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Flora Physic: Magic and Medicine in Ancient Greece

Discover a brief history of magic and medicine in ancient Greece, then create your own bath scrub using ancient-inspired ingredients.


Magic is just science we don't understand yet. — Arthur C. Clarke

Ancient Greece is well known as a culture that gifted the world with medical advancements. A number of ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen are even considered by some as 'fathers' of modern medicine.


Of course, their ancient studies and discoveries were very different to the medicine we know today. Early remedial treatments and surgeries were still developing and not always effective, and so were often a last resort where life was at stake. For this reason, much of early medicine was preventative – your best chance was to maintain your health, avoid known dangers and appease the gods through ritual and sacrifice.


Some of these ancient preventative techniques persist today, especially in the form of herbal medicine and essential oils. In ancient Greece, their herbal medicines were closely tied with mythology, which is rich with floral symbols.

 

Flora & Myth


As both Odysseus and Persephone discovered, flora in the ancient world had the power to enchant and transfix, to lure and to seduce.


While gathering wildflowers Persephone, goddess of Spring, came across a patch of radiant narcissus flowers. Mesmerised by their sweet scent she reached out to pick some – when suddenly, the earth cracked beneath her and revealed Hades, god of the Underworld waiting below. He carried her beneath the earth where she was held captive and fed pomegranate seeds. When finally released she was met with joy, but it was discovered that the six pomegranate seeds she had eaten had cursed her to live below the world for six months of every year, forever more.


Having been pushed off course on his way home from the Trojan war, Odysseus and his men discovered the Land of the Lotus-Eaters; a place where the sweet fruit of the lotus plant induced a languorous forgetfulness in all who ate it. The intoxicating and soporific effect of the lotus made Odysseus’ men forget everything they once held dear.


The significance of flora is cited again and again in ancient texts, from the Fields of Asphodel which, according to Homer, was the food of the dead, to the sacred olive which was a gift from the goddess Athena, who ultimately gave Athens its name. It is little wonder then that plants played such an integral part in both magic and medicine. Homer discusses in great detail the wounds that felled men on the battlefield and their treatments using a combination of first aid and herbal medicine. Simultaneously Homer also attributes a widespread epidemic that spread through the Greek ranks during the siege of Troy, to an act which had angered the god Apollo.

 

Hippocrates


It was typically believed in ancient Greece that disease and illness, much like Apollo's plague during the Trojan War, came about as punishment by the gods.


Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BCE), traditionally known was the 'Father of Medicine', was a Greek physician during the Classical period and is commonly credited as the first physician to separate illness from supernatural causes, i.e. the gods. While many of his theories have now been discredited due to a better understanding of the human body, he nonetheless contributed in making medicine a scientific profession through his more clinical approach in observation and prognosis.


The earliest remedies for preventing and curing sickness were made from plants unsurprisingly, and about 400 plants and herbs alongside their medicinal uses that Hippocratic doctors, following Hippocrates, used to treat their patients were recorded in the Hippocratic Corpus.


Interestingly, Hippocratic doctors understood what can harm in large doses and cure in small ones. Doctors used small amounts of the plant Hellebore to treat gout and insanity – ancient Greek warriors (including Odysseus himself) used it as a poison and covered their arrows in it to ensure the instant death of their enemies. Not only did plants have mythological connotations, but their physiological importance was both realised and utilised.


Essential oils, derived from plants, were also in use, however the evidence of their use is more limited as it relies on chemical analysis to be identified. Nonetheless, oils may have been used in ancient Egypt for perfumes and incense, like frankincense, myrrh, juniper berry and cedarwood. In funerary lekythoi in ancient Athens, oils and perfumes were used as libation (liquid offering) for the deceased. They have also been used in medicine throughout history, particularly as aromatherapy, however they are naturally toxic and can be fatal if ingested.

 

Make Your Own Bath Scrub


Bath scrubs may be a modern luxury, but their basic components draw upon millennia-old ingredients – and they're surprisingly easy! To mix your own scrub, follow the steps below.


Please note: this recipe uses essential oils. While essential oils are natural, care should be taken to use them safely. Always follow instructions and patch test on a small area of skin prior to first use.


Materials

  • 1 x 300g container or jar with lid

  • Mortar and pestle, or grinder

  • Funnel

  • 200g sea salt

  • 90g of additional dry ingredients of choice:

    • Lavender flowers

    • Rose petals

    • Chamomile flowers

    • Dried mint

    • Fennel seeds

    • Ground pumice

    • Goat milk powder

  • No more than 25 drops of essential oil/s of choice

  • 10–20ml of additional wet ingredients of choice:

    • Honey

    • Carrier oil*

    • Rose water


Selecting your ingredients

Take your time in choosing which ingredients you'd like to include. In this scrub, coarse sea salt is the primary ingredient, exfoliating and nourishing the skin with minerals.


Additional dry ingredients add variety and supercharge the skincare benefits of your scrub – mix things up with different combinations! Dried plant ingredients add subtle fragrance and texture. Fine ground pumice is a gentle exfoliant and its minerals – such as silica, potassium and magnesium – promote collagen production, hydrate and balance oils. Goat milk powder contains lactic acid, a natural alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). It has exfoliating properties when used at a low pH, or if added to a bath, acts as a natural humectant to hydrate and soften.


Wet ingredients will bind your scrub, making it easier to apply, and can have benefits of their own. Honey is naturally antimicrobial and a gentle exfoliant, good for soothing and softening skin. Rosewater has anti-inflammatory, cleansing and antioxidant properties that calm and rejuvenate. Carrier oils may include olive, sweet almond, grapeseed, pomegranate seed, rosehip or seabuckthorn oil, with varying benefits. For a bath scrub, we recommend a lighter oil such as sweet almond or if allergic to nuts, grapeseed. Both have calming and hydrating properties and are safe for daily use.


Essential oils have varying therapeutic benefits and will add the strongest scent to your mix. We recommend choosing one, or a combination, based on your desired benefits and scent preferences.


Bring it all together!

Once you've selected your ingredients, mixing your scrub is simple. Simply combine all dry ingredients in the mortar and pestle. When grinding, you want to leave some coarseness to exfoliate the skin, while also working any plant ingredients to extract their fragrant oils and mix these into the salt, pumice and/or milk powder.


Use the funnel to decant the dry mix into the jar. Add your essential oils and wet ingredients and mix until thoroughly combined. The finished scrub should have the texture of coarse wet sand that readily clings to the skin. If your mix is too wet, add more salt or pumice; if too dry, add a small amount of your wet ingredients.


To use, simply take a small handful while bathing, gently scrub it into your skin, then rinse. You can also use this recipe as a relaxing bath soak by leaving out the wet ingredients, and sprinkling a small handful of dry mixture into your bathwater.

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