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.
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
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
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
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.