Paeony: Convulsions And Nightmares

Following its general ‘cleansing’ role and its specific use in menstruation, paeony has a more extraordinary application in the literature for nightmares and potential use in epilepsy. The name comes from a powerful god and suggests a deeper meaning to the herb. Paeon, an ancient god of healing, is famous for healing the wounds of the gods themselves when they foolishly become embroiled in the world of humans. When the gods took to the field in the Trojan war, he healed Ares, god of war, wounded fighting on the side of the Trojans. He gave Ares ‘such sovereign medicines that as soon the pain was qualified … as fast as rennet curdles milk’ and the sides of the wound were reunited. Paeon used herbs to heal. In fact Macurdy (1912) argues that the word is associated with the Paioniae tribal group of northern Greece, who were designated herb-gatherers as they were from the north.

Both Dioscorides and Pliny refer to the familiar 15 black seeds. Dioscorides says simply for ‘those who gasp from nightmares,’ expressed by Turner as ‘against the strangling of the nightmare’. Pliny, for the seeds taken in wine, has a more fanciful expression ‘this plant also prevents the mocking delusions that the Fauns bring on us in our sleep’. The paeony growing on mountains, he says, was the first plant to be discovered by Paeon. Given the difficulty in interpreting the terms for diseases which were not described by our authors but have now fallen out of use, it is interesting that nightmares were considered to need description by a number of authors in this context. Dodoens describes the ‘Night Mare’ as, ‘a disease wherein men seem to be oppressed in the night, as with some great burden and sometimes to be overcome with their enemies’. Parkinson reckons the powdered seed to be taken twice a day for nightmares, ‘a suppressing both of voice and breath, and oppressing the body as it were, with some heavy burden, striving to be eased thereof, but seeming not to be able to call for help’. Fuchs refers to a high dose of 4 drachms (16 g) for ‘the evil of the mind’. Dodoens adds a recommendation that it is ‘good against melancholic dreams’ and Parkinson, followed by Culpeper, advises paeony for melancholic people, who are more subject to nightmares than others, and for melancholic dreams. Ibn Sina gives the dose as 900 mg in honey water in this context. Gerard dwells at length on the question of one of the names given by Pliny, ‘aglaophotis’, which he says refers to the shiny seeds which make the plant visible at night so that it can be gathered then by shepherds. Apuleius also states that paeony is found mostly by shepherds in a far off place and the seeds are like a little lamp at night if the moon is bright. Pliny refers to collection at night lest the woodpecker of Mars attack the eye of the collector so as to protect the plant. The woodpecker was a bird of Roman augury so this may have had a more symbolic meaning. This tale is repeated from Pliny in the French version of Mattioli with the comment that the passage is invention and perhaps incorrectly transcribed. Gerard summarily dismisses the story as one of the fanciful tales of the ancients and assures us that paeony may be picked at any time of day or night. To conclude, root of paeony could be used for nightmares.

Quincy includes paeony with cardiacs and cephalics under nervous simples and considers it a good cephalic, while the flower is useful in all nervous distempers and convulsions in children. He acknowledges that the root has a broad action as an aperient and is therefore diuretic, detergent and alexipharmic and therefore included in the College Plague Water.

Paeony has a tradition for use in convulsions. Beginning with Galen, the external use of root and seeds is recommended in epilepsy. The term ‘epilepsy” or the ‘falling sickness’ can be interpreted in various ways and maybe the term seizure is more useful. However, accounts were given of seizures which were recognized as separate from the convulsions associated with fever and seizures were carefully described in ancient Mesopotamia. Apuleius gives us the somewhat mysterious statement ‘lie the lunatic down and place the herb on him, he will immediately get up healed’. Hildegard makes a similar claim. ‘If the person goes out of his mind, as if he knows nothing and is lying deranged in ecstasy, dip the seed of the paeony in honey and put it on his tongue. The powers of the peony will ascend to the brain and stir it up, so that he will quickly return to his own mind and receive his understanding’. The Salernitan herbal quotes Galen as saying that it helps epilepsy if worn around the neck. Macer recommends the root in wine but agrees that the root hung about a person’s neck ‘will save him without doubt in 15 days’. Turner gives the original discussion by Galen of the use of root of paeony hung round the neck of children to prevent ‘the falling-sickness’. Galen describes how a boy ‘did not fall into the sickness’ for 8 months until the paeony root fell off and he was ill again. Galen then carried out an experiment by removing the root. The boy was immediately ill again so Galen replaced it with a large piece of root, after which the boy had no more of the problem. Fuchs and Bauhin also give this account but it is Turner who goes on to say that he himself tried the experiment on two children, one in London and one at Syon House, the home of his patron Lord Somerset. Turner found it effective in children. Dodoens too refers to use of the root especially in children. Wood writes that ‘several of my students have verified this usage with children, adults and even dogs’.

