Scholars' Association News
Issue 29
February 2014


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A Cretan healer’s handbook
BOOK REVIEW By Nikos E. Degleris

Patricia Ann Clark, A Cretan Healer’s Handbook in the Byzantine Tradition: Text, Translation and Commentary, Farnham, Surrey, England – Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2011, 320 pages ISBN 978-0754661016

Author Patricia Ann Clark is Adjunct Assistant Professor and at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and, on a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation, she spent 10 years conducting field research on local healing customs in the Amari region of the Rethymno Prefecture in Crete.

In 1930, the Cretan healer Nikolaos Konstantinos Theodorakis, from the village of Meronas (with the nickname: Harkiadonikolis, which means “Nikolaos from the region of Harkiado”, Crete), re-copied a well-worn notebook containing medical prescriptions. This was done on the request of Abbot Hilarion, a venerable father at the nearby Holy Monastery of the Incorporeal Angels (Iera Moni Asomaton), who had also spent time at the Holy Monastery of Koutloumousiou at the monastic state of Mount Athos, Greece.

The Theodorakis family kindly gave the notebook to Patricia Ann Clark for research purposes, and she in turn presents the authentic text with an accurate English translation, comments and footnotes. It belongs to the genre of iatrosophia, practical medical handbooks which besides medical prescriptions, also give advice on numerous matters including: increasing and improving the production of the land and livestock, meteorological forecasting, religious superstitions, astrology, spells and magic. The iatrosophia in Crete became widespread during the Turkish Rule (1646–1898), drawing on Classical and Roman heritage and subsequent developments through the Byzantine Era and the Venetian Domination (1210–1646).

Dr. Clark presents a detailed analysis of the knowledge and experience she acquired during her extended stay in the villages of the Amari plain, and is sincerely grateful to the locals for their warm hospitality and their generous contribution to her research.

This region is located at the foot of Mt Ida (Psiloritis) to the west and is justifiably considered to be a mecca for botanists, thanks to its wealth of medicinal plants and archaeological findings.

The colloquial language of the text, intermingled with influences from Ancient Greek, Byzantine, Venetian, Turkish and Arabic, enchants the reader and attests the multicultural origins of its prescriptions..

I quote relevant examples:

Α) Όταν κλαίγη πολύ (το παιδίον)

…Έπαρε του ροδακινίου τα μέσα ταίς ψύχες κοπάνησον και με τον ζωμόν άλυφε τα χύλη του παιδίου.

When (the child) it cries a lot

Take the inner part, the kernels of the peach, pound them; with the liquid anoint the child’s lips.

B) Διά τον σεληνιασμόν

…Tου γαιδάρου τα ονύχια

να τα καμης δακτιληδιον και βάλετο επάνο στον σεληνιασμένο και πλέον δεν τον πιάνει.

For the epileptic seizures

The hoofs of the donkey

you should make them into a finger ring and put on to the epileptic and it (the disease) doesn’t seize him any more.

Γ) Έτερον διά το σκουλαμέντο (γονόρροια)

…Έπαρε ένα αυγόν, τρυπησέ το. Άδειασέ το γέμισε το λάδι έπαρέ το πήγενε εις το λουτρόν κάθησε εις τα ζεστά μάρμαρα ύστερον βάλε τον καυλόν σου μέσα εις το αυγόν να σταθή και ευγένει όλη η ύλη.

Another for gonorrhoea

Take an egg, pierce a hole in it, empty it, fill it up with olive oil, take it go to the bathroom, sit on the hot marble, later on put your penis into the egg, so that it stands (erect) and all the material comes out.

Δ) Διά τας πληγάς

…Του μαστιχακάνθου που λέγουν μιχάλη τα φίλλα κοπάνισον με πρόβιον άλειμα βάλτο επάνο, αν δεν έχει φύλλα την ρίζαν αυτό που είναι ξαπλοτόν και κάμνει την αγκινάραν.

For wounds

The leaves of the mastic flower which they call “michali”, pound them with sheep tallow, put it on top; if there aren’t any leaves, (use) its root, that which is spread out flat and which makes the “artichoke”.

Ε) Εις Άνθρωπον αμποδεμένον

…Έπαρε τρία οδόντια του αποθαμένου τραπεζήταις το ένα κοπάνησε τα ρούχα που θα βγάλουν το άλλο κάπνησε τα ρούχα που θα βάλουν και τάλο στα προσκεφαλά τους.

For person bound

Take three teeth from dead man molars, (with) the one pound the clothes that they will take off, (with) the other one, fumigate the clothes that they will put on, and (place) the other one at their pillows.

The work concludes with an extensive index of minerals, trace elements, medicinal plants and animal excretions which, when combined by the practitioner in the prescribed amounts as detailed in the practical handbook (iatrosophio), produce a healing concoction. The index also includes clear instructions for use.

The abundant literature of both older and more recent studies (approx. 260 references) allows researchers and ordinary readers alike to probe into this subject matter.

As Professor Alain Touwaide (Smithsonian Institution and Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions) states in the foreword of the book, Patricia Ann Clark’s contribution is “an extra-temporal key to unlock the universe of the many extant Byzantine iatrosophia” in the context of the emerging field of ethnopharmacology and the global history of folk medicine.

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