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Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches: Plants and Sexuality throughout Human History

Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches: Plants and Sexuality throughout Human History by John M. Riddle. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan; 2011. Hardcover, 213 pages. ISBN: 978-0-230-61064-4. $88.00.

All too infrequently do students and scholars researching the history of pharmacology begin when our written sources in the West begin: with the cuneiform scripts of the earliest ancient Near Eastern cultures. Even more rarely do academics deign to admit that basic drive of human existence—sex. And when such research and examination of the cuneiform and later sources combine to ask how and why medical botany and phytochemistry have, from the earliest times, an essential function in the always excruciatingly tangled and raveling coils that detail sexual activity—whether to enhance blunt satisfaction of raw lust through the act of copulation or for presumably reliable aids in making babies, or oppositely to expel the unwanted product of coition—such research is not only more honest than is normal about the emotional and hormonal upheavals of human behavior, but also unmasks the not-so-subtle rituals and taboos that almost always enwreathe sex and the common links to religion.

Some scholars may wrangle about “codes” and their hidden meanings, others may bedeck their essays and books with the jargons of an always-faddish sociology or the opaque vocabularies characteristic of one or another “school” of cultural anthropology, while still others make our ancient predecessors into ignorant copies of our arrogantly modern selves. But not John Riddle. As usual, what he has to say rests on 2 basic foundations: the sources themselves as perused in the original languages, and, an assumption that one can indeed comprehend “what plants do as drugs” by means of what we loosely term pharmacognosy.

Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches follows in the wake of his earlier and curiously controversial books on contraception and abortion,1 volumes that irritated establishment members of the medical profession as much as they did some traditionalists and feminists among classical scholars.2 Riddle’s insistence that one must know the texts first—and in their original tongues—before drawing conclusions from them, sets him apart from the large majority of those who publish in both the History of Medicine and Pharmacy, since all too often what is touted as “original research” is founded on secondary, or even in some cases, tertiary, sources.

Even within the few numbers of scholars who can decipher cuneiform tablets and their often barely legible signs, there is fierce debate regarding the forms and intended use of botanical and animal drugs.3 This healthy and continuous argument among specialists about the texts ensures our better understanding of these earliest documents of a Western pharmacology, similar to the necessary and ongoing controversies among phytochemists as they discuss the multiple effects of botanicals.4 In almost all his books and articles, Riddle attempts answers to that simple and most direct and difficult of questions posed by students in any of our classes: “Do the drugs actually work?” Thus, once the reasonably assured identity of the plant or animal product is established, the next step consists of analyses of the phytochemical properties paired with survivals in modern folk medical traditions, in turn linked with laboratory findings that demonstrate (or do not demonstrate) the claims made for the “natural drug” in question.

Goddesses takes up specific and occasionally detailed consideration of sources in the cuneiform languages (e.g., Akkadian and its 2 dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian, as well as Hittite and Sumerian), Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that attest to the potency as sex drugs of the pomegranate (Punica granatum, Punicaceae), mandrake (among 6 species, either Mandragora autumnalis or M. officinarum, Solanaceae), wormwoods (among some 400 species, most often Artemisia absinthium, A. abrotanum, A. pontica, and also likely A. vulgaris, Asteraceae, the so-called mugwort), and the chaste tree or monk’s pepper tree (Vitex agnus castus, Verbenaceae). Not surprisingly, folk medical traditions in the Near East and North Africa still value all 4 genera in treatments of various ailments, ranging from use as antihelmintics, infertility and sexual unresponsiveness (in females), as emmenagogues (often prescribed for their abortive properties) and uterine relaxants, to the expected employment to dampen down sexual proclivities, and conditions and/or diseases of the sex organs.5

The tricky part now comes as one attempts to determine the phytochemical actions of the “natural” substance—always with myriad constituents present in nature, and until harvested, always to be understood in 4 dimensions, since the phytochemical constituents are rarely static in the living plant. At this stage of our historical analysis, one can refute such arguments as those advanced by Helen King and others, quite simply since one cannot reproduce exactly the “natural product” in the laboratory, any more than the rough equivalents can be exactly replicated from tablet to tablet, as provided in the cuneiform measures that accompany the texts of Assyrian or Babylonian pharmacology. Do these particular genera produce physiological changes in our bodies? And almost as importantly, can an experienced medical professional of whatever era predict such effects? Riddle’s list is short, the botanical-phytochemistries of all four are fairly well-known, and what pharmacists like to term “active ingredients” can thereby be recorded with reasonable assurance.

