. The symbol should not be confused with the Caduceus - which features two serpents intertwined around a winged staff. ( The Caduceus is very often mistakenly associated with medicine. ) [3]

Many of the ancient Greek physicians learned their craft from the Egyptians. Most notable among them was Hippocrates (c.460-370 BC) who has been called the father of Western medicine. He was the first to separate the craft of medicine from the magical and ritual elements which had always been intertwined with the practice up until that time. He is credited with the concept that diseases were of natural cause, as opposed to being influenced by deities and other spirits. Hippocrates' methods were methodical, precise and gentle where possible. Wallis Budge reports that between 300 and 400 medicines were known to Hippocrates - and that most of these well plant-based.

Crateuas' Herbal (c.80-63 BC?) Craeuas was body physician to Mithridates VI Eupator, king of Pontus (120-63 BC). He was a herbalist and rhizomist ("root cutter") and created his own illustrated herbal. This work has now been lost, though it is reported that Crateuas' illustrations of plants were the most lifelike of his time: He has been called the "father of plant illustration". It was mentioned by Dioscorides in the preface to his De Materia Medica (see below), and also quoted in the Codex Vindobonensis (which one?), which includes illustrations believed to be copies of those of Crateuas. [4][5] Wallis Budge also has a significant entry on Crateuas.

Dioscorides - "De Materia Medica" (c.65 AD). One of the most famous of all herbals, Pedanius Dioscorides' De Materia Medica is considered the most influential herbal ever written. It was the principal source drawn upon by herbalists for some 1500 years. The original has been lost, however numerous translations exist. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is the highly illustrated Byzantine copy of around 512 A.D., known as the Codex Vindobonensis. [6]
In mediæval times, manuscripts were hand-copied (printing had not yet arrived). Notes extended commentaries were often added to Dioscorides: Copies were not mere "library books" but working manuals for physicians of those times. In some editions of Dioscorides, commentaries became long and elaborate - often including the opinions of several other herbalists. Some of these may never have been translated into English: Notable starting points include Janus Cornarius' 1557 Latin version (full view on Google Books - and Pietro Andrea Mattioli's 1554 Commentarii in libros sex P. Dioscoridis de materia medica (full view on Google Books - Both of these texts contain lengthy yet completely different annotations. Dioscorides has a long entry by budge - also includes names of upper herbals and herbalists not previously covered.
Dioscorides was first translated ino English by John Goodyer, who between 1652 and 1655 hand-wrote the entire Greek text with an interlinear translation. This ran to 4,540 quarto pages - a labour of love indeed! Astonishingly (or perhaps not, when you consider the size of the task), this translation was never printed and lay forgotten at Magdalen College, Oxford until 1933, when it was edited and printed by Robert T. Gunther. The identities of some of the plants mentioned by Dioscorides appear to have been lost. [4]

Pliny - "Naturalis Historia" (c.77-79 AD). Pliny's Natural History is comprised of 37 books, of which seven describe medicinal plants. Pliny's work has been famous and widely consulted ever since, and is very often cited by mediaeval writers.
Pliny's work was first translated into English by Philemon Holland (1552-1637). Holland's translation is available in part here - (a work in progress, not yet complete.) The next English edition (much more readable) was the 1855 version of John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley; this is available in full on Perseus -
(This is the only full version I was able to find; note that only volume 1 of this (books I-V) is currently available in full via Google Books - )
Several books of Pliny's N.H. deal with plants and trees; books 20, 24,26 and 27 deal in particular with plant remedies.

Galen (129-c.199 AD) is known to have written on the subject of plant remedies. A 10th century copy of one of 129 works of Galen translated into Arabic by Hunayn ibn Ishaq (c.830-870) contains descriptions of over 150 formulations of both herbal and animal origin. [7]

Hippocrates did not leave us a herbal, however a body of work comprising some 70 medical texts from around the 3rd century BC has come to be known as the Hippocratic Corpus. It was attributed to him in antiquity, and its teachings followed his principles. written in Ionic Greek, the corpus may have been the collection of the great Alexandria School of Medicine (founded in around 260 BC.), or it might have been the remains of a library of Kos. [8] Budge states that all of the Greek herbals and medical works of this period (300-30 BC.) were based on lists of plants and medical works made by the Egyptians.

Diocles Carystius (c.400-c.450 BC) The earliest recorded Greek Herbal (as mentioned by Wallis Budge) was that of Diocles Carystius. it was a list of plants and their habitats together with short statements describing their medicinal properties. This work was stated by Budge to be lost.

Aristotle, the famous philosopher, is thought to have created a list of over 500 plants ("De Plantis") and this is often accredited to him - although Budge states that it may been the work of a later writer.

Theophrastus - "Enquiry into Plants"Theophrastus (c. 371 - c. 287 BC) was a Greek philosopher of the time of Plato and Aristotle. Theophrastus wrote 2 books on botany. Over 500 plants are described in his Historia Plantarum. Some of his statements are based on first-hand knowledge of the plants, others are based on information supplied by traveling merchants. His work was ( at the time of Budge) considered the earliest extant Greek herbal. It was translated by Wimmer (1842, Vratislaviae) and by Sir A. F. Hort ("Theophrastus: Enquiry Into Plants", London, 1916.) Enquiry into Plants was written in 10 volumes, of which 9 survive plus a fragment of the tenth. Considered the most important contribution to botany of ancient times, this work systemized and classified plants according to locality, size and uses. Herbs and some medical uses of plants are mentioned although this was primarily a botanical work. Some of Theophrastus's statements appear absurd or fabulous to modern minds although there is also much of value. Theophrastus was first printed in Latin in 1483 from a translation by Theodore Gaza. The first critical edition is reported to be that of that of J.G. Schneider, 1818-1821 in 5 volumes, and the first English translation is that of Sir Arthur Hort, 1916, which is available in full via Google Books - Hort's introduction also lists MS editions with commentary as to those thought of primary importance. [9][10]

Herophilus, a native of Chalcedon in around the 3rd century BC created a work on plants which was mentioned by Pliny (XXV #5) which was considered by Budge to be no longer extant.

Andreas of Carystus, physician to Ptolemy IV, also wrote a work on plants in the early 3rd century BC, considered by Budge to be lost.

Niger (the Sextius Niger of Pliny), alive around 30 BC, wrote a Herbal considered by Budge to be lost.

Galen Said to have been the author of nearly 400 works. 83 extant. De Simplicibus - Concerning the simples. Long entry by Budge.




The Ethiopian Herbal

This work, in the British Museum, consists of only 14 folios. (MS Add. 20741) James Bruce, travels, London 1805. ( Book 7) describes some plants of Abyssinia. page 88.

Other Herbals

Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic herbals - to come


[10] "The English Cyclopaedia", p.413

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