Peony folly

The Fondation Hardt's main building at dusk.

The Fondation Hardt’s main building at dusk.

I have now officially survived half my stay at the Fondation Hardt without a) being assaulted by a ghost; b) overdosing on Neoplatonic embryology (a well-recognised risk amongst ancient philosophers); c) experiencing violent withdrawal symptoms from bad TV. All in all, I am doing rather well, even though I do miss my boys a lot.

The Fondation Hardt is truly a special place. It is located on the most beautiful estate in a gorgeous suburb of Geneva. It has an extraordinary classics library. It offers an opportunity to meet lovely people who work in related fields. The food is wonderful. But the gardens really convinced me when I was contemplating a stay. The Fondation is set in a lovely wooded park. As I am a fidgeter, it is always nice to have a garden where I can pace for a few minutes to sort out my thoughts.

As it is June, it is peony season. Peonies are such beautiful flowers, and in the evening they release a very delicate perfume. However, they only remain that pretty for a very short time. Not surprisingly, peonies feature in ancient medical texts. They were thought to have extraordinary properties. Here is what the herbal of the so-called pseudo-Apuleius, a Latin herbal composed around the fourth century CE, has to say about its healing powers:

For lunatics: If the herb peony is applied to a lunatic who has fallen sick, immediately s/he will get up, as if cured; and if s/he has it with her, s/he will never be afflicted.

For those afflicted with sciatica: The root of the herb peony: bind a part with a linen thread; attach it to the person who is afflicted. It is the most salutary thing.

Well that is helpful: if at any point I feel the study of classics is affecting my mental abilities, I can head to the garden and apply some peony to myself. Although, it is not entirely clear which part of the plant is to be used. And if my back hurts from reading and writing too much, I can bind some peony to my ailing limbs.

The herbal then records several different names for the plant, and goes on to add miscellaneous information:

Peony retains the name of its discoverer. It originates from Crete. Homer, that sacred author, mentions it in his books. If is often found by shepherds. At the end of its boughs, it has berries, the size of a pomegranate, which at night shine as if they were lanterns, which is similar [to what happens] to the berries of the scarlet oak. It is mostly found and collected at night by shepherds. Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbal 65.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think peony flowers shine at night. You may also want to know that the ‘berries of the scarlet oak’ are in fact insects. According to the Lewis and Short dictionary, they are a type of cochineal, an insect from which is extracted a deep-red extract.

Perhaps the nicest thing about the peony is its name. It is derived from the name Paieon, which either refers to the physician of the gods or, used as an epithet of Apollo, refers to Apollo in his healing capacity. Peony is not the only word derived from Paieon; also related is ‘paean’, the name of a type of ancient triumphal song. I hope you will think of Apollo and his lyre when you next encounter the blooms of peony.






This entry was posted in Ancient History, History of medicine, Plants, Travelling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s