Drugs and Drug Lore in the Time of Theophrastus:

Folklore, Magic, Botany, Philosophy, and the Rootcutters


John Scarborough

University of Wisconsin, U. S. A.


Theophrastus of Eresus (c. 370 – c. 287 B.C.) is well known for his pioneering manual of botany, the Inquiry into Plants, set down about 300 B.C. Not only is this collection of details about plants (pot-herbs, wild species, some trees, vines, and many other ‘classes’ of plant lore) the first fundamental ordering of botany by means of morphology, it also tells us much about how some plants were considered foods, others drugs, and still others possessed of particular properties/powers that were part of a very old Greek folklore. As a brilliant student of Aristotle of Stagirus, Theophrastus of Eresus on Lesbos had been involved with his teacher’s early dissections and vivisections of animals, and one may discern a distinct zoological/medical interest by both student and mentor as they collected “facts” to make up various books of “inquiries” (Grk. historiai). Book IX of the Inquiry into Plants is especially rich in the details of folkloristic information provided to the Peripatetics by a semi-professional class of rhizotomoi (“rootcutters”) who searched out medicinal plants, sorted them, and sold them in the agorai of various poleis in Greece (and presumably elsewhere in the Greek-speaking world of the fourth century B.C.). The rootcutters were, indeed, the experts in drugs as derived from plants and plant parts, so that a rough categorization of plant-parts as drugs (pharmaka) entered the formal levels of Greek pharmacology through the writings of Theophrastus, who succeeded to the Headship of the Lyceum when Aristotle died in 322 B.C.

      A number of specifics illustrate the multiple assumptions about the folklore of pharmacology in fourth century Greece: the preparation of hemlock (infamously quaffed by Socrates in 399 B.C.) was clearly known by ‘ordinary citizens’ in Athens, or the the Board of Eleven would not have known how to prepare the hemlock as it was used for capital punishment (Plato’s Apology has the effects of the poison, Theophrastus tells how it was prepared); the magical traditions linked with such plants as squill were recorded by Theophrastus, not simply as sharp drugs made from bulbs as reported by the rootcutters, but also as an important aspect of hoary traditions associated with easing a community’s ailments by means of a scapegoat (pharmakos); aphrodisiacs and anaphrodisiacs were touted then (as now) by specialist-rootcutters, who often hailed from faraway places (India, for example); and by beginning his ‘medical plants’ section in Book IX with mandrake, Theophrastus may be saying that this particular herb was thought to be most important by his sources, the rootcutters, and in turn may suggest that anesthesia was ordinarily assumed in Greek pharmacy and surgery.