Remember how alternative writers like Scott Wolter complain that peer review is a tool used by an academic conspiracy to suppress alternative views? Well, it turns out that it’s apparently much easier to get into academic journals that alternative writers think—if you’re willing to pay for it, and aren’t too picky about the particular journal involved. A Science magazine sting found that 157 out of 255 open-source science journals tested were willing to print an obviously fake cancer drug study so long as the authors ponied up fees of up to $3,100. With that kind of “peer review” surely ancient astronaut theorists and alternative historians could find some academic journal to publish their work for spurious credibility.
This brings me to the subject for today’s blog post, another case of an academic misusing Greek mythology in service of unconventional ideas. Today’s example arrived in my inbox this morning from a well-known Harvard-trained clinical psychiatrist who works at a major medical college and publishes widely in the popular press about “natural” mental health treatments, particularly those involving herbs.
In my first draft of this blog post, I didn’t use her name, but after learning that the FDA has forcibly removed forms of the “treatment” she advocates from store shelves due to unsupported claims (by others) of its ability to offer miracle cures for everything from anxiety to cancer, and she has published all of the claims she shared with me with a major publisher, I feel a responsibility to readers. Her name is Patricia L. Gerbarg, and her book is The Rhodiola Revolution (Norton, 2006), written with Richard P. Brown. In the book, the authors claim that Rhodiola rosea, an herb, can:
According to the FDA, these claims are unproven and cannot be used to advertise rhodiola in the United States. Nevertheless, it has been the subject of one-sided news reports, like this one from Fox News last year, that report only positive findings and leave out the lack of evidence for actual efficacy. Some people have forgone traditional medicine, including apparently cancer treatments, because of claims made for this herb, though not, I should note, specifically by Gerbarg.
This “miracle” herb is somehow tied to the power of ancient myth, which gives it a fictive history that the authors use to influence readers into believing in its power.
Gerbarg informed me that she had discovered the secret herb used by Medea to prepare a potion called the “Charm of Prometheus” after Georgian scientists (but of course) delivered a sample to her along with what she described as twenty-five years of Soviet research into this power of this herb, rhodiola. This material, I discovered, is the basis for Rhodiola Revolution.
In the book the two authors display a common ignorance of Greek mythology typical of those who use it uncritically in support of claims in other fields. They begin by claiming that the “oldest surviving version” of the Argonaut story was written by Apollonius of Rhodes, which is patently false. Even if we do not count the older versions that formed the basis of Apollodorus’ and Diodorus’ versions, Pindar wrote the oldest complete surviving account two centuries before Apollonius. The authors also have either conflated Pelias, king of Iolcus, and Peleus, father of Achilles, into a composite “Pelius,” or have transliterated his name in a non-standard way, or have confused Pelias with Mt. Pelion (Latin: Pelium).
Here is how Apollonius describes the Charm of Prometheus in Book III of the Argonautica:
Thereupon the handmaids were making ready the chariot; and Medea meanwhile took from the hollow casket a charm which men say is called the charm of Prometheus. If a man should anoint his body therewithal, having first appeased the Maiden, the only-begotten, with sacrifice by night, surely that man could not be wounded by the stroke of bronze nor would he flinch from blazing fire; but for that day he would prove superior both in prowess and in might. It shot up first-born when the ravening eagle on the rugged flanks of Caucasus let drip to the earth the blood-like ichor of tortured Prometheus. And its flower appeared a cubit above ground in colour like the Corycian crocus, rising on twin stalks; but in the earth the root was like newly-cut flesh. The dark juice of it, like the sap of a mountain-oak, she had gathered in a Caspian shell to make the charm withal, when she had first bathed in seven ever-flowing streams, and had called seven times on Brimo, nurse of youth, night-wandering Brimo, of the underworld, queen among the dead, -- in the gloom of night, clad in dusky garments. And beneath, the dark earth shook and bellowed when the Titanian root was cut; and the son of Iapetus himself groaned, his soul distraught with pain. (trans. R. C. Seaton)
The authors quote this passage not in Seaton’s translation, used above, but in Richard Hunter’s. Weirdly, though, the authors misunderstand their own copying and claim that the words are those of Valerius Flaccus, the Roman poet, not Apollonius. In case you’re interested, Valerius described it thusly in Book VII of his Argonautica:
Then she girds up her robe and takes forth a Caucasian herb, of potency sure beyond all others, sprung of the gore that dropped from the liver of Prometheus, and grass wind-nurtured, fostered and strengthened by that blood divine among snows and grisly frosts, when the vulture rises from his feasting on the flesh and from his open beak bedews the cliffs. That flower knows not the languor of a long term of life, but stands, immortally fresh, against the thunderbolt, and in the midst of lightnings its leaves are green. (trans. J. H. Mozley)
But Pindar is ignorant of such an herb, speaking only of “drugs and oil,” Diodorus knows only of “poison” for the dragon, and Apollodorus speaks only of “a drug.” Hyginus knows of no special charms or potions at all, save that given to the dragon. The Orphic poet, in the Orphic Argonautica, doesn’t give Medea any herbal power, but does have her deliver unnamed “herbs” to Orpheus for magical purposes. The powerful herbs surrounding the Golden Fleece include “asphodel, beautiful maidenhair, rushes, galingale, delicate verbena, sage, hedge-mustard, purple honeysuckle, healing cassidony, flourishing field basil, mandrake, hulwort; in addition fluffy dittany, fragrant saffron, nose-smart; and also lion-foot, greenbrier, camomile, black poppy, alcua, all-heal, white hellebore, aconite, and other noxious plants which are born from the earth.” Translating all of that from the Greek was a pain in the neck; I’d never heard of half of them.
