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  • Spiderwoman and the Chaste Tree: The Semantics of Matter
  • Heinrich von Staden (bio)


It has been argued persuasively that the cultural contexts in which scientific discourse is practiced contribute significantly to its characteristic features in any given scientific epoch or society, and that the modern historian of science who ignores such cultural contexts runs many a hermeneutic risk. Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and G. E. R. Lloyd, for example, have traced distinctive epistemological, methodological, and rhetorical features of Greek scientific discourse to aspects of Greek legal and political culture. 1 Lloyd likewise has used a comparative analysis to explain distinctive features of the scientific discourse of ancient China and Greece in terms of the political institutions and practices of those two civilizations. 2 But attention to the larger cultural contexts in which specific kinds of matter are selected and deployed by ancient scientists and physicians is also crucial to the interpretation of ancient science. [End Page 23]

Since “science” is encountered by many historians of science mainly in its written refractions, and since historiographic practice brings with it its own engulfing logocentrism, it is perhaps not surprising that the interpretation of the material culture of ancient science has been the victim of relative inattention. By the interpretation of “material culture” I do not mean only the study of artefactual culture, in the traditional anthropological sense (indeed, modern archaeologists and historians of technology have offered excellent accounts of the artefacts produced and used by ancient scientists). Nor do I mean that the natural, nonartefactual entities described, prescribed, and used by ancient scientists and physicians should simply be identified, catalogued, and classified (several useful analytical inventories of such substances have been compiled 3 ). Rather, by referring to “material culture” I wish to underscore the cultural valorizations of such natural matter through social, religious, scientific, medical, and other human practices. No less than scientific or poetic descriptions of matter, the uses of “natural” matter are a significant source of meanings; natural substances, too, become a complex, informative part of “culture” through human use. In religious, commercial, scientific, agricultural, horticultural, and other activities, humans from early times have continually dislodged pieces of “natural matter” from their pristine existence in nature, assigning them diverse values, functions, and meanings. “Natural matter” thus becomes a rich repository of cultural meanings, also when deployed in scientific practice, and, along with the words and artefacts of scientists, it hence represents a significant hermeneutic challenge. 4

In this contribution I offer examples of the value of attentiveness to details of cultural context for the interpretation of the uses made by “scientific medicine” of a natural substance. The substance singled out here for purposes of illustration is the chaste tree, one specimen of which ancient Greeks believed to be the oldest [End Page 24] living tree. It will be argued that the aims that have dominated modern analyses of such ancient pieces of matter (for example, the aim of precisely identifying, by their modern scientific names, the natural substances in question; of trying to determine their therapeutic or nutritional efficacy; of empirically demonstrating the “rationality” of their ancient applications; and of identifying the taxonomic principles by which ancient writers gained “scientific” control of a mass of natural substances), while unquestionably valuable (even though their targets often remain elusive), need to be supplemented by cultural perspectives that render the “meaning of matter” more profoundly and richly approachable.

From the Hippocratic writings of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. to the Byzantine period, Greek medical, botanical, and agricultural writers display abundant familiarity with the attribution of therapeutic powers to the chaste tree (agnus castus, or vitex agnus castus L.; its Greek name is agnos or lygos). 5 Various parts of this shrub or tree are helpful, they claim, in treating a wide range of conditions, such as hangovers, dropsy, disorders of the spleen or the liver, inflammations, bruises, skin diseases, eye ailments, and swellings around wounds. Its calorific and desiccant properties, in particular, are commonly extolled. 6

This broad spectrum of medical applications notwithstanding, the products of the chaste tree are predominantly deployed in two arenas: to counter threats posed to human reproduction, notably by disorders of the...

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