Ghosts and Theriac

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

It’s All Hallows Night…the time when the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest, the time when we walk around not quite alone in the night, the time when we can see unsettling things that really aren’t supposed to be there in the shadowy corners. For me, this time of year is always intriguing, because I’ve always been able to see what is, for most people, unseen.

Path through an old cemetery overgrown with ivy

Every time I’m in Europe, I can feel the ghosts of the Black Death all around me as I walk through the ancient museums, catacombs, and graveyards. You can barely miss them. The commemorative plaques are everywhere. I’m thoroughly convinced that this is why most of Europe handled Covid 19 initially with collective wisdom. After all, they’d seen it before.

The Bubonic Plague of 1348 had a catastrophic impact on the trajectory of human and European history. The political, social, economic, and psychological landscape of the countries impacted would never be the same. We know now that the Bubonic Plague was caused by a bacterium carried by infected fleas traveling on rats, but at the time a clear cause for the disease was unknown. In an era when physicians employed techniques such as bloodletting, placing pieces of snake on the pustules caused by the disease, and leeches, the future would obviously seem quite bleak.

Historical illustration of a plague doctor, wearing a black robe and a beaked maskHowever, in the search to find something, anything that would serve as a hopeful cure-all, the physicians of that time turned to an ancient, compounded preparation called theriac. Hailing from the time of Nero and prepared as a medicinal treacle in one way or another since the 3rd century until the age of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), theriac was a time consuming and multi-ingredient preparation. Although it was initially created to cure the bites of snakes, mad dogs, scorpions, and any other beasts, theriac was taken prophylactically by anyone who feared poisoning or was considered at risk of contracting any number of infectious diseases, epidemic or otherwise.

Theriac was compounded with many different ingredients, and the recipe varied from place to place. Ingredients like honey, garlic, viper flesh, cinnamon, ambergris, and opium were the most common ingredients, but there were at least 50 or 60 plant-derived compounds that were used in the making of it. Tiny amounts of poison were a common inclusion in most theriac recipes, as each natural poison was believed to draw out the poisons that were already affecting the patient.

Historic line drawing of an apothecary publicly preparing theriacTerrified people living with the continuous threat of the plague and living within a society without the medical advances we take for granted were looking for one miracle medicine that would keep them from contracting it, or at least give them a fighting chance of surviving it and keeping their families safe.

As a result, theriac treacle was being prepared all over Europe, in hopes that it would be the panacea that would finally keep the Black Death at bay. It does not seem that theriac was toxic when it was used as prescribed; however, there are many accounts of a placebo effect which I find fascinating. My brother, a surgeon by trade, always said that hope, love, and joy were the strongest medicines any sick man could ingest.

By the 19th century, the efficacy of theriac was being questioned, but to this day the legend survives. There is an over-the-counter wound ointment with the same name prepared from Manuka honey and other herbs, roots, and flowers.

Not to be outdone, the herbalists of today have revived the romantic recipes and legends surrounding theriac and are busy creating their own versions of this most curious of alchemical medicines. However, the most important ingredients are hope, love, and joy. Without those three things healing has no place to happen.

Ornately painted vase for theriacAll Hallows Eve is a time to listen to the whispers in the dark and a time when if you dare to ask, those that have crossed over will reappear, sometimes with the answers you need. Even if you don’t listen, sometimes you will feel them pulling you away from danger and then you will look. You’ll never see their misty astral bodies in the sunlight, yet I promise that you will know that they have been there.

Even with the miracle of vaccines and other medicines, our needs haven’t changed much over the centuries. Three long Covid years and many centuries later, the wheel of the year has turned once again towards winter. It brings us back into the dark, plunging us deeply into the time of year when our need to move is inside towards the hearth, away from the bone drenching cold and into the arms of our families and lovers. Every generation has its theriac, but truly? This is the most important medicine that we have.

