Pandemic Diary Entry Number 41

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May 18, 2020

There is so much that comes out of a crisis such as this, and much of it will be turned into future books. Topics will be varied with subjects such as coping, togetherness, and Isolationism, but this isn’t any of that.

Starting with Words

In a previous post I gave the etymology of Quarantine. To refresh: quarantine comes from the Italian word for forty, quaranta. It derives from the Venetian policy of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting outside its port for 40 days to assure no latent cases were aboard.

Adding to this word salad is Flu a shortening of influenza. Italian influenza is from Medieval Latin influentia in the astrological sense. And used in Italian for diseases at least since 1504 with the assumption that disease came from astral, occult, or atmospheric influence.

Then there is plague. This comes from the Latin word plaga, meaning “stroke” or “wound.” This was specific to the Bubonic Plague, where the Bubonic came from the characteristic swellings (or buboes).

Another iteration of plague is pestilence, which derives from Latin pestis meaning deadly disease or plague, also where we get the word pest.

The word epidemic arose from plagues of the 17th century. This from Greek epi “upon” and demos “people.”We arrive at pandemic by simply adding pan, also from Greek, which means all.

Virus comes from Latin, meaning “poison” and was first use to describe snake venom.

We are in high hopes of a vaccine (from the Latin vacca “cow”) coined when smallpox was cured (by an injection of the milder cow pox virus). Hope of the community is that we develop immunity. Immunity has a few foreign language beginnings, but the gist is “exemption from service or obligation.” We can find this root in Old French immunité and directly from Latin immunitatem

A vaccince can also be called an inoculation. This began as a horticultural term describing the grafting of a bud into a plant: from Latin oculus, meaning “bud” as well as “eye” (as in binoculars “having two eyes”).

And where I sit now Self-isolation, first recorded in the 1830s comes from isolate, which is derived from Latin insulatus “insulated” and from insula “island.”

Reasons to Drink (or not)

Plague waters.

Plague waters represent a variety of medicinal waters with the supposed effect of beating the plague. They were usually a distilled beverage filled with herbs and roots.

A recipe from England in the 17th century The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kt.

Take a pound of Rue, of Rosemary, Sage, Sorrel, Celandine, Mugwort, of the tops of red Brambles, of Pimpernel, Wild-draggons, Arimony, Balm, Angelica, of each a pound. Put these Compounds in a pot, fill it with White-wine above the herbs, so let it stand four days. Then still it for your use in a Limbeck.

Then there was Dr. Burges’s recipe for plague water found in Mary Granville’s book of recipes (1641), in Lady Katherine Ranelagh’s receipt book (17th century), in Charlotte Johnstone, Dowager Marchioness of Annandale’s receipt book (c.1725), and in Eliza Smith’s published The Compleat Housewife (1741).

Eliza Smiths recipe called for: 3 pints muscadine, a handful of rue, a handful of sage, 2 pennyworth long pepper, 1/2 oz ginger, 1/2 oz nutmeg, 1/4 oz mithridate, 1/4 oz Venice treacle, 1/4 pint angelica water, 1 oz of angelica root (wild celery), 1 oz zedoary root (white turmeric) and 1/2 oz of Virginia snake-root.

I didn’t have any idea what many of those ingredients were either, so here is what I found. Muscadine was a sweet wine from both France and Italy during the 17th century made from muscat or similar grapes, (Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England.)

Mithridate has a fascinating etymology. Mithridates the Great was the tyrannical king of Pontus who tried to off himself. Supposedly, his suicide was unsuccessful because he had made himself immune to poison by taking small doses of it since childhood in an attempt to avoid the fate of assassination by poison.

Mithridate, as found in the recipe, was one of the most complex and highly sought-after preparations during the Middle Ages and Renaissance era. The tonic contained over 60 ingredients and was used in France and Italy for centuries. The term now refers to an all-purpose antidote to poison.

Venice treacle is also known as Theriac. This, along with Mithridate, were regarded as universal panaceas in their time.

It took a while to figure out how they made both of these concoctions, which is complicated, so bear with me.

Andromachus was Nero’s physician, and he created a formula derived from Mithridatium. It is said that Andromachus removed some ingredients from Mithridates’ formulation and added others, particularly viper’s flesh. He named this product Galene (tranquility), which eventually became known as Theriac. Apparently, Mithridatium contained 41 ingredients and Galene (Theriac) 55.

Making Galene was easier because he didn’t use pesky amounts that we call fractions. You simply put four cut-up vipers in a solution of about one gallon of sal ammoniac, and then add nine specified herbs (see next paragraph) add Attic wine (?) and five chopped up fresh squills (lilly type plants). You place it all into a clay pot, put on the lid, and put it over the fire. Cook until the vipers are done, cool for one day and one night, and then pound into a powder. Let sit for 10 days.

The herbs included 24 drachms (dram) each of hedychium, long pepper and poppy juice (opium); 12 drachms each of eight herbs including cinnamon and opobalsam; 6 drachms each of 18 herbs including myrrh, black and white pepper and turpentine resin; 22 others herbs and then 4 drachms each of Lemnian earth and roasted copper; 150 drachms each of bitumen and castoreum (the secretion of beaver) and honey; and 80 drachms of vetch meal.

