Saturday 10 December 2016

The original snake oil - Michelle Lovric

This post is a companion piece to mine of November 10th, about the grand ceremony of confecting Venetian Treacle.

This post looks at what went inside this Venetian drug that captivated the imaginations of sick people from the old world to the new.

The name teriaca derives from the Greek therion, used to describe vipers or poisonous animals in general. It was celebrated in a poem by Nicander of Colophon in the second century BC. Originally it was used to treat bites from venomous animals but later it came to be used as antidote to all kinds of poisoning.

 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
 It was Andromachus the Elder, the doctor of Nero, who perfected the recipe, adding the flesh of vipers to improve its efficacy. By this time the number of ingredients was up to 60.

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.

ingredients for teriaca in their 8 classes

 Roots: Iris, Balsamorhiza deltoidea, Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil), Rheum rhabarbarum (garden rhubarb), Zingiber officinale, Angustifolia odorata, Gentiana, Meum athamanticum (spignel), Valeriana, Corydalis cava (hollowroot), glycyrrhiza

Stems and barks: Cinnamomum zeylanicum (cinnamon), Cinnamomum aromaticum (cassia)

Leaves: Teucrium scordium (water germander), Fraxinus excelsior, Clinopodium calamintha (lesser calamint), Marrubium vulgare (white or common horehound), Cymbopogon citratus (West-Indian lemongrass), Teucrium chamaedrys (wall germander), Cupressasae, Laurus nobilis (bay laurel), Polium montanum, Cytinus hypocistis

Flowers: Rosa, Crocus sativus, Lavandula stoechas (French lavender), Lavandula angustifolia (common or English lavender), Centaurea minoris

Fruits and seeds: Brassica napus (rapeseed), Petroselinum (parsley), Nigella sativa, Pimpinella anisum (anise), Elettaria cardamomum, Foeniculum vulgare (fennel), Hypericum perforatum (St. John's wort), seseli, thlaspi, Daucus carota (carrot), Piper nigrum (black pepper), Piper longum (long pepper), Juniperus (juniper), Syzygium aromaticum (clove), Canary Island wine, Agaricus

Gums, oils and resins: Acaciae (acacia), Styrax benzoin, Gummi arabicum, Sagapeni (wax of an unknown tree, possibly some kind of Ferula), Gummi Opopanax chironium, Gummi Ferula foetida, Commiphora (a tree from which myrrh is derived), incense, Turpentine from Cyprus, oil from Myristica fragans (nutmeg), Papaver somniverum (opium poppy)

Animal parts and products: Castoreum, Trochisci Viperarum, Narbonne white honey

 Mineral substances: Boli armen. verae, Chalciditis (copper-containing substance), Dead sea bitumen

 The  ingredient that was always included was the flesh of vipers, and this too had its special methods of preparation.

They could only use non-pregnant females, which had to be caught in the Euganean hills in the spring some weeks after coming out of hibernation – not in the summer, otherwise they wouldn’t hold the antidote and would provoke excessive thirsts. Vipers caught before hibernation were too fatty.Once caught, they had to be dried and fermented to a precise point.The vipers were gutted; the heads and tails removed. Then the flesh was boiled in spring water salted & perfumed with dill, then worked into a paste with dry bread and then finally cut up and shaped by hand into little balls that were left to dry in the shade.


As a consequence of the great production of teriaca in Venice
the vipers of the Euganean hills became extinct, so the Venetian apothecaries were forced to buy them from the hills of Vicenza, Verona and later from Friuli. Finally the spezieri had to take to breeding them in tanks.

Here is a teriaca jar – a lead sample jar -


which translates as ‘At the sign of the Golden Head in Venice’ –

The big question - Was teriaca any use? I suggest that it was an excellent stimulant and a great boon to any suggestable patient who wanted to believe in it.

 Meanwhile, it conforms in every other way to the perfect definition of a quack product – a cure all of exotic provenance, and very expensive.




Sue Bursztynski said...

Definitely sounds like snake oil to me, with real snake in it! :) Interesting to see how the term has gone on to mean convincing nonsense!

Celia Rees said...

What a fascinating post! Beyond jealous that you live in Venice where Apothecary shops have such fabulous signs.

Joan Lennon said...

As Sue says, snake oil indeed! Thanks for a fascinating post, Michelle!

Leslie Wilson said...

A hugely enjoyable post. I don't feel inclined to try the snake oil, however! But who knows how many of our current medicines will look as dodgy to future generations?