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Just mad about Saffron

Saffron has been known for centuries. As a dye it yields a deeply hued yellow color, prized by the fashionable Minoan women of Ancient Crete (2700 – 1450 BCE) (Willetts 1976) and later Egypt (Willard 2001). A fresco depicting saffron was found at the site of Akrotiri, a Greek city destroyed (and preserved) by volcanic ash in 1627 BCE. In the work, two finely dressed women are in a field of flowers, gathering the valuable parts that constitute saffron.

The Saffron Gatherers

Fresco of saffron gatherers from the bronze age excavations in Akrotiri on the greek island of Santorini, Greece.

To some, the robes and jewelry the women are wearing show that this painting was representative of a harvest festival. Others hypothesize that the saffron was an offering to the goddess Eileithyia, whom Homer referred to as “Mogostokos” – the goddess of the birth pains. Regardless, by the time of ancient Greece, saffron was well known and, judging by the fields depicted in the fresco, cultivated. But saffron isn’t celebrated for its longevity, nor for its ties to pregnancy (even though I think that’s worth exploring and will do so later on in this post). No, to most, saffron is known as a potent aphrodisiac. Continue reading

Holy Fire, Witches, and Doctors: ergot poisoning throughout history

 Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms.  Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20 of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.

There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). Continue reading