Shelf life — twelve years.

I gather that Mithridatium was similar but contained fewer ingredients and no viper, but it did contain lizard. The opium content of Theriac was higher than that of Mithridatum, and Mithridatum did not contain Lemnian earth, copper, or bitumen and had 14 fewer herbal ingredients.

Fine Dining

Then there was the food thought to ward off the plague: mint jelly, vinegar, mustard, apple sauce, arsenic, laxatives, urine, fever few potion (wild chamomile), crushed minerals such as diamonds and emeralds, metallic salts, treacle, and my favorite, unicorn horns. There was also the wise cure of good friends, good drink, and good food.

Today’s Magical Potions

While I have spent a goodly portion of my Pandemic Diary shouting from the rooftops for science over magical thinking, myth and superstition still prevail.

In Sri Lanka today, it is said that wearing white, and only white, handkerchiefs will protect you from Covid-19.

In the Phillipines, you can cure the virus with volcanic ash.

In France some are advocating cocaine, in China it is saltwater and in India cow dung and urine (hmmmm history repeats).

In Iran, a much-disputed cleric, Abbas Tabrizian, described by his supporters as “the father of Islamic medicine of Iran, has said that brushing one’s hair, eating onions, and putting violet flower oil onto one’s anus at night would keep the virus away. Sadly Meanwhile, over 700 Iranians have died from what they thought would be a cure, drinking methanol.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has told his citizens that vodka and saunas will keep them safe from COVID-19. While not a cure, not a bad idea for anything that ails you.

Then in the United States, you have people carrying weapons. OK, I don’t get it either. I understand their fear and anger but the fact that they are carrying guns totally freaks me out, but, maybe one needs to look at them as talismans born of myth.

During the Boxer Rebellion, Westerners referred to the Chinese rebels as Boxers because they performed physical exercises they believed would make them able to withstand bullets, and then took a boxer stance going into battle (the rebel death rate was staggering).

During the Maji Maji Rebellion, the Tanzanians were told by a spirit medium that there was a “war medicine” that would turn German bullets into water. The number of men mowed down by machine guns was gut-wrenching.

We will Mourn You

For those that decide to ignore science and loose to Covid-19, we will lay you to rest with celebratory funereal food.

These foods might include fried chicken in the south, funeral potatoes in Idaho, or Lau Lau in Hawaii. In Ireland, there is actually a thing called Wake Cake and in Mexico, Pan de Muertes (bread of the dead).

Japanese Buddhists have a lovely food-centric ritual. One custom is to shape a cucumber into a horse; this is known as kyuri uma. Families leave these on the graves of their loved one to help them return to the afterlife when the memorial festival, Obon, ends.

In Persia, you will find people making and sharing funeral halva. It often contains rose water, which is also used to wash the fresh graves of the newly deceased.

For the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, there is koliva. Koliva is made of wheat, a symbol of both death and everlasting life. Think Death holding a scythe, symbolically reaping souls like wheat. Christians believe that wheat represents eternal life as fallen grain regenerates.

In Jamaica, the wake is known as the Nine Nights. The goal is to encourage the deceased’s spirit, known as a “duppy,” to depart. If the duppy doesn’t leave, it will stay in limbo and become an angry spirit that haunts the living. The Jamaican’s celebrate with a soup called Mannish Water. Like all recipes they vary from house to house, Mannish Water generally uses a base of a male goat’s head, entrails, and testicles mixed in a broth of carrots, potatoes, and green bananas. Most cooks add a little white rum (it is Jamaica after all) and habanero peppers.

In Kyrgyzstan, fried balls of dough called borsok hold court. The preparation and eating of borsok is meant to honor and “feed” the deceased. Some believe that as women fry the borsok, the smoke carries the cooks’ prayers to heaven and appeases the spirits of the dead. According to the BBC, the name for the ritual of cooking and consuming borsok, jyt chygaruu, even means “releasing the smell.”

I do not know how much longer we will be wearing masks, social distancing, and sporadically Sheltering in Place, but the way we will get through this is to respect each other, show compassion, and use common sense based on a foundation of science. Magical thinking, while possibly making you feel more powerful, will not keep you safe.

Trivial Things

My Horoscope for today: You learn about yourself by being with others. It isn’t always easy facing the music, but don’t walk away from an emotionally charged situation. It’s meant to be eye-opening.

San Francisco weather: 60 degrees with some clouds

NYSE DOW opened at: 24059

NYSE DOW one year ago: 25764

Foreign word of the day: vacillate

Spanish: vacilar

Italian: titubare

OED word of the day: pickthank (A person who curries favor with another, esp. by informing against someone else; a flatterer, a sycophant; a telltale)

Days under Shelter In Place: 63

Reading: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Studying Dante’s Paradiso

Something Special: Juliard students and Bolero

My Black and White Picture of the Day

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Something Silly From the Internet:

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