Saturday 25 April 2015

Dentists Modern and Ancient

I look like the right-hand Scythian (4th century BC, from Crimea)
An arduous week at work was made worse by a nasty bout of toothache. This will be a short blog, written while waiting for the penicillin to kick in and stop whatever revolting things are happening in my upper left jaw. (Those who would enjoy a longer text, about love and transcendent beauty rather than decomposing molars, are invited to stop reading now and instead click on my article about translations of Sappho in this month’s New York Review of Books).

Martinez de Castrillo's Brief Colloquy
I have been mumbling some prayers from the right-hand side of my mouth to Apollonia, patron saint of dentistry, to ask for a speedy recovery. Here is one short enough to utter while suffering only two twinges. It appears in a book by a Spanish doctor called Francisco Martínez de Castrillo, first published in 1557:

Illustrious virgin martyr, Apollonia,
Pray to the Lord for us
Lest for our offences and sins we be punished
By diseases of the teeth.

The Passion of Poor Apollonia
Short but to the point. Apollonia wasn’t herself a dentist, but an elderly spinster who lived in Alexandria. She was also a Christian, apprehended by a mob during the persecutions which took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius (who was actually from Serbia) in 249 AD.

Poor Apollonia was tortured by having her teeth forcibly knocked out before she was burned to death. We know this from a letter from (1) an Alexandrian bishop to (2) a Syrian bishop quoted by (3) the Palestinian/Caesarean bishop Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 6.41.

Despite her violent demise, parts of St. Apollonia’s skull, jaws and teeth managed to escape from Egypt and are to be found in several ancient churches in Rome, Naples, Volterra, Bologna, Brussels, Antwerp, Cologne and even French-speaking Canada. If any of you are anywhere near one her relics, please put in a word for me.


  1. There is an old Persian saying Ilaj e dandañ / Ikraj e dandañ [Cure of tooth / Extraction of tooth]. I hope your tooth-oriented tribulations did not linger long. At least you can be glad when considering those less endowed such as the classical Urdu poet Mir who wrote towards the end of his life:

    And what should I say of the pain in my teeth - I was at my wits' end. How long could I go on treating them? Finally I resigned myself to it and had them all pulled out.

    (Mir Taqi Mir. Zikr e Mir. Translated by C. M. Naim. Oxford, 1999. 129).

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