previous next


The repute of Melampus, as being highly skilled in the arts of divination, is universally known. This personage has given a name to one species of hellebore, known as the "Melampodion." Some persons, however, attribute the discovery of this plant to a shepherd of that name, who remarked that his she-goats were violently purged after browsing upon it, and afterwards cured the daughters of Prœtus of madness, by, giving them the milk of these goats. It will be the best plan, therefore, to take this opportunity of treating of the several varieties of hellebore. The two principal kinds are the white1 and the black;2 though, according to most authorities, this difference exists in the root only. There are some authors, however, who assure us that the leaves of the black hellebore are similar to those of the plane-tree, only darker, more diminutive, and more jagged at the edges: and who say, that the white hellebore has leaves like those of beet when first shooting, though at the same time of a more swarthy colour, with reddish veins on the under side. The stem, in both kinds, is ferulaceous, a palm3 in height, and covered with coats like those of the bulbs, the root, too, being fibrous like that of the onion.4

The black hellebore kills horses, oxen, and swine; hence it is that those animals avoid it, while they eat the white5 kind. The proper time, thay say, for gathering this last, is harvest. It grows upon Mount Œta in great abundance; and the best of all is that found upon one spot on that mountain, in the vicinity of Pyra. The black hellebore is found growing every- where, but the best is that of Mount Helicon; which is also equally celebrated for the qualities of its other plants. The white hellebore of Mount Œta is the most highly esteemed, that of Pontus occupying the second place, and the produce of Elea the third; which last, it is generally said, grows in the vineyards there. The fourth rank is held by the white hellebore of Mount Parnassus, though it is often adulterated with that of the neighbouring districts of Ætolia.

Of these kinds it is the black hellebore that is known as the "melampodium:" it is used in fumigations, and for the purpose of purifying houses; cattle, too, are sprinkled with it, a certain form of prayer being repeated. This last plant, too, is gathered with more numerous ceremonies than the other: a circle is first traced around it with a sword, after which, the person about to cut it turns towards the East, and offers up a prayer, entreating permission of the gods to do so. At the same time he observes whether an eagle is in sight—for mostly while the plant is being gathered that bird is near at hand—and if one should chance to fly close at hand, it is looked upon as a presage that he will die within the year. The white hellebore, too, is gathered not without difficulty, as it is very oppressive to the Head; more particularly if the precaution has not been used of eating garlic first, and of drinking wine every now and then, care being taken to dig up the plant as speedily as possible.

Some persons call the black hellebore "ectomon,"6 and others "polyrrhizon:" it purges7 by stool, while the white hellebore acts as an emetic, and so carries off what might other- wise have given rise to disease. In former days hellebore was regarded with horror, but more recently the use8 of it has become so familiar, that numbers of studious men are in the habit of taking it for the purpose of sharpening the intellectual powers required by their literary investigations. Carneades, for instance, made use of hellebore when about to answer the treatises of Zeno; Drusus9 too, among us, the most famous of all the tribunes of the people, and whom in particular the public, rising from their seats, greeted with loud applause-to whom also the patricians imputed the Marsic war-is well known to have been cured of epilepsy in the island of Anti- cyra;10 a place at which it is taken with more safety than else- where, from the fact of sesamoïdes being combined with it, as already11 stated. In Italy the name given to it is "veratrum."

These kinds of hellebore, reduced to powder and taken alone, or else in combination with radicula, a plant used, as already mentioned,12 for washing wool, act as a sternutatory, and are both of them productive of narcotic effects. The thinnest and shortest roots are selected, and among them the lower parts in particular, which have all the appearance of having been cut short;13 for, is to the upper part, which is the thickest, and bears a resemblance to an onion, it is given to dogs only, as a purgative. The ancients used to select those roots the rind of which was the most fleshy, from an idea that the pith extracted there from was of a more refined14 nature. This substance they covered with wet sponges, and, when it began to swell, used to split it longitudinally with a needle; which done, the fila- ments were dried in the shade, for future use. At the present day, however, the fibres15 of the root with the thickest rind are selected, and given to the patient just as they are. The best hellebore is that which has an acrid, burning taste, and when broken, emits a sort of dust. It retains its efficacy, they say, so long as thirty years.

1 Identified by Fée with the Veratrum album and Veratrum nigrum of Linnæus, species between which there is little difference.

2 Identified by Tournefort with the Helleborus niger of Lamarck. Littré mentions the Helleborus orientalis of Linnæus.

3 The stem of white hellebore is much longer than this.

4 This comparison with the onion, Fée says, is altogether inexact.

5 If he would imply that they do this without inconvenience, the state- ment, Fée says, is incorrect.

6 "Cut off," and "With many roots."

7 Hellebore is no longer used, except in veterinary medicine.

8 Petronius Arbiter says that the philosopher Chrysippus used it.

9 M. Livius Drusus. See B. xxviii. c. 42, and B. xxxiii. c. 6.

10 Anticyra in Procis was a peninsula, not an island.

11 In B. xxii. c. 61.

12 In B. xix. c. 18.

13 Hence the Greek name "ectomon."

14 "Tenuior."

15 This is the meaning assigned by Hardonin to the word "ramuilos." Holland render it "small shoots" or "slips," and He is probably right.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Latin (Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff, 1906)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (1):
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: