Elephas Herbarius

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Not too far from the subject of our last discussion, the Milk Column, was said to be an unusual statue of an elephant in the middle of the market districts. It was called the “Elephas Herbarius”, the Grass Elephant. It was either in or very near to the Forum Holitorium, and most likely made of bronze – no sign of it exists today.

We find this statue listed in the Regionary Catalogue in region VIII, and the area was colloquially known as Ad Elephantum”, or At the Elephant. This nickname really stuck around, even being used in the 9th century CE. It was a strange statue to find in a vegetable market, that’s for sure. It is highly likely that it was brought in from somewhere else, rather than crafted for the location specifically.

The fact that it is called a grass (herbarius) elephant stumps historians. The statue was most probably bronze, unlikely to be made from any natural material. Perhaps the epithet is just indicative of the kinds of things sold nearby the statue. It is hard to say, for whatever remains of this statue is, just like the Milk Column, buried beneath the busy modern city.

The Milk Column

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Have you ever heard of the Milk Column? If you were a Roman, you’d know it as the Columna Lactaria, of course. We know about it from a line in Paul the Deacon’s writing in the 8th century. He was summarizing the dictionary of Sextus Pompeius Festus, which was a summary of the encyclopaedia of M. Verrius Flaccus. Lots of handed down work in Latin, after all. This is what was written: “Lactaria columna. in foro olitorio dicta, quod ibi infantes lacte alendos deferebant.” The Milk Column: said to be in the Forum Holitorium, where they brought infants to be nourished with milk.

The Forum Holitorium was a marketplace, where produce and oil was sold. It was in one of the most crowded and dense parts of Rome, and surely bustled with activity every day. There were a few temples build there over the years, too. It was in this centre of activity that the Milk Column was said to stand. But what exactly was the function of this place?

As we saw in the Latin above, it is possible that it was a site for young children to be brought and fed milk. However, other theories suggest that it was a location to hire wet nurses, or where unwanted newborns were given up to those who were able to nurse them. If there were no lactating women in a household (this includes slaves) then one would need to be hired if a baby was present. Wet-nursing was popular in Rome in the Imperial era, when upper and middle class women would hire nurses to look after their babies after childbirth. The Milk Column could certainly have provided a venue for lactating women to sell their surplus breast milk. At various times in history, and ancient medical opinion, it was viewed as more proper for a woman to nurse her own children; however, the trade endured nonetheless.

No remnants of the Milk Column have been located, for the Forum Holitorium is now an extremely busy Roman street. The remains of the Forum are buried underneath, with only the edges excavated and then reburied. This is one of many sites we only know about from literary sources – but perhaps one day we will find evidence of the real column that has lain hidden underneath the intersection.

Don’t be angry!

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Today, let’s take a look at another spell from the PGM (XII. 179-81):

*If you want someone to cease being angry with you, write with myrrh [on linen] this / name of anger: “CHNEOM.” Hold it in your left [hand and say]: “I am restraining the anger of all, especially of him, NN, which is CHNEOM.”

TR.: R.F. Hock

This spell sure sounds useful. There are always occasions when we have someone angry with us and we wish we could change their feelings. How convenient to have such a simple remedy!

First of all, what is myrrh? There is a variety of small thorny tree called Commiphora that, when wounded (i.e. a cut is made in the trunk) released a resin. This waxy resin is called myrrh. It starts out in the resin-gum form, and then can be manipulated for a number of uses. It was popular for perfume and incense, as we may recall from some traditional Christmas stories. It can be turned into an essential oil, which you can find in stores that sell such things, and is one of the more expensive oils.

For this spell, I imagine that the intention is to use an essential oil form of myrrh to write with. It could be dipped into with a brush or even just your hands and then used to write the indicated word on the cloth. However I will admit that perhaps the resin could be used in a sort of crayon-like fashion to write; it would perhaps be more practical as the raw resin would inevitably be more affordable and available than the distilled oil.

I wonder whether the use of myrrh in a spell relating to anger has anything to do with the myth of Myrrha. There are several variations on the myth that all differ, so it’s fairly open to interpretation, but the basis is that Myrrha had intercourse with her father and gave birth to Adonis. Generally the father is the one that is tricked, and is angry when he discovers the incestuous truth, and Myrrha flees and is turned into a tree. There is certainly a strong theme of anger, especially in the wake of trickery, in this myth, so perhaps there’s something to it after all.

Cabbage Prescription

Cabbage was more or less regarded as a cure for everything by the Greeks and Romans. We don’t typically think of it as a cure-all food, but from the recommendations of the writers of the ancient world, it seems they did! Looking first at Cato the Elder’s On Agriculture (I’m using the Loeb translation), we see a huge section of the text dedicated to cabbage, which he says “surpasses all other vegetables”. He recommends dipping the raw leaves into vinegar, and eating a ton of it both before and after dinner to allow you to drink as much as you’d like, presumably without getting sick. He gives very specific instructions how to prepare cabbage to act as a laxative, boiling the leaves and squeezing out the juice, mixing it with salt and cumin, and letting it stand before drinking. He assures the reader that he will be seized with nausea soon. Right in the first book of Athenaeus’ Scholar’s Banquet (a really fantastic and unusual work) there is a discussion of cabbage. He cites the Egyptians as practicing the custom of eating boiled cabbage before drinking, and notes that it is used for curing headaches, too. We find here this great line:

“Alexis: ‘Yesterday you took a drop, and so to-day you’ve got a headache. Take a nap, that will stop it. Then have some boiled cabbage brought to you.” And Eubulus somewhere says: ‘Woman, you must think that I am a cabbage, for you try to shift all your headache upon me, so I believe.’” (1.34)

And of course, we can’t forget to see what our friend Pliny the Elder has to say on the matter. In The Natural History 20.33 the section entitled “The Cabbage: Eighty-Seven Remedies. Recipes mentioned by Cato” doesn’t necessarily list as many as promised, as Pliny says that the physician Chrysippus has devoted a whole volume to the subject, “in which its virtues are described in reference to each individual part of the human body.” We do find here a little explanation about the kinds of cabbages, however. The curly cabbage called “selinoides”, which is beneficial to the stomach; a broad leaved cabbage called “helia” which has no medicinal use, and a thinner leaved cabbage called “crambe”, which is more bitter but extremely medicinal. A fondness for cabbage must surely have given you confidence in your continued good health in the ancient world, since they seemed to apply it in one way or another to every malady. I think it would have been effective in preventing sickness from drinking only insomuch as anything is when consumed before drinking alcohol; I personally prefer pizza before a night out, but I suppose boiled cabbage might have its appeal to someone!

Lucky Lizard Feet!

Today I want to look at a spell from the PGM (The Greek Magical Papyri). This book is filled with fascinating rituals and charms, and today’s example is no different. Let’s look at this charm for favour and victory:

PGM VII.186-90
*Favor and victory charm: Take a blood-eating gecko that has been found among the tombs and grasp its right front foot and cut it off with a reed, allowing the gecko to return to its own hole alive. Fasten the foot / of the creature to the fold of your garment and wear it.

*Tr.: R.F. Hock

As far as this spell goes, it’s fairly simple. Whereas others tend to include inscriptions, incantations and general tasks that must be performed, this is a simple matter of use of material magica to procure results.

The gecko foot, regardless of its more occult uses, is a fascinating thing. The majority of species have toes allow them to adhere to most surfaces. Humidity helps with the adhesion, but water does not. There’s some fascinating information out there about the amount of weight their little sticky paws can support!

So why would this foot be considered a charm for victory, or in the very least, lucky? You might recall hearing about (or even seeing) rabbit feet being toted around as a good luck charm. A much more enduring convention than gecko feet, certainly, and one that is prevalent around England and America. But what is the deal with these weird traditions?

There are some older academic theories that these practices are rooted in primitive Totemism, involving guardian spirits and related to the idea that rabbits, as underground-dwelling creatures, are somehow connected to the underworld. You might find an explanation like this in R. Brasch’s How Did It Begin? Customs & Superstitions and Their Romantic Origins (1965). I’ll take a page out of Bill Ellis’ book, or rather article, entitled Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts as Fetishes: “Such an explication perpetuates the idea that ’superstitious’ practices have little or no meaning in contemporary culture but are simply survivals of illogical thought; furthermore, Brasch’s argument implies that modern superstition should be shelved with other meaningless ideas from humanity’s childhood.”

Don't cut off my feet!!!
Don’t cut off my feet!!!

The dwelling place of the gecko, inside a tomb, is reminiscent of lore surrounding the lucky rabbit’s foot as many of these objects were sold with promises of the circumstances under which the rabbit was captured, and most (if not all) will be found in a graveyard. One idea behind this may be that the attainment of a fetish object – that is, some small token that is given significance through a belief of its magical power – from a place of death would give a person power or protection from death. The gecko, living as it would in and among the dead, would become associated with them and imbued with their power. Perhaps wearing the creature’s foot would make you immune to the influence of the dead – much like holding one’s breath while sneaking across the river Styx alive (I can’t recall where I heard this – some myth or maybe modern story?) In any case, surely protection from death/the dead would be important in a charm of favor and victory.

So why a gecko specifically? As far as I can find out, there are no species of geckoes that eat blood. Pliny discusses the Tarentola (which he calls Stellio) that he notes eats only insects, and modern biology agrees with this. This species is also called a wall gecko, and is widespread across the Mediterranean and North Africa. It lives in a wide variety of habitats, including rocky cliffs, stone walls, and rocky outcrops. It seems in terms of location it would be appropriate, but blood-eating it is not. Leopard geckoes will consume newborn baby mice, which would perhaps qualify as blood-eating, but they are native to the desert regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India and Iran. Certainly this does not disqualify them as candidates for the spell, but would place them in the realm of ‘luxury imported goods’, and since the spell says to let the gecko go, it would likely need to be found in situ. As far as I can find through google investigating, some geckoes can be fed small amounts of meat, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call any of them ‘blood-eating’. I will have to leave this point as inconclusive.