In the earliest Jason stories, as evidenced from Greek vase paintings, Jason, not Medea, had healing power (hence his name, which means healer in Greek), and in Greece, not Colchis.
I say this only by way of offering that Apollonius and Valerius (dependent on Apollonius) are the only authors that speak specifically of this flower, which Gerbarg claims can “only” be the rhodiola, for “it conforms in every detail with the herb we now call Rhodiola rosea. No other plant growing in the Caucasus Mountains even comes close to a match.” The authors then claim that the herb’s wondrous properties must have been known to the Greeks, for in myth it gives Jason “indomitable strength.” (The potion really shielded him from the flames of the brazen bulls’ breath.)
I won’t belabor this point too much. Rhodiola rosea is a small plant of 5-35 cm (2-13 inches) with tiny yellow flowers, though an orange or red variety apparently also exists. Apollonius describes his mythical herb as being the color of the Corcyran crocus, the flower that yields saffron. This crocus may come in many colors, but the specific species from which the Greeks extracted saffron (as we do today) is Crocus sativus, which is a deep shade of purple with flaming red stigmas. Wild saffron was also collected by the Greeks, from the ancestral species Crocus cartwrightianus, which also has purple flowers, though a pure white version has been grown as a cultivar. The long and short of it is that purple was associated with the color of spilled blood, and Apollonius was trying to say that the magic herb had been stained with Prometheus’ blood.
The authors have confused saffron, which is yellow, with the flower from which it comes, which is purple.
Further, Rhodiola rosea, at its largest, is at least 5 inches smaller than Apollonius’ magic herb. Apollonius’ herb is a cubit (18 inches / 46 cm) tall, while Rhodiola rosea maxes out around 13 inches (35 cm), according to standard botanical sources. However, the authors claim that the plant grows 24 inches tall, while still others put its height at 30 inches. I think the last is a mistake for 30 centimeters, but I don’t know for sure. I have been unable to find any photographic or scientific proof of Rhodiola rosea growing above 13 inches in the wild.
Apollonius’ magic herb has sap-like juice in its flesh-like roots, but Rhodiola rosea does not have juicy roots. (In fact, modern “wellness” specialists powder it.) How much you think the pure white roots visually resemble flesh is a matter of opinion, but the roots are not noticeably more flesh-like in texture than similar plants. The authors claim that Rhodiola rosea emits a dark sap, but I have not been able to find a botanical source to confirm this (photographs of the roots show them dry and carrot-like); instead, I can only find that its rose-scented roots (hence the plant’s name) had been used to distill the first Oil of Rhodium, a fragrant oil used in perfume and cooking.
Suddenly they don’t seem so much alike.
In fact, Rhodiola rosea is more commonly found in Russia and Asia than it is in Colchis. The plant supposedly grows wild here in New York and also New England, and it seems like I’ve seen it around somewhere. I’ll have to go look sometime and see what its roots really do.
For the Greeks, flowers that spring up from spilled blood (or technically ichor in this case) were symbolic, not literal, manifestations of the connection between the power of conception and the mystery of death. Thus Hades and Persephone carry a flowering herb in the Underworld, symbolic of new life born from death.
For 2,000 years, scholars have pored over the texts of Greek epic poems. Poets and healers have searched for clues to the identity of the mysterious Charm of Prometheus. No one ever guessed that the source of the charm was none other than the ancient herb Rhodiola rosea.
As we’ve seen from other Greek writers, no one—not even Valerius Flaccus—was interested in anything called the “Charm of Prometheus,” and few ever considered Apollonius’ flower anything but a whim of poetic fancy. The Greeks knew what Rhodiola rosea was, and Apollonius would have named it if he were referring to it.
The authors, sadly, have fallen in to the fallacy of mythic literalism, believing that just because a myth says something it must have a basis in fact. The actual fact is that Apollonius had a great deal of difficulty marrying the epic tradition about the Argonauts—based as it was in the fantasy land of the Sun’s nighttime kingdom—with the wet, swampy reality of Colchis as it was in Greek times. That trouble shows through in the Argonautica, and Apollonius did not fully resolve it. The original Jason story did not take place in Colchis, which only enters the myth after 700 BCE, and Georgian nationalists have consistently been driving a multipronged, multidisciplinary effort to rewrite the story in the image of their country to make Georgia the font of Greek myth and thus Western civilization.
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