My mother just whispered to me that I needed to make some good old fashioned chicken soup and to not forget to add the cracked pepper, rubbed sage, thyme, mushrooms, and barley.

I think I’ll listen….

Wishing all of you a blessed Samhain or the happiest of Halloweens however you celebrate.

Photo Credits: 1) Highgate Cemetery East in England (Panyd The Muffin is not Subtle, via Wikimedia); 2) A plague doctor in 1656, with a beaked masked stuffed with herbs thought to protect from the plague (Paul Fürst, Public Domain); 3) An apothecary publicly preparing theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery); 4) Albarello vase for theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Gyford, P. 2022. The diary of Samuel Pepys. [Internet]. Venice treacle. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/8746/

Raj, D., K. Pękacka-Falkowska, M. Włodarczyk, and J. Węglorz. 2021. The real theriac – panacea, poisonous drug or quackery? Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 281. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874121007649

Retsas, S. 2020. Clinical trials and the COVID-19 pandemic. Hell. J. Nucl. Med. 23: 4-5. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.nuclmed.gr/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/03.Commentary-Retsas.pdf

Theriac: Advanced healing ointment. N.d. Accessed Oct. 30, 2022. Available from https://theriacheals.com/


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at  beth.gehring@stirringthesenses.com

Four Thieves Inspire Flu-Fighting Soup

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

Originally published on January 30, 2019

flu-soupLast winter the urgent care center diagnosed me with the flu, and I’ve never been quite as sick as I was for that month. I spent several days in bed and used all sorts of herbal remedies to support healing. Daquil/Nyquil just made me feel worse and went straight into the garbage.

I started with homemade bone broth. Herb and spice-spiked chicken broths are well known to promote the movement of nasal congestion and are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. I felt better with every bowl I ate, proving the old adage: Let your food be your medicine.

For a powerful immune-boosting soup I took cues from the Legend of the Four Thieves. In this story, aromatherapy, herbal, and alchemical worlds collide and take on mythical proportions. The legend takes place when the bubonic plague hit Europe and killed a large percentage of the population.

flu-woodcutSupposedly, four thieves from Marseilles were robbing plague-ridden corpses without getting sick. They are thought to have been perfumers with access to and knowledge of essential oils, herbs, and spices.

At their trial, the King offered the thieves leniency in return for the formula that protected them from the plague. Their list included lavender, sage, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, onion, mustard seed, cloves, oregano, and lemon.

While the legend has never been confirmed and their recipe is interesting, all of the herbs and spices (except eucalyptus) read like a delicious and immune-boosting chicken soup recipe to me, so into the stock pot they go. If I’m lucky enough to have fresh stinging nettles, I’ll add them in as a mineral rich bonus.

To serve, I top each bowl with whole basil leaves, hard boiled eggs, a dash of Himalayan salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime. I can’t help but feel better with every bowl I eat. Legions of Jewish and Asian grandmothers absolutely knew what they were doing.

Another application of the legend is a Four Thieves spray. I make it with white wine vinegar and essential oils — lemon, lavender, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and eucalyptus. My formula is three cups of vinegar and 20 drops of each oil.  To use it, I shake well and spray countertops, cellphones, and other surfaces.

These same oils can also be diffused in an essential oil diffuser. Likewise, mixed into a body cream or lotion, eucalyptus oil, lemon, sage, and lavender oils (no more than three drops of each oil!) make a soothing, aroma-therapeutic chest rub.

Edited to add: In this era of Covid-19 and flu season, if you find yourself in need of immune support, treat yourself to soothing herbal self-care and pampering.

Nicole TelkesTo learn about other herbs that can help keep you healthy during cold and flu season, join Nicole Telkes for her webinar, Supporting Immunity with Herbs, on November 16th at 1pm EDT. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit  www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/.

Photo Credits: 1) Healing herbal soup; 2) Apotheycary’s Shop by Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450-c.1512); 3) Nicole Telkes (courtesy of Nicole Telkes)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.