Conceptualising pain is quite a difficult thing to do, as it is a fundamentally subjective experience. Even in the 21st-century with the accumulation of medical knowledge, pain remains a regular or constant companion even for most people able to access the benefits of this modern medicine.
Analgesia (pain medication) provides a biomechanical pathway to resolve issues of pain, though it remains problematic because pain is incredibly diverse and is often an indicator of other biological issues which may then be masked through its reduction. Experiences of pain in humans are subjective but, at least to a point, allow for its essentialist consideration and comparison with our antecedents. The people of the ancient world felt pain and, at least mechanically, in the same ways that it is felt today.
I’ve been reading some more theoretical work on pain and am trying to think about it more deeply in terms of its potential to explain some ancient magical/medicinal practices. It is also designed to help me think about my own experiences of chronic muscle pains. The purpose of this brief blog is to highlight some of the varied magical treatments offered to the treatment of an undoubtedly common complaint in the ancient world – headache. Partly because I have several headaches a week and I’m curious what could have happened to me in the ancient world.
Spells of the Papyri Grecae Magicae
PGM XVIIIa. 1-4. “”Lord Sabaoth, repel the pain from me, the headache pain, I pray, take [from me]. . . .”
A fragmentary text requiring what is probably a spoken prayer at the start, though if a material or gestural component were also required these are now lost.
PGM VII. 199-201. *For migraine headache: Take oil in your hands and utter the spell I “Zeus sowed a grape seed: it parts the soil; he does not sow it; it does not sprout.”
Allusions to the lack of growth of a seed and the reduction of pain(?). Spoken elements requires readily accessible material component as well.
PGM XCIV. 39-60. *Another, for migraine headache:
I. . . IYIO
. . . YAO~
. . . OYOO
. . . OY. El
“It delivers (?). And this ir Neros’ ‘ fmula: / “OURBEDEKAEIS OUROURBEDERAEIS OUROUROUBEDERAEIS EISTHES ABRASA ELECH BELLENOURE OUNOURE BAPHAMMBCH, to you I speak, pounding headache: don’t throb, don’t rage, / don’t shake the teeth, don’t produce mucus, don’t produce a ‘black-out’, don’t stir up convulsions. For if there is throbbing, raging, shaking of teeth, producing of mucus, producing of a ‘black-out,’ I or stirrings of a convulsion. . . sb . . . G . . .A. . . X . . . CH . . . /. . . A. . . .””
A much more complex spells requiring an amulet to be written and, presumably worn in the first instance. It is appended to by Neros’ formula – perhaps this is an additional spoken prayer invoking the voces magicae and various demonic names to enhance and improve the efficacy of the original amulet? It’s interesting that the migraine headache is being directly attended to, conceived as a figure that can be threatened in this way.
Marcellus of Bordeaux
Marcellus is a 4th/5th Century AD Gallic writer whose work De medicamentis records various contemporary medicinal cures.
“Magnetic stones, which emit blood and attract iron, tied to the neck or around the head, cure headaches” (1.63)
Is this a reference to haematite? In either case it present a straightforward solution to the problem – find the right material/substance and place it into contact with the area of pain. The magnetic qualities ascribed to it could have allusory relationships to the ideal of attracting the pain or, conversely, repelling it.
“Stone’s from a pig’s head, one of the right side and the other on the left, suspended on a thread is a cure for the head” (2.7).
This is similia similibus curentur through and through. Though where the thread is placed is unclear – on the body? In the house? Somewhere else entirely? Proximity is certainly a feature of many medical amulets and we may expect this to have been required to be on the body somewhere.
“Serpentine: Those that are black, ash-coloured, or with which lines are all useful when tied on to those who have been struck by vipers of who have headaches. “They say” that the one with the lines is particularly helpful for lethargic fever or headaches (5.153)”
A Magical gemstone
Recorded in the Campbell Bonner magical Gems Database, this gemstone in the Paul getty Museum is pale agate and inscribed on both faces in Greek. One side is a long palindrome and the other: “Deliver Gaia from the fever and also the chills and from her headache”.
This gemstone exemplifies some of the methods used in above magical practices – the use of arcane knowledge, exotic or specific materials, and requires it probably use by a specific individual. Note that Dioscorides mentioned fever and headaches together and that the two are also conceptually joined here.
Pliny the Elder
And finally: Not a cure but a preventative of sorts…
“As to the wines of Pompeii, they have arrived at their full perfection in ten years, after which they gain nothing by age: they are found also to be productive of headache, which often lasts so long as the sixth hour of the next day” (HN 14.8)