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Ancient Medical Prescriptions

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

From early times it was a universal custom to place at the beginning of

a medical prescription certain religious verses or superstitious

characters, which formed the invocation, or prayer to a favorite

deity. Angelic beings were frequently appealed to, and among

these the Archangel Raphael was thought to be omnipotent for the cure of

disease. John Aubrey, in his "Miscellanies," relates that a certain

physician, Dr. Ric
ard Nepier, a person of great piety, whose knees were

horny with much praying, was wont to ask professional advice of this

archangel, and that his prescriptions began with the abbreviation "R.

Ris." for Responsum Raphaelis, Raphael's answer. The name of Raphael

was often seen on amulets and talismans. But our information regarding

this angel is derived chiefly from the Book of Tobit, where Raphael is

represented as the guide and counsellor of the young Tobias. In one of

the later Midrashim, Raphael appears as the angel commissioned to put

down the evil spirits that vexed the sons of Noah with plagues and

sicknesses after the Flood, and he it was who taught men the use of

"simples," and furnished materials for the "Book of Noah," the earliest

treatise on materia medica.

A recent writer affirms that [Rx] is the emblem of the sun-god Ra, and

signifies "In the name of Ra," or "Ra, God of Life and Health,

inspire me." This deity was regarded as the Supreme Being, not

only by the Egyptians, but by other heathen people of antiquity, because

the sun was the greatest and most brilliant of the planets.

In Egyptian hieroglyphics Ra was represented as a hawk-headed

man, holding in one hand the symbol of life, and in the other the royal


The medical symbol [Rx], still in use at the present day, owes its

origin, however, neither to the angel Raphael nor to the god Ra. It is

the ancient sign of Jupiter. This sign, which also symbolized the metal

tin, had many modifications, some of which were as follows: [Symbol:

Jupiter], [Symbol: Jupiter], [Symbol: Jupiter].

These were gradually replaced by the letter R, or its astrological

modification [Rx], which was equivalent to Recipe, Jupiter,--Take, O

Jupiter! We are told that the astrological signs were thus brought into

use during Nero's reign, and that the practice of Medicine was then and

afterwards regulated by the government. It is not improbable that

Christian physicians were obliged to follow the example of their heathen

professional brethren in prefixing to their prescriptions invocations to


Johann Michael Moscherosch (1600-1669), a learned German writer, offered

a unique explanation of the meaning of the medical symbol [Rx], which he

maintained to be equivalent to Rec, an abbreviation for per decem.

And he explained the significance of the latter as being that one

prescription out of ten might be expected to prove beneficial to the

patient. It is certain, wrote Dr. Otto A. Wall, in his volume, "The

Prescription," that pharmacies for the dispensing of medicines on

physicians' prescriptions were already in existence at the ancient

Spanish city of Cordova, and at other large municipalities under the

control of the Arabs, previous to the twelfth century. And as early as

1233, pharmacy laws had already been passed in the Two Sicilies. By that

time, it appears probable that medical prescriptions were no longer mere

superstitious formulas, but that they contained directions for

compounding material remedies having more or less medicinal virtues.

Modern medical prescriptions may be classed as lineal descendants of the

healing-spells of former ages. In the most ancient known

pharmacopoeia, a papyrus discovered about the year 1858 in the

Necropolis at Thebes, and believed to date from the sixteenth century

B. C., no invocations or symbols are found, nor were the latter

generally employed as prefixes to medical formulas prior to the first

century A. D.; when their use appears to have originated among the

Greeks and Romans, and the custom has continued until the present day.

At the time of the alchemists, in the sixteenth century, "the influence

of the Church on the minds of men, or perhaps the fear of the

Inquisition, led physicians to adopt an invocation to the Christian God;

just as they abbreviated a prayer to crossing themselves with their

fingers over their foreheads and breasts, so they contracted the

invocation to the sign of the cross as a superscription."

Thus instead of the sign [Rx] some physicians began their prescriptions

with the Greek letters +Alpha.+ +Omega.+; or the letters J. D. for

Juvante Deo, C. D. for Cum Deo, or N. D. for Nomine Dei.

Dr. Rodney H. True, lecturer on botany at Harvard College, in a paper on

Folk Materia Medica, read at a meeting of the Boston branch of the

American Folk-Lore Society, February 19, 1901, gave a list of

therapeutic agents, mostly of animal origin, forming the stock in trade

of a European druggist some two hundred years ago. This list includes

the fats, gall, blood, marrow from bones, teeth, livers, and lungs of

various animals, birds, and reptiles; also bees, crabs, and toads,

incinerated after drying; amber, shells, coral, claws, and horns; hair

from deer and cats; ram's wool, partridge feathers, ants, lizards,

leeches, earth-worms, pearl, musk, and honey; eyes of the wolf,

pickerel, and crab; eggs of the hen and ostrich, cuttlefish bone, dried

serpents, and the hoofs of animals.

With the development of materia medica in Europe, the use of animal

drugs diminished; but during the last decade of the nineteenth century,

extracts of animal organs were manufactured on a large scale, and found

a ready market. Thus some of the articles mentioned are reckoned among

remedial agents to-day, but most of them doubtless owed their virtues to

mental action. Wolf's eyes in former times and bread pills nowadays may

be cited as typical remedies, acting through the patient's imagination

and possessing no intrinsic curative properties, yet nevertheless

valuable articles of the pharmacopoeia from the standpoint of

suggestive therapeutics. In a list of Japanese quack medicines, of the

present time, we find mention of "Spirit-cheering" pills.

