Friday 19 December 2014

Hubris and Hippocratic Healing

Mind the fat blister
I learned a very Greek lesson this week. I was happy on Monday* and boasted so to the world. I bought a leg of lamb to celebrate. On Wednesday at 1704 pm I checked on its progress in the oven. From a blister on its skin, a jet of scalding lamb fat spurted down the left side of my face. There ensued an evening in Casualty. Happiness evanesced. Hubris was punished.

The NHS treatment was ice-cold compresses and vaseline to keep the air away from exposed nerves. It still hurt. It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks must have suffered innumerable cooking accidents, since they roasted joints over open flames and offered smoke emitted by sizzling fat to the gods.  So I got out Guido Majno’s The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (1975) to look for remedies.

"A Nile between my thighs"
An ancient Egyptian would have applied gum mixed with hairs from a ram, then intoned a charm over the breast-milk of a new mother of a son. The incantation is put in the mouth of Horus’ mother Isis when she heard her son had suffered burns: “Water is in my mouth, a Nile is between my thighs, I have come to put out the fire. Flow out, burn!”

If this means what I think it means I would have preferred to be treated by one of the Greek Hippocrates’ disciples. They knew the importance of sterile conditions to counter septicaemia in burns, and that burns victims became dehydrated. The Hippocratics gave them plenty to drink, and swilled their injuries with cool seawater (the salt prevented infection). In their textbook on ulcers they learned about ointments made of fat, oil and wax spread on clean cloth, like the vaseline gauzes which burn doctors use today.

But prevention is better than cure. From now on I will always wrap joints of meat in foil, and to hell with the crispy finish. The Father of My Children, to prevent me going anywhere near an oven, has booked us a pub lunch on Christmas Day. I may even go vegetarian again (last time was after being offered kangaroo stew in Australia). Quite a few of you out there will be roasting fauna over the next few days, so as I sport (I hope only temporarily) my Phantom of the Opera look, my heartfelt holiday message is simply this: COOK, BEWARE: Caveat coquus.**

*Because (1) two of my wonderful PhD students, Helen Eastman and Matt Shipton, had passed their vivas with flying colours; (2) the best Classics & Class film yet, Henry Stead’s brilliant mini-feature starring Sara Monoson on radical Aesop, was posted on the project website.
** Or, as Herodotus might have said, "Call no woman happy until the roast is safely on the table".

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