This example serves to highlight problems with translation and thus safe usage.

Other authors emphasize use of paeony root as a medicine. According to Turner, Galen ascribes the effectiveness of paeony to its drying power. Fuchs describes it as fiercely drying. Bauhin perceives the action of paeony as to disperse and consume the phlegm humour, which causes the collapse of the palate of the mouth. The idea has been cast aside that phlegm, the cold and moist humour, rises and accumulates in the brain, eventually disturbing the physiological balance and causing convulsions. Bauhin describes paeony as heating and drying and gives a dose of 2 drachms (8 g) in white wine for use in epilepsy. He further recommends the distilled water of the finely cut root taken in the morning before breaking fast. He points out the variable effectiveness of paeony because the disease may occur in different strengths and the herb will vary depending on where it was grown. Parkinson quotes Mattioli as wondering whether this is the same paeony as Galen used as it has not lived up to its powerful reputation. Parkinson, whose text is used by Culpeper, says he has not found it useful but has used it in older people with epilepsy. He gives a recipe, ‘clean fresh male root, pound and infuse in Madeira or fortified wine for at least 24 hours, and take morning and night for a number of days before and after full moon’. He recommends taking paeony in a posset, a hot drink with milk and ale, with betony Stachys officinalis.

The recommendation of use hung about the neck reappears with Miller who gives the recommendation of root or seed used in this manner for convulsions during teething in infants. Quincy says the necklace is much esteemed by ‘good women’ for this purpose. Serapio explains this procedure works because, according to Abraham, the son of Solomon the Israelite, the fumigation cures epilepsy. In the version given by Mattioli, Galen argues that either ‘certain parts flowing from the root and then attracted through inspiration, thus tend to the affected places, or the air from the root [is] changed and altered constantly’. We can agree with Galen, Serapio and Fuchs in looking for a rational explanation of this procedure. As Fuchs observes, the odour of fresh paeony root is characteristic and quite strong. However, unexplained diseases or events attract inexplicable remedies, in this case the use of paeony as an amulet. Use of an amulet in seizures was advocated by lohn of Gaddesden in the 14th century when he said ‘this species of devil is not cast out save by prayer and fasting. The patient should then write out this gospel and wear it about his neck and he will be cured’. The envious gaze or evil eye is invoked as the cause of inexplicable disease especially in young children. This practice continues today with the current widespread usage of blue and white beads as amulets to protect from the evil eye in modern day Turkey. The shiny seeds of paeony might be threaded as a necklace but this cannot be advocated because the rational fear of infants eating seeds overrides any other considerations. Hippocrates would not have agreed with the use of amulets as he argued that that ‘those using the divinity as a pretext and screen of their own inability to afford any assistance have given out that the disease is sacred’.

Control of seizures remains a challenge and this is a condition where it would be valuable if herbal practitioners were able to work alongside medical practitioners as it may be that paeony could have an adjunc-tive role in epilepsy. It is noteworthy that paeony is used in traditional Chinese medicine in epilepsy alongside orthodox treatments but clinical trials were considered to be of poor methodology. Investigating the safety profile of paeony, a study carried out in rats found that the absorption of phenytoin was slowed. Whereas another study by the same team found no interaction between paeony and valproic acid in a crossover study on six volunteers.