Regarding pomegranates, Riddle begins at the beginning, with the book of Genesis fused with what we know from Sumerian tablets about the fruits of Eden, forbidden and otherwise. Arguing carefully from the texts, he can indicate that P granatum was widely known as a fertility drug and contraceptive from earliest times in Mesopotamia, through the Old Testament Hebrew kingdoms, and thence on into the future as shown in Greek myth and history, the list of contraceptives given in Soranus’s Gynecology (dated to ca. 130 CE) and on into the Middle Ages. And if one augments from references not used in Goddesses, Riddle’s case becomes even stronger.

Estrone (estrol; folliculin) is prominent in the seeds of P. granatum, with notable estrogenic activity;6 the dried bark of the stem and root contain ca. 0.04-0.09% of alkaloidal pelletierine tannates deemed dangerous for pregnancies,7 and in the words of a recent article on the phytochemical properties of the pomegranate, “Ethnomedical explorations have shown that pomegranate hull and/or root extract has been used orally and intravaginally to prevent both fertility and abortion and to treat various gynecological conditions, predicting the presence of compounds with hormonal activity... traditional knowledge of medicinal properties of plants predicts modern analyses.”8

The literature on pharmacological biochemistry of plants, as it applies to human physiology and drug actions, more than confirms Riddle’s conclusions regarding the Mesopotamian and later use of the pomegranate: In fact, human-centered research documents the probability of such use more thoroughly than do the studies cited by Riddle that give results of experimental studies on laboratory animals. Certainly similar literature on mandrake, wormwoods, and the monk’s pepper tree, would also confirm the not-so-controversial assembly of evidence in Goddesses documenting the shrewd and often prescient knowledge of our most ancient ancestors in the use and understanding of love potions, fertility aids, contraceptives, and abortifacients.

If humanity loses its interest in sex, a rather obvious preoccupation by almost everyone since our origins somewhere near the Olduvai Gorge,9 it may well be that Homo sapiens is destined to disappear. Goddesses tells us that we not only want to know about sex, but that methods of procreation and the deep histories of sexual pleasures long predate what we snootily like to label pornography. Goddesses should be issued in paperback, so ordinary readers without a fat bank account can own this treasure, a literate retelling of what we likely knew all along.

—John Scarborough, PhD Professor School of Pharmacy and Departments of History and Classics University of Wisconsin Madison, WI


  1. E.g. esp. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press; 1992, and Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press; 1997). Anticipating much of the controversy is the perceptive and positive review by Paul T. Keyser of Ancient World to the Renaissance in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (04.04.08 [1992: online]). Keyser rightly cites Riddle’s “Oral Contraceptives and Early Term Abortifacients during Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (Past and Present. 1991;[no. 132]:3-32), as a “...valuable article...” that “focusses on one aspect of [Dioscorides’] drug lore,” that broached the topic of contraceptives. One could also cite Riddle’s “Ancient and Medieval Chemotherapy for Cancer” (Isis. 1985;76:319-330) as indicative of further thinking on phytochemical substances, amply suggested by Riddle’s truly pioneering monograph, Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine (Austin: University of Texas Press; 1985).

