Nanny care

The view from the University of Freibourg

The view from the University of Freibourg

Posted 24 hours after writing…

As I am writing this, I am on the train from Fribourg (Switzerland) to Geneva airport. The landscape is absolutely breath-taking. The grass is particularly green and the sun is shining (which makes it very difficult to take pictures of the mountains). It is a pity I could not stay any longer in Switzerland: it was yet another flash-trip for a conference. This conference was particularly fruitful; it was a one-day workshop on the history of breastfeeding from antiquity to the present, with a focus on ambivalent attitudes towards milk, maternal and animal. Right up my street – I learnt a lot and met fascinating colleagues. I discussed cases of milk ‘poisoning’ in antiquity, both because of animal milk and maternal milk. Some of these poisonings manifested themselves in the way we are familiar with: vomiting and diarrhea. Others manifested themselves through blocking of the respiratory passages and choking, sometimes leading to death. It would be tempting to diagnose this choking as an acute allergy, but acute allergies to maternal milk (or rather to traces of something the mother has consumed) are extremely rare. In any case, retrospective diagnosis are always problematic.

Here I just want to dwell a bit further on a text I presented yesterday. It is mountain themed, which is a bonus. It is a passage on dangerous goat’s milk, written by the pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE):

A goat and satyr. Black-figure Attic vase. c. 520 BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

A goat and satyr. Black-figure Attic vase. c. 520 BCE

All milk upsets the belly and the stomach, wherever the pasture is scammony, hellebore, the plant mercury or periwinkle as we examined in the Mountains of the Vestini. For when the goats there graze on the leaves of white hellebore, they vomit as soon as they taste the grass, and they produce milk that troubles the stomach and causes nausea. (Materia Medica 2.70)

This passage is interesting because it shows how humans – allegedly – learnt pharmacological skills from animals. This is a common theme in ancient medical works. Ancient authors often repeated the same examples, such as that of the swallows healing the eyes of their chicks with chelidonia, and the deer healing its own wounds with the Cretan plant dittany. Here is Pliny’s version of these stories:

Artemis hunting deer. Tunisian mosaic, third century CE. Source:

Artemis hunting deer. Tunisian mosaic, third century CE. Source:

Animals too have discovered plants, and among the chief is the chelidonia. For by means of it swallows cure the eyes of the chicks in the nest, and restore the sight, as some hold, even when the eyes have been torn out.. Dogs too have found a plant by which they cure the loss of appetite, and eat it in our sight, but in such a way that it can never be identified, for it is seen only when chewed up. This animal shows yet greater spitefulness in its secrecy about another plant; for there is one by which it is said to cure itself when bitten by a snake, but it does not crop it when a human being is looking on. With greater frankness deer have shown us elaphosboscon, about which we have written, and after yeaning have made known seselis and the black bryony, as we have pointed out; dittany also by feeding on it when wounded the weapons at once falling out. (Natural History 25.89-92, translation: Jones)

These stories are highly anthropomorphized: the deer and the swallows in the ancient imagination are ‘good’ animals (in Christian bestiaries, the deer represents Christ), while the dog is a cunning, selfish animal. Whether the Greeks did ever observe deer self-healing with the Cretan plant dittany is rather unclear.

Dioscorides’ story about the Vestini goats, on the other hand, is not a literary trope. To my knowledge, it is actually unique in ancient literature. It seems to be one of these rare glimpses into real personal experience, although it is unclear whose experience we are dealing with here. Dioscorides often discussed his own findings and observations, but these usually occurred in the East of the Mediterranean. The Vestini Moutains are quite definitively in the West! Did Dioscorides really visit that part of the world or is he borrowing the ‘I’ of one of his sources? As so often, this text raises more questions than it answers.


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