Ever suffered from dry eyes? A late Coptic medical text may have the cure for you! Written on a small piece of parchment, probably in the 11th century CE, the remedy requires just two ingredients: the warm blood of a hoopoe and cardamom.
“For eyes starting to cry salt: heated hoopoe’s blood and a herb called ‘cardamom’, in Egyptian ‘shife’ (a tree that grows in mountain regions, like a pomegranate tree, its leaves being slightly long like a […], its wood resembling that of the pomegranate tree.”
The exotic nature of the second ingredient, cardamom, leads the writer to describe the plant, likening it to the more familiar pomegranate tree. At the end of the description, a line confirms this is the end of the text, yet there is no information about how to apply this concoction, whether directly to the eyes, as a poultice, or whether it was to be ingested. Perhaps the writer was so taken with the digression about cardamom that he forgot the rest of the text!
While cardamom may have been a new and uncommon medical ingredient, the hoopoe – kukupat in Coptic – had a much longer history in Egypt, from the Old Kingdom to the Islamic period, in art and in texts. The hoopoe is (and remains) a common breeding resident throughout Egypt, meaning that the ancient Egyptians were very familiar with its physical attributes, notably its distinctive long black-tipped crest, which it raises when excited. One of the most famous images of the hoopoe is found in the Twelfth Dynasty tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan, where it stands crest erect, perched on a tree.
Outside of pharaonic tomb scenes, the hoopoe makes its most significant mark in the written record of later periods. In the Theban magical text collections known as the Demotic Magical Papyri (PDM) and the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), dating to the 3rd–4th centuries CE, hoopoe blood and hearts are used for a range of ailments. In one spell, a live hoopoe is required, which is then decapitated, its heart being removed through its right ribs. After these Roman texts, the record is silent until the 10th and 11th centuries, the date of the dry-eyes remedy. From this time, only a couple of Coptic texts mention the hoopoe. For example, in a codex now in Cairo, CGC 42573, the blood of a hoopoe and the hair of a pig are mixed and thrown into a person’s house, as what seems to be a measure against hatred (the spell is simply headed: “a hatred”). One of the most important points here is that in these texts, the use of the hoopoe in medical or magical texts is a foreign introduction. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 30.18 (1st century CE), the efficacy of the hoopoe’s heart is noted for pains in the side and in the loins. In the Islamic tradition, the hoopoe (Arabic hud-hud) appears in connection with the Prophet Solomon (Qur’an 27.20–28), revealing to him things of which he had no knowledge. Later, the thirteenth-century physician Ibn al-Beithar discussed at length the medicinal virtues of the hoopoe and its various body parts. In this light, the PGM and PDM occurrences reflect the use of the hoopoe in Greek medicine, while its inclusion in late Coptic recipes stems directly from translations of Arabic texts.
But did the mix of warm hoopoe’s blood and cardamom work? At a later date, the text was crossed-out with two diagonal and one vertical stroke, and the parchment was reused to practice writing the names of the months and numbers, an exercise that continues onto the other side. Why was the text struck through like this? The lack of application directions may have reduced its efficacy and so it was of no use. Alternatively, the remedy may have been copied into a larger compendium and so this individual sheet served no purpose. Examples of such Coptic medical compendiums include the 5th/6th century Coptic medicinal plant book, Papyrus Carlsberg inv. 500 (see here) – the description about cardamom does echo this book, which includes descriptions of plants according to their habitat and external characteristics. Whatever the reason, though, the piece of parchment was used as scrap, without any record about the concoction’s success.
Provenance: White Monastery (near Sohag), Egypt
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: John Rylands Library, Manchester (Coptic inv. 108)
Designation: P.Ryl.Copt. 108 (sigla according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Jennifer Cromwell, “Warm Hoopoe’s Blood and Cardamom: A Coptic Medical Text”, Egyptian Archaeology51 (2017), 10–13.