  2. Representative among many is Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman. London and New York: Routledge; 1998. Esp. ch. 7, “Reading the Past Through the Present: Drugs and Contraception in Hippocratic Medicine” (pp. 132-156). Taking particular issue with Riddle’s use of modern laboratory studies that employed rats and other animals to ‘test’ the abortifacient efficacy of botanical substances that include estrogenic properties among several ingredients, King writes that “The use of these plants in traditional medicine cannot possibly replicate this purity and concentration” (p. 147). In all fairness, King does cite those fellow-scholars who support Riddle’s conclusions (pp. 132-133), but King’s “Reading the Past” is a detailed refutation that actual phytochemical substances had any role whatsoever in contraceptive or abortion techniques in classical antiquity. Others, of course, begged to disagree, e.g. Lesley A. Dean-Jones in a review of King’s Hippocrates’ Woman in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 74 (2000): 812-813. King doubts that any “natural” substance used as a drug was in the least effective, an opinion that includes anesthetics. Helen King, “The Early History of Anodynes: Pain in the Ancient World,” in Ronald D. Mann, ed., History of the Management of Pain. Carnforth, England and Park Ridge, NJ: Parthenon; 1988: 51-62.

  3. Recently, Markham J. Geller—a most talented physician-rabbi now professor of Semitic languages at University College London—has concluded that many of the pharmaceutical recipes in cuneiform consist of a “kind” frequently reproduced in tablet after tablet. See esp. “Therapeutic Prescriptions as Genre” in Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell; 2011: 97-108. Of importance are also the following “Poetry within Therapeutic Prescriptions” and “The Babylonian Background to Greco-Roman Pharmacology” (pp. 108-117).

  4. Salutary are the occasional commentaries in the monographs incorporated in Max Wichtl, ed. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals, 3rd ed., trans. from the 4th German ed. by Josef A. Brinckmann and Michael P. Lindenmaier. Stuttgart and Boca Raton: Medpharm and CRC; 2004. E.g. (on the Valerianae radix), “...the general opinion in the practice of phytotherapy today is that the efficacy of valerian depends upon an interplay between the constituents groups rather than on individual substances” (p. 631, col. 3). The debate will continue....

  5. E.g. Loutfy Boulos. Medicinal Plants of North Africa. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications; 1983: 148-150 (pomegranate), 167 (mandrake), 54-57 (wormwoods), and 193 (chaste tree). Interestingly, Vitex agnus castus is a drug for weight gain by women, as is Mandragora autumnalis.

  6. Jeffrey B. Harborne, et al., eds. Phytochemical Dictionary, 2nd ed. London and Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis; 1999: 779 [no. 2694].

  7. James E. F. Reynolds and Anne B. Prasad, eds. Martindale The Extra Pharmacopoeia, 28th ed. London: The Pharmaceutical Press; 1982: 104, col. 2, 804-b, and 102, col. 3, 797-r. Cf. Kathleen Parfitt, ed. Martindale: The Complete Drug Reference, 32nd ed. London and Taunton, MA: The Pharmaceutical Press and World Color Book Services; 1999: 108, col. 2, 804-b: the abortifacient properties have been omitted. Notably, Maryadele J. O’Neil, et al., eds., The Merck Index, 13th ed. (Whitehouse Station, New Jersey: Merck and Co., 2001: 1267-1268 [No. 7143: pelletierine]) lists this isolated constituent gained from the rootbark of the pomegranate tree as used only as a vermifuge against cestodes. Among some German naturopaths, Granatapfelbaum (i.e., apparently all parts of the plant) is considered too poisonous to be useful: Ingrid and Peter Schönfelder. Das neue Handbuch der Heilpflanzen. Stuttgart: Franckh-Kosmos; 2004: 370.

  8. Diane M. Harris, et al.:“Assessment of Estrogenicity of Pomegranate in an in vitro Bioassay.” In: Navindra P. Seeram, et al., eds. Pomegranates: Ancient Roots to Modern Medicine. Boca Raton, London, and New York: CRC/Taylor and Francis; 2006: 143-155 at 143-144.

  9. One of the most important prehistoric sites known, also known as Aldupai Gorge, a steep-sided gorge in Eastern Africa in northern Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley where archaeological evidence, much of it studied by the famed Leakey family, shows that hominid species and early humans have lived for over 2,000,000 years.