Melaia smoothed Gerda’s menthia ointment on Trevin’s belly as he lay outstretched by the hearth in the common room. she told herself she was simply a healer at the moment.
He winced. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“After it stops burning.”
Trevin caught her hand. “And when will it stop burning, lady?”
If you lived in ancient times, you would probably live your entire life without ever being treated by a doctor. Instead you would use remedies you made yourself or purchased from an herbalist. Herbs formed the active ingredient in many medicines. To prepare them you crushed dried roots or leaves into powder or soaked leaves and berries in water to make potions.
We’re familiar with most of these ingredients. Radishes were considered medicinal. Lettuce was used in more than 40 healing potions. Cumin was often rubbed on wounds. Wine was prescribed to ease stomach problems and other ailments, and for medicinal purposes might be mixed with myrrh or gall. Beer was a base for several medicines. Figs were often used in poultices. And the old standby we still use today: simple hot and cold compresses to relieve aches and pains.
For many illnesses people took olive oil, which was also rubbed onto wounds. People in Asia Minor harvested a dark mineral called asphalt or bitumen from deposits often found around a lake or sea. They used it on boils. (It was also used to get rid of house pests and serve as mortar between sun-baked bricks.) Salt and mud were also considered medicinal. So were animal products like blood, urine, milk, hair, and ground shell or bone.
For a toothache, you could rub garlic, salt, or yeast on your gums. If the pain was really bad, you could always find someone who knew how to pull teeth. And if you needed false teeth, they could be made from real human teeth or animal teeth. False teeth have been around since about 500 BCE.
In Breath of Angel the menthia ointment that Melaia uses on Trevin’s bruises is an invented fantasy remedy, as are dreamweed, saffroot, and plumwort. Invention is part of the fun of writing fantasy. But anything a fantasy writer creates must seem real, thus the details about how these remedies are used, how they’re made, how they work, and the true-to-life sensory responses to these potions.
So you’ll not find dreamweed or saffroot at the pharmacy. But for health the ancient way, try a salad – with lots of herbs and radishes – and plenty of lettuce.
Next blog: Ancient doctors – and surgery.