Honey And Ancient Medicine

Honey has been used in rather strange ways in ancient medicine!Honey has been used in rather strange ways in ancient medicine!

When we read about ancient civilizations, we often can’t help being intrigued.  Indeed, the very thought of ancient cultures and civilizations – the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks and the Romans, can suddenly imply wisdom, exotic and magical secrets, being in touch with nature, and hidden knowledge.

It’s very easy to be seduced into thinking the ancients  must have used exotic, fragrant remedies that would still cure our ills and be a delight to the senses. 

To be fair, perhaps some of their medicine really was like that – but some of it certainly was not.  And if we say, “honey has been used since ancient times….” It sounds as though it must have been proven beyond doubt, hundreds of years ago.

Honey and medicine

Of course, science has proven that honey does have some beneficial medicinal qualities – it has excellent anti-bacterial qualities for a start, and there is interesting research in MRSA infection, wound and burn treatments.  So it’s no surprise that there would have been a place for honey in ancient medicine. 

So how was honey used in ancient medicine?  How did the ancient civilizations use honey?  That depends on the civilization.

Honey In Ancient Egyptian Medicine

We know from ancient Egyptian medical papyri (which were sheets made from the pithy stem of a water plant in ancient Egypt.  The Egyptians recorded their medical ideas in hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic or in Greek on the papyri).   

What we know from the papyri is that honey was mixed with exotic spices….but it was also mixed with fly blood, pig’s eyes, bird blood,

Examples of honey used in ancient Egyptian medicine are as follows:

"Remedy for blindness"

"A pig's eye, antimony (a type of metal), red ochre and a little honey are finely ground and mixed together and poured into the ear of the man so that he may be cured at once.

Then recite this spell twice: I have brought this ointment and applied it to the trouble spot and it will remove the horrible suffering."

"For a swelling on the neck"

"If you examine a swelling on his neck, and you find it is soft to feel with a white secretion, then you shall say concerning it: "You are suffering from an enlarged gland on the neck; it is a disease which I will treat by an operation to guard the channels." You shall prepare remedies to treat it with a dressing that breaks the surface: acacia fruit, blood of the hwr-bird, fly's blood, honey, northern salt, are ground, mixed together and the gland is bandaged therewith."

"For a diseased eye"

"To clear up the pus: honey, balm from Mecca and gum ammoniac. To treat its discharge: frankincense, myrrh, yellow ochre."

"Against rheumatic pain"

"There are 2 vessels in him to his arm; if he is ill in his shoulder or his fingers ache, then you shall say concerning it: "It is a rheumatic pain." What is done against it: let him vomit by means of fish with beer or meat, and his fingers are bandaged with water-melon, until he is healed."

Honey And Ancient Greek Medicine

Hippocrates, the Greek philosopher, was convinced about the uses of honey in medicine.

Hippocrates used honey in different formulations for treating a range of complaints:

  • For pain, he used oxidhoney (honey and vinegar)
  • For thirst Hippocrates favoured mead (honey water)
  • For rapid onset of fever and symptoms such as headache, chills or muscle and joint pains (acute febrile diseases), Hippocrates would advise honey and water mixed with various other substances.
  • To treat ulcers, Hippocrates used two formulations as enema:
    strong white vinegar boiled together with honey, sodium carbonate, alum and an amount of Choles
    - boiled together: honey and copper oxide.

Hippocrates also said that for chest diseases, he thought "barley soup is better than all other cereal foods for chest diseases - also vinegar and honey, because they bring up phlegm"

Celsus (a Greek philosopher) was reportedly also familiar with the therapeutic usage of honey.

Theriac or theriaca was a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD. Theriaca andromachi or Venice Treacle contained 64 ingredients. In addition to viper flesh and opium, it included cinnamon, agarics and gum arabic. The ingredients were pulverized and reduced to an electuary (type of paste) with honey.


Honey And Medicine In Ancient Rome

  • Plinios the Elder stated in his book "Historia naturalis" (37 volumes) ― "The Arabians are producing honey from the reed for medical use only."  It also states that wool can be applied with honey for healing old wounds.

  • Greek physician Galen devoted a whole book Theriaké to theriac. One of his patients, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis.

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