A dragon lives forever but not so little boys and girls

It has hit me: Toddler G. is no longer really a toddler. Age-wise, he still is only under 30 months, but he does not toddle any more, except when he runs (and he runs a lot – and fast). And he speaks so well now (even if I say so myself). In many ways this growing business is good: we are seeing the end of the ‘terrible twos’ (which started very early, well before G. turned two). In other ways, it is a very nostalgic time.

So, when I was re-reading Nicander’s poem Alexipharmaka, a second-century BCE poem on poisons and their antidotes (yes… they really did write poems on that type of stuff), I was particularly struck by the following passage:

A clay-baked swaddled baby ex-voto. Roman.

A clay-baked swaddled baby ex-voto. Roman.

Let no-one unknowingly with henbane fill

His belly, as men who are not careful often do,

Or as an infant, who his swaddling bandages and hair-bindings

Has put aside, and given up his dangerous crawling

And now walks straight without his worried nurse,

Through ignorance bites the boughs that bear the noxious blossom,

Since  recently his molar teeth in his jaw

have appeared, and an itching takes hold of his swollen gums.

Give him a purge of milk to drink or fenugreek.

Nicander, Alexipharmaka 415-424

In the ancient world, infants were swaddled with rather tight bandages until it was believed their body had lost some of its softness and had acquired a nice shape. We know how these swaddlings would have looked like through archaeology: offerings of infant-shaped ex-votos have been found at various sanctuary sites.

Fortunately, I have never come across a child who had eaten henbane by mistake, but anyone will recognise this dangerous/exciting time when babies start walking, climbing on furniture, putting their fingers in power sockets, eating anything they find on their adventures. And then there is the pains of teething…

Nicander was far from being my favourite ancient author. His writing is at times impenetrable, and his vocabulary is fiendishly obscure. To offer my own translation of this passage (I must admit I can only read the entire poem in translation), I had to check almost every word in a dictionary. But, I must say that this particular passage has made me appreciate Nicander that little bit more.

PS: many will recognise the title to this post. It has very little to do with the actual post, but it had to be so.


This entry was posted in Children's History, History of medicine, History of the body and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A dragon lives forever but not so little boys and girls

  1. Pat says:

    Yes, it hurts when they move up a stage, doesn’t it. But the next stage is interesting– and the next– and the next.

    Love your translation. It sounds as if Nicander had encountered the problem, doesn’t it.


    • Thank you Pat. With my first boy, I could not wait for him to reach the next step, but with Toddler G., I am savouring each stage a bit more. Yes I definitely think Nicander knew what he was talking about here – it sounds like he had met kids who had experienced a bit too much with whatever they found.


  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #13 | Whewell's Ghost

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