Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall at sunset

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ancient Medicine: Comfrey

You may have known that honey could be used as a dressing for wounds, and some of you out there perhaps knew that willow bark contained the main ingredient in aspirin, but I dare say not too many people know the uses of Comfrey.

Comfrey has had lots of other names over the course of history: Blackwort, Knitbone, and Boneset among others. The last 2 names give a hint as to one of the major uses of comfrey in ancient medicine.

The leaves would be ground to make a vivid green poultice for bruises and sprains. For broken bones, the fresh roots would be grated onto a clean cloth and applied over a broken bone. This root poultice would become rock hard and be left over the fracture until the bones had "knit."

Hence the name Boneset or Knitbone. Comfrey contains several different vitamins and minerals, allantoin (aids cell growth) and 18 amino acids. Dioscorides of ancient Greece mentions comfrey in his 1st Century writings. He is quite an interesting character, Dioscorides, and is considered to be one of the fathers of modern pharmacology. I think I will have to do a post on him!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ancient Medicine: The Water-Loving Willow

Another staple of ancient medicine was the water-loving willow tree. The use of willow bark dates back to Hippocrates in 400 BC.

American Indians chewed willow bark to relieve fever and inflammation. Willow bark contains a substance called salicin. Salicin is used to create acetylsalicylic acid. Its better known name is aspirin.

In ancient Greece, the priests of Aesclepius would place willow branches in the beds of infertile women.

The ancient Celts would simmer willow bark, then let it steep and drink the resulting tea. They also believed that the spirit of the dead person would rise up through a willow sapling planted over a grave and retain the essence of the departed one.

In the cold, damp areas of Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, the magical willow-bark tea must have been a precious commodity for people who suffered from rheumatism and arthritis!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ancient Medicine: Honey

Ancient medicine and the use of herbal potions and tinctures play a role in my first 2 books. I gave my character, Ciara, an intuitive interest in the practice of medicine and the curative uses of herbs, roots, and berries. And honey.

Honey has been used for at least 2,000 years as a dressing for wounds and burns. The ancients didn't know that honey has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties but they knew that it worked.

The use of honey reduced healing time and decreased scar formation. Plus it smells good!

When antibiotics came upon the medical scene in the 1940's, the use of honey declined. Now seventy years later, at a time when the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in scary infections resistant to drugs, the use of honey is once again current.

I recently read about a 15 year old boy who contracted meningococcal septicemia. He developed peripheral necrosis (tissue death) of his hands and feet. He had to have bilateral amputations of both legs mid-tibia (shin bone), and also lost most of his fingers. His hands healed well but he had many unsuccessful skin grafts to his legs. The pain was so intense that his dressing changes had to be done under anesthesia.

Finally honey dressings were tried. Within a few days the skin on his legs began to improve. In ten weeks his wounds had healed and he went on to successful rehabilitation.

Something to think about the next time you stir a teaspoon of honey into your tea or sweeten your oatmeal.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Another ancient instrument which dates back to the Stone Age and is still used today is the bodhran, or Irish drum.

The bodhran has a narrow wooden frame with an animal skin stretched taut across one side.

Variations of this type of frame drum appear in other ancient civilizations such as Egypt, China and Africa.

The Irish bodhran has one important difference, and that is the way in which it is played. Most methods of playing a drum consist of a stick or a hand beating the skin frame.

A Irish musician playing the bodhran bends their rhythm hand so that the back of the fingers are presented to the skin of the drum. The player swings his hand up and down and uses the middle finger as a beater.

The other hand is inside the drum and is used to alternate or damp the tone of the drum. A two-headed stick is also used to play the bodhran as illustrated in the photos below.

 If you've never heard a Celtic band, you owe it to yourself to hit an Irish pub, have a beer, and enjoy the music.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Another ancient musical instrument  that dates to the Bronze Age was the crotal. This was a type of bell shaped liked the testicles of a bull.

The bronze crotal was hollow inside and would contain a stone or pebble that would produce a sound when the index finger was inserted through the ring at the top and then thrust forward from the hand.

Variations of sound could be produced by tapping the bell while lifting some of the fingers holding it.

Most of the crotals known today were found in a single hoard in County Offaly in Ireland. So if you'd like to try something different, maybe a crotal (or two) would suit you!