Recipes for beauty were commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean and among the most comprehensive sources for cosmeceutical blends was Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae – 100 lines of which remain extant. When I translated the lines for my recent book, Ovid on Cosmetics (Bloomsbury 2016), I approached the task by taking the embedded lists of creams and treatments as recipes, and discussed the ingredients of each one and the methods of preparation. In this podcast, I discuss two of the five recipes in the Medicamina with a focus on the ingredients and their properties for beautifying and preserving the skin.
As it proved to be too ambitious to discuss all five recipes in the Medicamina, I limited the podcast to recipes one and two, but have listed recipe number three below. The excerpt below is at lines 77-82 (please note: the template used did not accommodate indentation, so the elegiac couplets could not be printed as such).
Additional treatments taken from the querulous nest of birds
put to flight blotches from the face; they call it alcyonea.
If you were to ask about a weight that would satisfy me, concerning these
it is that which an uncia, divided into two portions, weighs.
That they may combine and be smeared easily over the body,
add Attic honey from golden honeycombs.
Lines 77-82 - Recipe 3:
0.5 oz. (14 g) of halcyonea
Step i: Mix the ingredients
Step ii: Apply to the face (if there are spots) and / or to the body
Pliny (Natural History 32.86-87) writes the following on the mysterious ingredient, alcyoneum:
Alcyoneum is found in the sea, from the nests of the alcyon and the ceyx, as some suggest; from the refuse from the congealing of sea-foam, as others suggest;from the slime or, so to speak, ‘fluff’ of the sea, as others suggest. There are four kinds of it: similar to ashes, dense,of a pungent smell; another soft, milder in smell and like seaweed; the third like a whitish worm; the fourth like pumice, resembling rotting sponge. The best is almost purple; this is also called Milesian, while the whiter it is, the less valuable. Their property is to ulcerate and to cleanse when used. It is dried and applied without oil. With lupins and two oboli of sulphur it will miraculously remove leprous sores, lumps and freckles. Alcyoneum is also used for scars on the eyes.
Dioscorides (De Materia Medica 5118) writes the following on the same ingredient:
One must know, in fact, there are five types of alcyoneum. One is thick, sponge-like in shape and dense; it also stinks, smelling of fish; it is found in the largest quantities on the seashore. The next is similar in shape to a membrane from the eye’s inner-corner or a sponge; it is light and porous and emits a seaweed-like smell. The third is in the shape of a worm, in fact, and coloured like red dye, which some call Milesian. The fourth is like greasy wool, very porous and light. The fifth is like a mushroom in shape; it is without smell, jagged inside, like pumice, but on the outside it is smooth and sharp; much of it is to be found in Propontis around the island called Besbicos, where the locals call it sea-foam. Of these, the first and the second are used as cleansers for women, and for spots on the body, lichen-like eruptions on the skin, leprosies, dull-white leprosies, black spots, blemishes on the face and the rest of the body The third is suitable for those with difficult urination and for those with kidney disease who collect gravelly substances in their bladders, for those with fluid retention, and for the spleen. Burned and applied with wine, it treats bald spots. The last has the capacity to whiten teeth and is also used for other cleansers and depilatories when mixed with salt. If you wish to burn any of this, place it into an unbaked clay pot and, having luted the mouth of the pot with clay, put it into an oven. When it is heated; remove it, store and use. It is washed like calamine.
Both Pliny and Dioscorides describe the substance as coming from, or as associated with, the sea. Both list categories that overlap, indicative of a common source, most likely Sextius Niger (Scarborough, in Keyser and Irby-Massie, below). The most commonly accepted identification is with various types of ‘bastard’ corals (zoophytes); cf. the entry on ‘alkuoneion’ in Paul T. Keyser and Georgia L. Irby-Massie (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists (London: Routledge, 2008).
The use of soft corals in pharmaceuticals and cosmeceuticals is increasing in line with research that has proven, for example, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of various species. The ancients were aware of the cleansing qualities of alcyonea (cf. the Greek Medical Papyri, cf. Hanson on the illustrated ‘Herbal’ from Tebtunis). Pliny mentions that the product is subject to a drying process and Dioscorides notes that it could be heated and then stored for future use (the incineration process producing ammonium carbonate). Hanson, Ann Ellis (2009) ‘A Receptarium from Tebtunis’ in I. Andorlini (ed.) Greek Medical Papyri II (Firenze: Istituto Papirologico ‘G. Vitelli’). 71–103.