Making medicines using deer

A woman is guaranteed never to miscarry if, tied round her neck in gazelle leather, she wears white flesh from a hyena’s breast, seven hyena’s hairs, and the penis of a stag. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.98; translation W.H.S. Jones)

 My area of research is Greek and Roman recipes. This may seem a rather dry topic, but since much of the material I study is as colourful as the amulet-recipe I have chosen to open this blog-post, I enjoy myself quite a lot. That is not to say that ancient recipes are not a serious field of study: one needs to develop good technical skills to translate (many ancient recipes are not available in translation) and interpret them. What interests me most in recipes is that they are the perfect interface between literary and material culture. Written recipes carry in themselves the promise, the potential, of something material, tangible. Since very few remedies have survived in archaeological contexts (see here for an example), these recipes are our main gateway to an understanding of how ancient remedies tasted, smelt and felt. Knowledge of the written material, and collaboration between historians and archaeologists, may also lead to new archaeological discoveries or new interpretation of material found in archaeological contexts.

Here I will concentrate on two products: the penis and the antlers (horns) of the deer (Greek and Latin do not have separate words for ‘stag’). Deer penis could be used either whole, as in the case of the amulet-recipe cited at the beginning of this post, or powdered, as in the following example, taken from the gynaecological treatise Barren Women (end of the fifth- beginning of the fourth-century BCE), and recommended both to promote fertility and to quicken labour:

Fumigate the penis of a deer. And when you see it is dry, scrape some of it in mixed white wine; give to drink for three days. Hippocratic Corpus, Barren Women 224 (8.434 Littré).

Deer penis This File by Chris 73 is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share License

Deer penis
This File by Chris 73 is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share License

In both the amulet-recipe and this drink-recipe, deer penis is used because of its links with conception: it promotes fertility; it prevents miscarriages; and when the right time has come, it brings on an easy labour. Why use the penis of a stag? Because the stag was reputed in antiquity to be lustful and vigorous in its sexual activity – so much so that the hind was said to avoid sexual intercourse. Also, the deer was the animal of the goddess Artemis/Diana who presided over transitions in the lives of women: transitions from virginity to womanhood and from pregnancy to motherhood.

Stag penis was also recommended by several medical writers against the bite of a viper. Thus Dioscorides, the author of the influential Materia Medica (first century CE) wrote:

The sexual organ of a male deer, crushed well and drunk with wine, helps those who have been bitten by a viper.

(Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.41)

Here again, I may venture a symbolic interpretation for this recipe. The word ‘snake’ (ophis) in Greek was sometimes used to designate the limp penis. Maybe we are here in a battle of the penises: the erect penis of the stag against the limp penis of the snake. OK, that might be pushing it too far. If that is the case, let’s just say that the deer is described in several ancient texts as the enemy of the snake. It was supposed to draw snakes out of their holes with its breath (see here for references). I could add that when Christians re-interpreted these texts, they made the deer the symbol of Christ and the snake that of the devil.

The stag and the snake on a Byzantine Mosaic (6th century CE). Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul This File by Laurom is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share License

The stag and the snake on a Byzantine Mosaic (6th century CE). Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul
This File by Laurom is freely available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share License

While uses of deer penis in ancient medicine are fascinating, they remain relatively few. Deer antlers – called deer horns in Greek and Latin – on the other hand are frequently recommended. I should note that in Greek and Latin the word ‘horn’ was used as a metaphor for the penis – a use that has survived till this day (‘got the horn’ and all that). Deer horn can therefore be seen in some cases, in particular in remedies to promote fertility, as a more available substitute for deer penis – one does not need to kill a stag to get its antlers.

The ancients mostly used burnt deer antlers in their remedies. Dioscorides tells us how to obtain this product and gives us a list of its medicinal properties:

Horn of a deer, burnt and washed, drunk in the amount of two spoonfuls, helps those who spit blood; those affected with dysentery; those who have pains in the bowels; jaundice; affections of the bladder (when taken with tragacanth); and those women who have discharges, when taken with a liquid that is appropriate to their condition.

Cut it into pieces and throw it into an unbaked pot, seal with clay and place in an oven/furnace, until it becomes white. It is washed like calamine. This helps against eye flows and sores, and when rubbed against the teeth it cleans them. Fumigated raw, it drives away snakes, and boiled with vinegar and used as a mouthwash, it soothes toothaches.

(Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.59)

All together, a very useful remedy then! Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity (second century CE), adds that he had often used deer horn in his practice to whiten the teeth and protect weeping wounds. (Galen, On the Properties of Simples 11.8, 12.334 Kühn).

I could give numerous examples of ancient recipes involving deer horns. My favourite is a recipe persevered in the writings of a certain Metrodora (dates uncertain) and attributed to a Queen Cleopatra (not the famous one):

To make the face bright: Berenice the queen of Egypt, nicknamed Cleopatra, used this. Having thrown the horn of a deer in a new vase, she roasted it in oven and, having removed it, she found it whitened; she crushed it with milk and anointed herself. (Metrodora 56. See here for more detail on this recipe)

What would this cosmetic product feel on the skin? Apparently, roasting deer antlers produces a ‘salt’ (ammonium carbonate) that has some of the same properties as bicarbonate of soda: it can be used as a leavening agent in baking and as a cleaning agent. When added to milk, burnt deer horn may not be too unpleasant and may indeed have a whitening effect on the skin or teeth. Something to try one day!

Hartshorn is still sold today, but does not contain deer horn anymore Image by house on the hill

Hartshorn is still sold today, but does not contain deer horn anymore
Image by house on the hill

The use of deer products has a long history. Numerous Victorian recipes list deer horn, which was then called hartshorn; and Chinese Traditional Medicine still makes use of it. It is quite easy to dismiss this as superstition, but there has been so far relatively little research on the properties of deer antlers, and what little research has been produced seems to indicate that there might be something worth pursuing here.

Laurence Totelin 2013

See my blog Concocting History and my blog posts on the Recipes Project – The recipes project

5 thoughts on “Making medicines using deer

  1. Pingback: Of milk and honey II | concoctinghistory

  2. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #60 Part II: The Present | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. deer antler products are still very common in the Altai mountains, and the steppe lands as well as nomadic deer herding regions. Apparently ( according to a commercial flask I’ve seen) it contains 18 of the 22 amino acids for protein synthesis, wether that is true or not I can’t say, but the animal has cetainly sustained folk for millennia.

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