In "A Booke of Physicke and Chirurgery, with divers other things

necessary to be knowne, collected out of sundry olde written bookes, and

broughte into one order. Written in the year of our Lorde God 1610,"

among many curious prescriptions we find the following: "A good

oyntment against the vanityes of the heade. Take the juice of worm woode

and salte, honye, waxe and incens, and boyle them together over the

fire, and therewith anoynte the sick heade and temples." The volume

referred to was the property of Mr. William Pickering, an apparitor of

the Consistory Court at Durham, England.

A commentator on the above prescription observed that few coxcombs,

dandies, and heads filled with bitter conceits, would like to be

anointed with this cure of self-sufficiency. The wax might make the

plaster stick, but it might be feared that the honey and the incense

would neutralize the good effects to be expected from the wormwood and

salt. If, however, the phrase "vanityes of the head" be interpreted to

mean a dearth of ideas, we may assume that the above prescription was

intended as a stimulus to the imagination, and as such it might well

have a therapeutic value.

Dr. William Salmon, a London practitioner, published in the year 1693 "A

Short Manual of Physick, designed for the general use of Her Majestie's

subjects, accommodated to mean capacities, in order to the Restauration

of their Healths."

In this little volume we find a prescription for "an Elixer Universall,

not particular for any distemper," as follows:


Rex Metallorum [gold] [ounce] ss.

Pouder of a Lyon's heart [ounce] iv.

Filings of a Unicorn's Horn [ounce] ss.

Ashes of the whole Chameleon [ounce] iss.

Bark of the Witch Hazle Two handfulls.

Lumbrici [Earth-worms] A score.

Dried Man's Brain [ounce] v.

Bruisewort }

Egyptian Onions } aa lbss.

Mix the ingredients together and digest in my Spiritus

Universalis, with a warm digestion, from the change of the

moon to the full, and pass through a fine strainer. This

Elixer is temperately hot and moist, Digestive, Lenitive,

Dissolutive, Aperative, Strengthening and Glutinative; it

opens obstructions, proves Hypnotick and Styptick, is

Cardiack, and may become Alexpharmick. It is not specially

great for any one Single Distemper, but of much use and

benefit in most cases wherein there is difficulty and

embarrassment, or that which might be done, doth not so

clearly appear manifest and Open to the Eye.

The above elixir is a fine specimen of the product of a shrewd

charlatan's fertile brain, and doubtless found a ready sale at an

exorbitant price. The fact that one, at least, of its ingredients is

mythical, probably enhanced its curative properties, in the minds of a

gullible public. The horn of the unicorn was popularly regarded as the

most marvellous of remedies. In reality, it was the tusk of a cetaceous

animal inhabiting the northern ocean, and known as the sea-unicorn or

narwhal. In the popular mind it was of value as an effective antidote

against all kinds of poisons, the bites of serpents, various fevers,

and the plague.

In describing a scene in the Arctic regions, Josephine Diebitsch Peary

wrote as follows in her volume, "The Snow Baby" (1901):

Glossy, mottled seals swim in the water, and schools of

narwhal, which used to be called unicorns, dart from place to

place, faster than the fastest steam yacht; with their long,

white ivory horns, longer than a man is tall, like spears, in

and out of the water.

One of the teeth of the narwhal is developed into a straight, spirally

fluted tusk, from six to ten feet long, like a horn projecting from the

forehead. This horn is sometimes as long as the creature's body, and

furnishes a valuable ivory. The narwhal also yields a superior quality

of oil.

Sir Thomas Browne in his "Pseudo-doxia Epidemica" remarked that

many specimens of alleged unicorn's horn, preserved in England, were in

fact portions of teeth of the Arctic walrus, known as the morse or

sea-horse. In northern latitudes these teeth are used as material

wherewith to fashion knife-handles or the hilts of swords. The long

horns, preserved as precious rarities in many places, are narwhal-tusks.

The belief in the medicinal virtues of unicorn's horn is comparatively

modern, as none of the ancients, except the Italian writer AElian (about

A. D. 200), ascribed to it any curative or antidotal properties. Sir

Thomas Browne characterized this popular superstition of his time as an

"insufferable delusion."

H. B. Tristam, in his "Natural History of the Bible," remarks that there

is no doubt of the identity of the unicorn of Scripture with the

historic urus or aurochs, known also as the reem, a strong and large

animal of the ox-tribe, having two horns. This animal formerly inhabited

Europe, including Great Britain, and survived until comparatively recent

times, in Prussia and Lithuania. The belief in the existence of a

one-horned quadruped is very ancient. Aristotle mentions as such the

oryx or antelope of northern Africa. The aurochs was hunted and killed

by prehistoric man, as is shown by the finding of skulls, pierced by

flint weapons.

In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word reem was translated monoceros in

the Greek text. This is alleged by some authorities to be an incorrect

rendering. The Vulgate has the Latin term unicornis, the one-horned.

In Lewysohn's "Zoologie des Talmuds" is to be found the following

rabbinical legend: When the Ark was ready, and all the creatures were

commanded to enter, the reem was unable to pass through the door,

owing to its large size. Noah and his sons were therefore obliged to

fasten the animal by a rope to the Ark, and to tow it behind. And in

order to prevent its being strangled, they attached the rope to its

horn, instead of around its neck. . . . It was formerly thought that the

legendary unicorn was in reality the one-horned rhinoceros, but this

seems improbable. The fabulous creature mentioned by classic writers as

a native of India was described as having the size and form of a horse,

with one straight horn projecting from its forehead. In the museum at

Bristol, England, there is a stuffed antelope from Caffraria, which

closely answers this description. Its two straight taper horns are so

nearly united that in profile they appear like a single horn.

The unicorn of Heraldry first appeared as a symbol on one of the

Anglo-Saxon standards, and was afterwards placed upon the Scottish

shield. When England and Scotland were united under James I, the silver

unicorn became a supporter of the British shield, being placed opposite

the golden lion, in the royal arms of Great Britain.