late 14c., “a medicine,” from Old French farmacie “a purgative” (13c.), from Medieval Latin pharmacia, from Greek pharmakeia “use of drugs, medicines, potions, or spells; poisoning, witchcraft; remedy, cure,” from pharmakeus (fem. pharmakis) “preparer of drugs, poisoner, sorcorer” from pharmakon “drug, poison, philter, charm, spell, enchantment.” Meaning “use or administration of drugs” is attested from c.1400; that of “place where drugs are prepared and dispensed” is first recorded 1833. The ph- was restored 16c. in French, 17c. in English (see -ph-).”
Earlier today, I came across a review of a book I quite like. But during the course of the review, the reviewer (to paraphrase) said that “the Greek, Roman, and Germanic peoples thought witches were evil.” The reviewer was more-or-less talking about the general view of maleficium from antiquity. What you need to remember is that the term is legal, and is referring to someone who is going to be brought on trial. Not for simply having poisons on hand, or something like that (although, in Rome, “Books of Magic” could get you in trouble according to Morton Smith), but for using them on someone else.
Thus, I'm going to steal two chunks relating to Hekate, poisons, and the like from classic Greek literature: namely, The Odyssey and the Argonautica. (Given my complaints yesterday, some of you had to know that this was coming.) They will clearly illustrate the same idea, namely Catalepsy spells/potions being used in two different contexts.
“When Kirke had uttered the due appointed words, I lay down at last in her sumptuous bed. All this while, four handmaids of hers were busying themselves about the palace. She has them for her household tasks, and they come from springs [Naiades], they come from groves [Dryades], they come from the sacred rivers flowing seawards [Naiades]. One spread the chairs with fine crimson covers above and with linen cloths beneath; in front of the chairs, a second drew up silver tables on which she laid gold baskets for bread; a third mixed honey-sweet lovely wine in a silver bowl sand set the golden goblets out; the fourth brought water and lit a great fire under a massive cauldron. The water warmed; and when it boiled in the bright bronze vessel, the goddess made me sit in a bath and bathed me with water from the cauldron, tampering hot and cold to my mind and pouring it over my head and shoulders until she had banished from my limbs the weariness that had sapped my spirit. And having washed me and richly appointed me with oil, she dressed me in a fine cloak and tunic, led me forward and gave me a tall silver-studded chair to sit on — handsome and cunningly made — with a stool beneath it for the feet. She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating, and I sat with my thoughts elsewhere and my mind unquiet.
When Kirke saw me sitting thus, not reaching for food but sunk in despondency, she came and stood near me, quickly questioning : “Odysseus, why do you sit there tongue-tied eating your heart out, not touching food or drink? Can it be that you fear some further treachery? You should have no doubts; I have sworn the great oath already.”
So she spoke, but I answered her : “Kirke, what man of righteous thoughts could bring himself to taste food or drink before winning liberty for his friends and seeing the men before his eyes? If it is in earnest that you tell me to eat and drink, release them now, and let me see my trusty companions face to face.”
So I spoke, and Kirke went through the hall and out, wand in hand; she flung open the doors of the sty and set the men running out in the shape of fat and full-grown swine. Then they stood facing her, and she went to and fro among them, anointing them one by one with another charm. Their limbs began to shed the bristles that Kirke’s poison had planted on them, and they became men again, but younger than they had been before, and taller and handsomer to the eye. They knew me at once, and man after man they clasped my hand.”- Homer, The Odyssey. (Taken from Theoi.com. Because I'm lazy.)
While Circe undoes the damage that has already been done to Oddysseus' fellows, this example is probably very similar to what would have happened should you have visited the home of the wrong magician or magical practitioner and insulted them; and also, of the sort've activity that would've landed one in massive legal trouble in both Greece and Rome. Two PDM spells I have listed before are for precisely this means of activity, and are called “Evil Sleep” spells. They are potions containing nightshade plants and occur in a section that has a variety of medical remedies and spells, as well.
PDM xiv. 716-24 explicitly begins: “if you wish to make a man sleep for two days...” It contains mandrake, henbane, honey, apple seeds,* and ivy to be prepared and placed into wine. PDM xiv. 727-36 is another. It simply states that it will “make a man sleep.” It contains apple seeds, mandrake, ivy, and is to be added once pounded together to fifteen measures of wine (a 15:1 ratio). PDF xiv. 737-38 calls for the gall of a horned viper (!), seeds of “western apples,” and “poisonous herb”. (I suppose the author feels that any will do; or that since he previously listed a few, his job was done.) It is possible that completely legal uses of such potions may have been involved with treating the terminally ill; the ability to allow them to sleep for two days might be a blessing long enough for them to pass away without being in a high degree of pain. In fact, with the Soporific Sponge emerged in medieval medicine it contained very similar ingredients and was used for surgery.
