The Brothers Menaechmus

The Brothers Menaechmus Hellebore

When Menaechmus (I or II) is suspected of insanity, the Doctor proposes the insane man be treated with hellebore, which was a common treatment for that affliction in ancient Greece. We will look further into this plant, considered one of the four classic poisons.

The hellebore is a low-lying plant with dark, shiny leaves and white flowers. They are native to southern and central Europe, are mostly found on mountains and in stony clay soils, and grow best in the shade. There are many varieties but the Greeks primarily used black hellebore, also called Helleborus Officinalis or the “Christmas Rose.” Its name directly refers to its poisonous quality: helein is “to kill” and bora is “food.” Ingesting this plant can cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of tongue and throat, and slowing of the heart rate until death results. If its juice comes into contact with the skin, it will burn the eyes and irritate the skin.

The first written account of hellebore’s use was 1400 BCE when it was used as a purgative for the mind. Scholar Jeffrey Hurst also explains how it was used as an abortifacient and an emmenagogue: “Dioscorides mentioned it as a component of abortion wine along with other botanicals but the exact make-up was not given. Hippocrates in Diseases of Women describes a drink made of black hellebore, myrrh, spikenard, pine resin and saltpeter and compares the symptoms of hysterical suffocation to those caused by a dose of hellebore (Diseases of Women 2.126, 123), while Macer's herbal mentions it in a list of abortifacient and emmenagogues.”

According to Patheos, “During antiquity in ancient Greece, Hellebore was called Melampodium, after the physician and soothsayer Melampus who used it to cure king Argos’ daughter of madness induced by maenads. These women were the much-feared worshippers of Dionysus who were known for their ecstatic frenzies they would achieve during worship. Whether she was actually mad, or just an independent woman worshipping with others like her is unknown.” Other stories include that of Heracles being cured with hellebore when a fit of madness caused him to kill his children by Megara, and hellebore being used by the Greeks during the Siege of Kirrha by putting it into the city’s water supply to weaken the defenders.