AN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN HERBAL
By Lise Manniche, published by the British Museum Press at £9.99. 176pp. ISBN: 0-7141-1704-8
Using evidence from tomb paintings and funerary models, Manniche starts by discussing the design of both temple and private gardens and the range of plants grown in them, as well as the commercial scale of the growing of flowers for offerings in the temples; in one period of under three years, for example, Rameses III made offerings of almost 2,000,000 each of bouquets and flower bundles to the Temple of Amun alone. She then passes on to examine the use of flowers and plants generally both mundanely and socially and in funerary rites, both in mummification and as garlands for adorning the mummy and mourners, and thence to the use of plants in cosmetics, perfumery and general body care and decoration.
The herbal section proper introduces several dozen of the plants used by the Egyptians which have been identified with at least reasonable certainty: acacia, celery, wormwood, onions, white bryony, fennel, mandrake, linseed, opium poppy, pomegranate and dill to name just a few. Each section provides detailed information on the properties ascribed to the plant by the Egyptians and gives practical information on how it was used in medicine, cosmetics and dyes.
What is particularly interesting is that Manniche provides a wide selection of actual recipes, culled from Egyptian, Greek and later Coptic medicinal manuscripts, which could be tried out by the more practically-minded reader. Here are instructions and quantities for making cough mixtures, treatments for burns, (opium-based) potions for quietening fractious babies, mixtures for expelling worms and treating indigestion, for curing eye and ear infections and treating (literal) pains in the arse! Information on cosmetic preparations includes deoderants, creams for camoflaging skin imperfections, the making of perfumed oils and fat and a range of hair and baldness treatments.
All in all, an endlessly fascinating book which is highly recommended for readers with an interest in herbalism or in Egypt generally and with enough detail for adventurous herbalists to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.