An Ancient Author
The work of Metrodora, a gynecologist and prolific medical author
Having trouble getting in the mood for sex? Why not try this time-tested aphrodisiac: fry the womb of the hare in a rusted bronze pan. Mix in some rose oil, myrrh, sparrow fat, garlic, honey, and crocodile dung. Smear this dazzlingly pungent paste on yourself and voila! Love is in the air.
Did I say time-tested? I meant lost to time. It’s a time-forgotten aphrodisiac. Please don’t actually try it.
This is, in fact, one of the many pharmaceutical recipes recorded by ancient physician Metrodora. She likely lived sometime around the 3rd or 4th century, in the early years of the Byzantine Empire; she is possibly Egyptian or Greek. Her main legacy is her books. She wrote what is now one of the oldest surviving medical texts by a woman: On Feminine Diseases Concerning the Womb. It’s a two-volume, 63-chapter text that covers a wide range of women’s health topics, from how to treat vaginal infections, sterility, hemorrhoids, and uterine cancer to how to use a speculum while conducting a gynecological exam.
The book reads like a modern-day textbook: describing gynecological diseases and their treatments in incredibly thorough detail. In its introduction, she sets up what the reader should learn about these diseases: “… some of them are intricate to treat and others are fatal, by these notes we will recognize each one.”
In addition to this major tome on gynecology, Metrodora also authored a book on pharmacology, several shorter medicine recipe books, and a handbook of remedies—the first known alphabetized medical encyclopedia. Women were allowed to be midwives in this age, but weren’t really welcomed into the wider world of medicine. This makes Metrodora a notable figure both in medicine and in women’s history. She was an talented physician, who practiced and wrote about health issues beyond childbirth.
While some of her treatments were medicines and methods pulled from the teachings of Hippocrates, most were her own creation. The bulk of the remedies listed in her works have not been found elsewhere. Metrodora also created a classification system for vaginal discharges. Her theory that parasitic rectal infections might cause some types of vaginal discharge was way ahead of its time.
In order to prove cases of sexual abuse, she devised a way to diagnose virginity. For women who’d been raped, she provided more than physical evidence and the chance for vindication: she offered the service of re-suturing their hymen to simulate renewed virginity.
Metrodora lists ways to encourage conception, as well as recipes for contraceptives. She describes remedies to ease childbirth, to increase breastmilk supply, and to dry up your breastmilk. What’s more, she even provides a how-to guide for breastfeeding. She also claims to know a method to determine the sex of unborn children. There were kidney and stomach disease remedies, cosmetics, aphrodisiacs. A pessary (tampon-like blockade) made of potato porridge and goose fat inserted into the vagina could be used as a contraceptive, or to treat a vaginal infection.
Several of her medicines might have actually been effective, for instance, her cough remedy containing opium would have indeed suppressed coughing, and the highly astringent property of one of her contraceptives would have acted as a spermicide. As for that aphrodisiac, personally, I am highly doubtful I would become amorous after being smeared with crocodile poop.
In cases where medicines couldn’t help, Metrodora didn’t hesitate to wield a scalpel. She knew some miscarriages required removal of the fetal tissue in order to save the life of the pregnant person. Cancerous tumors also had to go. Metrodora performed breast and uterine cancer removal surgeries, as well as breast and face reconstructions. Afterward, a flatiron was applied to any incisions so as to prevent hemorrhage and infection. This practice was yet another incredibly innovative one for the time.
The name Metrodora is a combination of two Greek words: μήτρα (uterus) or μήτηρ (mother) and δώρα (gifts). It is thought to be a nickname adopted by the author. It may have been the name she practiced medicine under, or just an author pseudonym. It’s very hard to prove the existence of a specific person so far in the past, but I think Metrodora existed and was a practicing physician and prolific medical textbook author.
(Not intended as medical advice!)
For a sweet smell of the body:
40 ounces dried roses
20 drams pure myrrh [about 2 1/2 ounces]
10 drams iris root
Mix smooth with sweet-smelling wine. Form into pills. For use, make smooth [reconstitute] with sweet-smelling wine. Anoint after the bath.
For chronic cough, difficulty breathing, pleurisy and abscessed lungs:
3 oz. white pepper
1 oz. cardamom
3 oz. opium
3 oz. ginger
3 oz. saffron
3 oz. unrefined sulfur
3 pounds of honey
Boil and remove scum. Dosage: the size of a walnut.
Other Recipes of Interest
How to maintain small breasts: Apply plaster of crushed melissa plant on the breast carefully and not beyond its boundaries, or plaster of hemlock for three days, or saddle the breast for three days with plaster made of crushed poppy seeds baked with rain water.
How to restore drooping breasts: Cover [breast] with fuller’s earth [mixture used to soften clothes], one part, and spray with a little honey, or apply white lead paste mixed with hyoschiamos pap and thinned, as needed, with oil of the shrub schinos.
How to keep the breasts small and upright: Take root of psyllium, while the moon is waning, and apply to the breasts and bandage them together. To test [the remedy] apply psyllium to the area where the horns of a young ram or calf are situated and if the horns have already sprouted they will not grow longer. If the horns had not spouted they will not come out. Melissa plant produces the same results. Or: Mix crushed hemlock with two parts of scrapings of alum, two parts of sour grape juice, together with dry wine to form the texture of ointment, then spread on the breast in circles. Over it apply samian soil [from Samos] and chalk or white lead.
How to make the breasts smooth and beautiful: Apply [crushed leaves] of bitter vetch dissolved in fragrant wine, or fenugreek boiled in wine and dissolved, or similarly dissolved linseeds or barley pap or semolina with wine, or similarly prepared starch or wine lead paste and litharge [red crystalline lead monoxide] dissolved with wine.
To make the face white and smooth: Apply and wash, late in the evening and in the morning, aluminum white dissolved in water, or chian soil [from Chios] or chalk or soda or litharge in equal parts dissolved in vinegar in vinegar.
To make the face radiant: This was used by Cleopatra. She put deerhorn in [an] empty pot, baked in oven and when she took it out she found it all white. She dissolved in milk and applied it. Or: Apply melanthyum, fenugreek, and linseeds in fragrant wine.
To make the face smooth: Apply starch, ervum and emolina with the white of the egg, or oats pap, or barley pap with honey.
For a woman to appear virgin while she is not: Apply crushed symphytum plant [comfrey] or douche with alum boiled with bay leaves
To find out if a woman is a virgin: Have the woman urinate in a pot where you have put fresh lentils, if the lentils disperse she is a virgin, if not she is not a virgin. Or: Burn lignite stone and if she urinates in her pants she is not a virgin. If she does not, she is a virgin.
For a woman not to commit adultery: Apply on your male organ bile of the fish called kavros and have sexual intercourse with her and she will never commit adultery with anyone. Crack eggs of yraskon and apply on your organ and have intercourse with her, if you also use that of kavros there will never be a man who will sleep with her.
To disclose those she has committed adultery with: Give her to drink crushed magnate stone in pure wine and on that day she should not take a bath and in the evening when she goes to bed give her this to drink and she should not eat anything else. In the night sleep with her and she will disclose whom she has slept with. Or: Place on her heart, while she is sleeping, the two-headed bone of orripsios the emeros and she will reveal whom she desires and who she has slept with. Alyssum plant can have the same result.
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