Silphion/Silphium, reportedly Rediscovered

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Silphion/Silphium, reportedly Rediscovered

Post by billd89 » ... iscovered/
Peter Kirby wrote: Fri Apr 24, 2015 9:19 pm ...
(4) 'Cyrenean' (Κυρηναῖον) // A Plant Stalk (Famous Association) // 'Hyssop' (ὕσσωπον)

This item is one of the three things thrown into the burning sacrifice of the heifer, and thus we are interested to know if we can identify all three. ...

Pliny the Elder, in the first century, writes about this plant extensively (chapter 15 sometimes titled 'Laserpitium, Laser, and Maspetum' and chapter 49 sometimes titled 'Laser: Thirty-Nine Remedies'). Pliny introduces it by saying, "Next to these, laserpitium claims our notice, a very remarkable plant, known to the Greeks by the name of 'silphion,' and originally a native of the province of Cyrenaica." It is described as being held in vaults and worth its weight in silver. Its fame can only have increased in the latter half of the first century, due to the difficulty of finding any, as Pliny mentions:
For these many years past, however, it has not been found in Cyrenaica, as the farmers of the revenue who hold the lands there on lease, have a notion that it is more profitable to depasture flocks of sheep upon them. Within the memory of the present generation, a single stalk is all that has ever been found there, and that was sent as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero.
(As to this 'notion', which is here credited with the disappearance of the plant in Cyrenaica, Pliny writes, "They used to feed the cattle there upon it; at first it purged them, but afterwards they would grow fat, the flesh being improved in flavour in a most surprising degree.")

It can be asked how strong the association is between Cyrene and the laserpitium (Latin) or silphion (Greek) plant found there. And it can be answered that it is an association of the very highest degree, which anyone back then can be expected to know. The Wikipedia entry Silphium reads:
It was the essential item of trade from the ancient North African city of Cyrene, and was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins bore a picture of the plant.
Here is an example of such a Cyrenian coin.


“Silphium, or silphion, is an extinct plant which was similar to fennel or celery, and had a heart-shaped fruit known as a phyllon. The Greeks believed the plant was a gift from the healing god Apollo who, according to tradition, carried the nymph Kyrene Africa and there founded the city bearing her name. The plant was renowned and valued in ancient times as a food source, a food seasoning, and, most importantly, as a medicinal panacea, which could cure a variety of ills. It was especially useful, according to Pliny the Elder, to cleanse retained afterbirth from the womb, and was one of the most effective birth-control and abortion-producing methods known at the time. Preparations for this latter use included a tea made from the leaves, a “pea-sized” ball of sap mixed with wine and a suppository containing the juice.

The restricted cultivation area of silphium on the coastal plateaus of Kyrenaika made it one of the major sources of revenue for that city, and, again, Pliny the Elder said it was considered to be “worth its weight in denarii,” especially because of its abortifacient ability. The overuse of the plant reportedly led to its extinction around the first century AD, a loss which was greatly lamented in Rome. Other plants were also called silphium and grew in other locations around the Mediterranean, but were considered to be of inferior quality. ”

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