Monday, December 10, 2012
The people of antiquity had lasers. More correctly, I should say they had a spice called 'laser', also known as silphium. It was a large stalked plant with flowers on the end. Ancient sources described it as being worth its weight in silver at the time. According to Pliny the Elder (Plin. Nat. 19.15), the best varieties were found in Cyrene (pretty much next to the modern site of Benghazi, Libya where the embassy was attacked). Sadly, it seems to have been harvested to extinction, but many related plants exist today.
Bacchantes, the followers of the Dionysus cults, used the stalk of this plant capped with a pinecone to make the thyrus. These thyrus staves were almost always depicted in fresco and mosaics of the Bacchantes. This leads me to wonder about possible medicinal or psychoactive properties of the plant's resin. After all, the Maenads were described as wild women by Euripides, tearing apart Pentheus in a frenzy.
Related botanical studies of plants similar in appearance to laser show that it might have had a contraceptive effect. In ancient times, maybe this property was noted and adopted by the cult. What if the Dionysus cults were the practical religions of brothel workers? If it had this use and was also a drug, was its extinction just a matter of commerce? Maybe it intentionally destroyed by an emperor who was either angered by the cult or maybe took an interest in the morality of the populace like Augustus Caesar? Strabo said that barbarians were to blame, '...bordering upon Cyrenaica is the district which produces silphium, and the juice called Cyrenaic, which the silphium discharges from incisions made in it. The plant was once nearly lost, in consequence of a spiteful incursion of barbarians, who attempted to destroy all the roots. The inhabitants of this district are nomads.'
In the photo above from my sailing trip last month, I found something which looks like the laser of antiquity growing on a hill near the ruins of an old French fort. Just as one of Napoleon's soldiers rediscovered the location of the imperial porphyry quarry, what if another had identified and replanted an actual silphium seedling a few hundred years ago? It might only be a giant fennel plant, but then again, maybe not. I would be interested in attempting to sequence the DNA of seeds found in an ancient amphora if they resembled fennel. Maybe this can happen in my lifetime.
Posted by Eric at 12/10/2012