This post looks at what went inside this Venetian drug that captivated the imaginations of sick people from the old world to the new.
Of the antidotes used in antiquity the most noted was a theriaca variant - mithridatum, which was composed by the doctor of Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, who, constantly in fear of being poisoned, used it every day in small immunizing doses, after testing it on prisoners.
t was said that the recipe was uncovered in Pompeii in a box belonging to the king and from that we get the old name of the electuary of mithridatum.
|The Testa d'Oro, or Golden Head apothecary in Venice. Faintly,
in the painting under the window,
are the old names for teriaca
And so was born teriaca magna or teriaca di Andromaco, as it would be known in Venice.
The recipe was further refined by Crito, the doctor of Trajan.
Galen wrote a treatise about it.
With the crusades came more trade with the Orient, and Venetian merchants introduced numerous medical preparations into Italy, among them teriaca.
It arrived in London in mediaeval times of Mediterranean galleys imported first under the supervision of the Worshipful Society of Grocers who named it “Venetian Treacle.” This, I suggest, is because it had undergone the “Venice effect” of adapting and sexing up with theatre and appeal to the imagination plus exquisite packaging.
The Venetians prepared it as an electuary, a thick syrupy liquid medicine, usually licked from a spoon.
Teriaca was the sovereign remedy for an infinite number of illnesses, from abdominal colic to malign fevers, from migraine to insomnia, from angina to the bites of vipers and dogs, from hearing loss to coughs. It was also used to cure madness, to reawaken sexual appetite, to bring vigour back to a body that was weak, and to protect people from leprosy and plague.
Teriaca was administered in various ways and quantities depending on the illness.
For fevers, it was used with wine mixed with honey; distilled water was the vehicle when it was used as a stimulant.
For teriaca to have the maximum efficacy the whole body had to be completely purged before it was taken.
Such was the Venetian faith in the efficacy of teriaca that every family, even the poorest, kept some, almost as a talisman, to safeguard themselves from all the ills that beset mankind.
In fact, those that kept old teriaca boasted that it was the strongest and best, because it was supposed to be left to ferment for a while. It was thought that teriaca wasn’t usable until six months – some even said six years – after it was made.
The composition of teriaca/mithridatum could vary from 54 to 70 ingredients, here in Italian and
here in English.