Dr Caroline Petit, Department of Classics and Ancient History
Published February 2014
"Ancient doctors had no understanding of viruses, and a limited grasp of the mechanisms of contagion, but they had decent resources to fight against symptoms of common diseases, such as cold and flu. The standard terms used to designate a cold in Greece were koruza and katarrhos (hence the modern ‘coryza’ and ‘catarrh’). According to Galen’s terminology and framework, such ailments, being caused by wet and cold humors, must be tackled with hot and dry medicines (in the Hippocratic tradition, opposites cure opposites). Although more complex remedies exist, one of the most easy to find among ‘simple’ (i.e. not compound) drugs was melanthion, tiny black seeds, known as nigella seeds, sometimes wrongly referred to as ‘black cumin’. Melanthion’s properties mean that it significantly warms and dries, hence its effectiveness against catarrh.
Nowadays most of us turn to conventional medicine to help us if we catch a cold or the flu. But finding myself in Marrakech recently with a nasty cold, the only thing that made it subside was a remedy used by the locals: little black seeds called sanouj in Moroccan Arabic.
The Greeks used the little black seeds in much the same way as we now use a Vicks inhaler.
These little black seeds are the same seeds prescribed by Dr Galen. Used to treat a variety of ailments, this powerful remedy was to be used as follows in the case of a blocked nose, (Galen, On simple drugs, VII, 7 = K. XII, 69): wrap a teaspoon of nigella seeds in a small square of linen. Briefly rub the little parcel in your hand to warm it up slightly, then bring it to one nostril while you block the other and inhale deeply. Repeat the operation as often as necessary until your nose is unblocked. The Greeks used the little black seeds in much the same way as we now use a Vicks inhaler.
I was astounded to discover that this remedy, prescribed by Galen almost two thousand years ago, is still used in exactly the same way. Morrocans buy the seeds in the souk by the weight, for a moderate price, together with small squares of linen in which they wrap a spoonful of seeds. The fact that the Moroccans continue this practice shows that the use of nigella seeds hasn’t fallen out of fashion. Indeed many countries, especially in the Islamic world, use them and they are a particularly prized remedy to treat children with a cold.
The scientific name for nigella seeds is Nigella Sativa, and I didn’t realise at the time how ancient and widespread its use was. This plant grows all over the Mediterranean and beyond. Not only was it seen as a panacea (used internally and externally) in Islamic pharmacopeia for centuries, but it is also used in bread-making and (in Morocco at least) in some tagine recipes.
As a result of Nigella Sativa being one of the most versatile of Islamic traditional remedies, its properties have been thoroughly investigated by scientists – and proven to possess (among many others!) antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hypotensive, anti-diabetic properties. These precious benefits largely offset the relative toxicity of the plant (when taken in high doses).
But like most medicines, nigella seeds need to be used with caution. If inhaled for too long, the seeds can induce light-headedness and, in some patients, headaches. Galen noticed this, as he experimented on, and recorded the effects of intensive inhalation on the brain among various patients (Galen, On the organ of respiration, 4-8). At a high dosage, nigella seeds can indeed have toxic effects. But used within reasonable limits, they are a highly effective medicine, the properties of which have since then been demonstrated by many scientific studies.
Whilst there are similarities between how the ancient Greeks and contemporary Moroccans use nigella seeds to cure a cold, it would be far-fetched to conclude that twenty-first century Moroccans use ‘Galenic’ or ‘Hippocratic’ remedies. Their use of local plants is supplemented by centuries of external additions to the remedies already known: Arabs, Jews from Europe, Spaniards, Sub-Saharan Africans, to mention but a few, brought with them additional experience and knowledge. This makes it difficult to characterise Moroccan pharmacopeia globally, or indeed to trace the history of any of the plants currently used in Moroccan therapeutics.
But the case of the ‘little black seed’ does show how vivid and strong traditional therapeutic methods can be, and how modern pharmacology tries to experiment on, and validate such remedies (a domain in which much is still to achieve). Many such cases can be observed in the revival of Ayurvedic, Chinese and Islamic/Unani therapeutics.
Nevertheless it remains fascinating that a remedy developed thousands of years ago, continues to be used today. Having used them myself in Marrakech, I can attest to their effectiveness. Melanthion has also been tested and approved by students on my module on ancient medicine, so if you’re unlucky enough to catch a cold, why not give the little black seeds a try? You can find them in larger supermarkets and markets."
Dr Caroline Petit is based in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. She is also a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. A classicist with special interest in ancient medical texts, especially Galen and the Galenic corpus, she has taught Classics, ancient history and the history of medicine at the universities of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), Exeter and Manchester where she held Wellcome Trust research fellowships (2004-2007 and 2007-2010). Before joining Warwick in October 2012, she also held an honorary fellowship at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL and a research fellowship at the Institute of Classical Studies, London.
Main Image: Nigella Seeds by Brian Valentine (via Flickr)