Our next example is brought to us by none other than Daniel Ogden, in his very excellent Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds. It involves Medea aiding the Argonauts in their quest. Medea had been introduced to Jason by the words of Argus, wherein he says:
“Son of Aeson, you will scorn the cunning advice I am about to give you. But in a bad situation everything must be tried. You yourself have heard from me in the past that there is a girl that practices witchcraft [pharmassein] under the instruction of Hecate, daughter of Perses. If we can persuade her to help us, you will, I think, have no more fear of being defeated in the contest.”
As part of the trails he must pass, Medea (the “witch” Argus directs him to) explains to Jason what he needs to do to survive:
“Pay attention now, so that I can devise help for you. When you come and my father gives you the destructive teeth from the jaws of the snake to sow, wait then for the precise midpoint of the night. Bathe in the streams of the unwearied river, then alone, apart from the others, and in dark clothing, dig a round pit. Jugulate a female sheep over it, and sacrifice it whole. Heap up a fire at the pit. Then appease Hecate, the only child of Perses, making libations of the hive-produce of bees from a cup. Then, whenever you have carefully propitiated the goddess, retreat back from the fire. Let not the noise of feet cause you to turn back, nor the barking of dogs, lest you should vitiate the rites and prevent yourself from returning to your companions in good condition. At dawn make a solution of the drug, strip off, and smear it over your body like oil. There will be boundless might in you and great strength. You will think yourself equal to the immortal gods rather than to other men...” (Ogden, P. 83)
It would be undo of my to suggest that we are again seeing a catalepsy spell at work; rather, in this case the potion could be that (which might explain why Jason faces down freaking giants occupying a great number after he sows 'the destructive teeth' into the ground). Instead, I would point out that whole Soma was a holy Vedic food (“The God for Gods”), it also filled warriors with holy might. One of the recurrent arguments that Ephedra may be part of Soma is that it is a stimulant, and could probably greatly aid a warrior in battle. (See this entry for some links on the different theories amongst other things.)
Regardless, we do know that some heavy Cthonic magic and potion-using are both at work, and in this case they are meant to aid a hero. Obviously, things don't work out for Medea very well... So, in some versions of the Argonautica, she rides off on a pair of fucking Dragons as her relationship to Jason ends in horror. Jason, meanwhile, is abandoned by his patroness (Hera) and wanders the earth like a living version of the restless dead. What does that have to do with the above? Very little. But, still, Medea rides out on a pair of fucking dragons. It bears saying twice, because it is so freaking awesome in that very mythic way.
Getting back on topic: when one consults either Pliny's Natural History or Dioscorides' De Materia Medica it becomes quickly obviously that many medicinal plants also had magical associations. Some, though not all, were poisonous. Many of these poisonous plants are also heavily associated with the Daimons of the Cthonic realms: Aconite (Aconitum) or Wolfsbane is associated with Cerberus; one explanation for its devastating poisonous properties were that it was the result of the saliva that drips from the dread hound's jaws. Mandrake (Mandragora Officinarum), Enchanter's Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna) are associated very heavily with Hekate. While Apollo is not generally viewed as a Cthonic god, he had Cthonic aspects and then oracles at Delphi had very ecstatic elements. Furthermore, Apollo conquered Python, the Dragon of Delphi, who gave the Pythoness her name. It has been suggested by some that Henbane (Hyoscamus Albus, presumably, but Niger and the yellow Henbane were also known to Dioscorides) was used to inspire the frenzied oracles. Hence Dioscorides gives the herb the name Pythonion.
The obvious factor that comes to mind is that maleficium, whether one is poisoning or enchanting, were forbiden was because of the widely understood or believed efficiency of such actions. And while those actions could easily have an abusive context, they did not necessarily always indicate that. At the same time, the potential for abuse created a certain ambivalence that surrounded the character of someone who knew and understood magical and medicinal plants, or knew and could practice magic. They could either get up to no good or they could help those who needed it. Understanding this ambivalence, and how it factored into legal ramifications, is central to understanding the topic itself.
And the problem continues to this day, when one comes across youtube videos of “witches” practically rubbing their faces on poisonous plants and selling flying ointments. It is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, with such foolishness going, and brings undo attention to the rest of us. Do I like that? Absolutely not. Aside from cursing any fool I come across, am I aware of any way of stopping it? Not really.
So instead I try and sit down, without revealing precisely the right dosage for such things, to try and bring more awareness to them, how they affect the body, and their place in history. It's really all you can do.**
Anyway: these actions are morally neutral, and legal sanctions against such things did not mean that everyone associated with them was viewed as evil; rather, they were viewed as a potential problem.
PS. VVF has written about the magical properties of ferns. That shit is awesome. Check it out.
PPS. You can expect a bunch of both poisonous and magical plants from me in the future, as well. Because why just stick to the poisons? It is all awesome.
* Apple seeds contain cyanide. It is also one of the possible identities for Paschal's “Pommes d'Epis,” a phrase no one recognizes but shares similarities with the word for apple, “Pomme D'Api”.
** Also testing all of one's things on oneself and not selling them helps. Heh. I leave the selling to those who know more than I. And for good reason.