Consider that it is the right foot that is being removed: the latin dextra for right, and sinistra for left. The left was considered an inauspicious direction and the language reflects this. The right, on the other hand (pun intended) was synonymous with fortune and skill. It is simple to see the reason for the right foot being chosen. It may also be the front foot because the front limbs of the gecko are more representative of the human hand, and the victory indicated through this charm was in regard to some manual task. That’s just my speculation, however.

So it seems that there’s some logic behind this particular spell. A cultural belief in a transferable power of the dead, the harnessing of this power through a fetish object, and the positive implications of the right foot all give some meaning to this seemingly silly charm. In the very least, it would have made for a great discussion starter – “Is that…a tiny severed foot on your brooch?!”

Watch out for Ravens!

For the second Weird Classics post, I want to turn again to our good friend Pliny the Elder, for what he has to say about ravens.

“The raven lays, at most, but five eggs. It is a vulgar belief, that they couple, or else lay, by means of the beak; and that, consequently, if a pregnant woman happens to eat a raven’s egg, she will be delivered by the mouth.” (Pliny. Nat. 10.15)

The ancients were no strangers to unusual ideas about birds, eggs, and pregnancy. If we remember Helen of Troy, she was said to be hatched from an egg as her mother, Leda, was visited by Zeus taking the form of a swan. Here in Pliny we find a different interpretation of birds interfering with pregnancy. He suggests that there is a belief that pregnant women who eat eggs from a raven will then give birth through their mouths, rather than by the usual channels. Pliny then assures the reader that Aristotle sees no more merit in this theory than in the similar story about the ibis, as it is told in Egypt.

Birds eggs and human pregnancies were often linked in terms of augury and good-luck charms. We are told that Julia Augusta, in her pregnancy, did the following:

“When pregnant in her early youth of Tiberius Caesar, by Nero, was particularly desirous that her offspring should be a son, and accordingly employed the following mode of divination, which was then much in use among young women: she carried an egg in her bosom, taking care, whenever she was obliged to put it down, to give it to her nurse to warm in her own, that there might be no interruption in the heat: it is stated that the result promised by this mode of augury was not falsified” (Plin. Nat. 10.76)

Ovid gives us an interesting poetic take on why ravens appear the way they do:

“O, chattering raven! White of yore.
For, long ago the ravens were not black –
white-feathered, snow-white as the geese that guard
with watchful cries the Capitol: as white
as swans that haunt the streams. Disgrace reversed
the raven’s hue from white to black, because
offense was given by his chattering tongue.”
(Ov. Met. 2.531)

The poem tells a little story about a chatty raven, and how his gossiping got Phoebus into a spot of bother. As a punishment the bird was turned from white feathers to black, so that it was “forbade forever more to perch among the favoured birds whose plumes are white.”

Ravens are also rather tricky omens. They were thought to have an understanding of the augury they performed, and were often cited as croaking ominously in scenes of danger. It seems that ravens were given quite a lot of credit as being intelligent creatures!

The Strangeness of Bears

This is a series I’ve wanted to start for a long time. There are some things in Classical Studies that are just too weird not to talk about. I’m going to kick off the series with a look at one of my favourite passages from Pliny the Elder:

“Bears couple in the beginning of winter, and not after the fashion of other quadrupeds; for both animals lie down and embrace each other. The female then retires by herself to a separate den, and there brings forth on the thirtieth day, most five young ones. When first born, they are shapeless masses of white flesh, a little larger than mice; their claws alone being prominent. The mother then licks them gradually into proper shape. There is nothing more uncommon than to see a she-bear in the act of parturition.” (Palin. Nat. 8.54)

Pliny tells us here how he understands that bears are born as shapeless blobs, that are then moulded into bear-shapes by their mothers. Amazingly enough, he is not the only one who thinks this to be true.

“And the she-bear, the most savage and sullen of beasts, brings forth her young formless and without visible joints, and with her tongue, as with a tool, she moulds into shape their skin; and thus she is thought, not only to bear, but to fashion her cub.” (Plutarch, Moralia, 494)

A baby black bear. A little undeveloped looking, but not a shapeless blob.
A baby black bear. A little undeveloped looking, but not a shapeless blob.

Ovid speaks of it too. So where does this understanding of bears come from? We know from modern observation of the animal that this is not how bears work, though their young are, upon birth, rather pale and fetal-looking.

It certainly is curious, because the Greeks would have had access to bears in the wild – whether or not they wanted to interfere with a mother bear to examine her cubs. It seems to me that the idea of shapeless baby bears was put forth by one source in the past, and nobody bothered to verify it since then. It certainly doesn’t sound appealing to try and get near any bears for research purposes. I’d much rather go with an unusual rumour I’d heard, and take it as truth. After all, who is going to go interfere with the bears to try and disprove it?