Hyssop: Ancient Uses And The Epilepsy Debate

As in many herbs, Dioscorides and Pliny read very similarly on hyssop, although Dioscorides seems more trim and precise. Galen is very succinct, saying only it is hot and dry in the third degree and ‘of thin parts’. Dioscorides says it has a warming property. He recommends it for inflammations of the lungs, asthmatics, a chronic cough, catarrh and orthopnoea (serious asthma, when the patient cannot breathe unless upright), boiled with figs, water, honey and rue. The same will kill intestinal worms and can also be used as ‘lozenge with honey”. The decoction with vinegar and honey ‘expels thick masses down the abdomen’. It will purge the bowel eaten with ‘brayed green figs’ and will act more strongly as a cathartic mixed with ‘garden cress or iris or hedge mustard’ (Beck). ‘It achieves even fresh and healthy looks’. As a plaster with fig and soda (other authors have nitre/saltpetre here) it is useful for the spleen and for oedemata, for inflammations with wine. Beck’s translation continues, ‘it also disperses black eye when plastered on with hot water. It is an excellent gargle for sore throat with a decoction of figs and it assuages toothaches when cooked with vinegar and employed as a mouthwash. Its vapour stops inflations (‘gaseous’ swellings?) around the ears’.

Pliny says if the best comes from the Taurus mountains in Cilicia, the second best is from Pamphylia and Smyrna. He maintains it is not friendly to the stomach: it will purge downwards with figs and by vomit with honey; it can be used for serpent stings as a plaster with honey, salt and cumin; as an ointment for head lice and an itchy head. Bauhin quotes Pliny further, reading in places very much like Dioscorides, using hyssop as a gargle for angina (of the throat), as decoction in wine: the purge by vomit with hyssop and honey is better if nasturtium is added; the decoction with salt will drive away phlegm, and with oxymel will remove worms from the belly. Then he adds its use decocted with figs for the spleen and if taken for 16 days treats epilepsy. This is one of a number of references to epilepsy but the trail is somewhat difficult to follow. It could simply be a question of interpretation from yet older texts – Dioscorides has its use with figs for the spleen and oedemata, not epilepsy – but there are wider references and complications. Culpepper speaks of epilepsy but unattributed to any source. Gerard and Dodoens stick safely with Dioscorides and hence have no reference. Ibn Sina too carries no reference to epilepsy. Parkinson on Pliny has no such reference to epilepsy. Parkinson’s epilepsy claim lies under Mattioli – that the oil kills lice, takes away itching of the head and ‘helpeth those that have the falling sicknesse’, following this with a recipe for such. Bauhin makes a very similar reference to Mattioli’s recommendations, including its use for snake bites with salt and cumin, as Pliny above. Dalechamps too cites Mattioli on snake bites, oil, lice, itching and gives the same recipe as Parkinson for an epilepsy preparation. In the 1554 Latin version of Mattioli, there is no such reference, nor in the later 17th century French translation we referred to. This must be an addition to a later Mattioli text. However, the reference reappears in Dalechamps, not under Mattioli (although the snake bites and cumin, lice, itching, thins and purges is there) this time, but attributed to Mesue ‘for epilepsy due to phlegm’, and, alongside the familiar chest, thinning, gives florid colour to skin, etc., for ‘other problems of phlegm in the head’.

The Salernitan herbal refers to epilepsy under hyssop, but has too an intriguing addition, which may open the debate a little, again after the usual reference to decoction in wine and dry fig for cough and cold catarrh, ‘for fall of the uvula’ – the powder or whole plant placed hot on the head; decoction in vinegar as a gargle without swallowing; the powdered flower sprinkled onto the uvula raised by the finger. Now Bauhin has an entry under peony explained as good for epilepsy because it ‘lifts the uvula’ – a reference to the humoral view of epilepsy as too much phlegm in the brain, (already a moist organ) (the Latin for ‘pituitary gland’ translates as ‘phlegm’), which phlegm, as distillation from the brain where it fills the ventricles, descends through the cribriform plate and into the nose and hence causes what we would understand as swollen uvula here. Through a herb hot and dry in the third degree, as hyssop, a ridding of phlegm would theoretically ease such problems. Certainly Mattioli speaks of hyssop as helping those affected by phlegm in the brain and nerves, and the applied oil heals nerves (or sinews or tendons) afflicted by cold and strengthens them. Others speak similarly of this capacity in hyssop. Though the link with epilepsy may be tenuous, it is perhaps a way of looking at hyssop’s adjuvant action as calming to the nervous system.