From Cedar to Hyssop
V. Medicinal Plants
In the history of medicine we see that in early days all diseases are believed to be caused by spirits, and charms only avail. Later comes faith in drugs, first with, and after without, the charms, later still the scientific method, – a seeking of the real cause of the disease, and an aiming at prevention, three stages of development labelled by Haggard "Devils, Drugs and Doctors." The simple folk in Palestine are in the predicament of believing in all three stages at once, or rather, shall we say, of having no efficient faith in anyone of the three, and so they often combine remedies of the present and the past with disastrous results. To illustrate this, we will tell what happened to a little baby known to us. Suffering from the plague of the infants of Egypt, gastro-enteritis, the poor mite was taken to seven doctors and two sister hoods and, in addition to their prescriptions, dosed with home-made herbal remedies. When its condition grew worse the distracted mother consulted in turn three Wise Women. She described their treatment thus: "And the first Wise Woman said, 'The right treatment for this illness is Cautery (Kawi),' so the child was touched in the mouth with the red hot iron. But yet it grew worse. The second Wise Woman said, 'Surely cautery is the right remedy, but it has been applied in the wrong place.' So she touched the red hot iron on the stomach. But still the child grew worse. The third Wise Woman said, "There is truly no remedy for this but cautery, only each time it has been done on the wrong place.' So the red hot iron was touched to the crown of its head. But in spite of all I did for my babe it died." And the poor mother mourned her child with desperation.
The proverb seems apt: "The last cure is burning" (Akher el tibb el kaiy).
Indeed there is much suffering endured under the thrall of such superstitions up and down the country.
Faith in the second stage, Drugs, is well shown by the continued popularity of an awesome mixture called, because it has forty ingredients, the Forty, or Arba'in (q.v.), but it ill becomes us to be too censorious here with relics of Galenicals still cumbering our own Pharmacopoaia. For the 'homely herbal remedies' there is more to be said. The fellahin have great faith in them and old people wise in the preparing of simples are much respected. Mrs. Leyel's saying that, "Every flower in the garden, from the first snowdrop to the Christmas Rose, is not only there for man's pleasure, but has its compassionate use in his pain," would find an echo in the Palestinian heart, for the fellahin are convinced of the idea that all plants, even the unnamed and unknown ones, have some medical use. When we ask about some plant, a favourite answer is, "It has no name and we have no use for it. But all plants have a use if we did but know it." Many are the plants that they do name and use, but unfortunately they are often applied in a way that does more harm than good, as in the instance given under the use of Eryngium and Anchusa (q.v.). Also they are often used without discrimination. If one asks "What is this for?" a common reply is, "It is good for everything" (Binfa' lil kull she). Or they may be used in a fashion more suggesting a charm than a drug; enquiring into the application of some supposedly medicinal plant one may receive the answer, "It is worn round the neck." The sensation one gets is the same as when in Gerarde's Herbal, after reading of the burning juice of Plumbago used to allay the pain of toothache, he adds "It helpeth the toothache and that as some say if it be holden in the hand some small while."
Still when all this is allowed for, the herbs keep their native virtues, they are not changed, though men use them foolishly. We firmly believe that many plants will have more value in the future than they have ever had in the past, when their chemical substances, produced so gently, rhythmically, in Nature's laboratory are better understood than they are now.
I. Hyssop (Plates 12, 52)
"From a Paradise of pleasant flowers I am fallen (Adam like) to a world of profitable Herbs and Plants... namely those Plants that are frequently used to help the diseases of our bodies... and first of the Hysope."
John Parkinson. Theatrum Botanicum, Chap. 1.
"Say, botanist within whose province fall
The cedar and the hyssop on the wall." (Cowper).
Every Palestinian knows Za'tar, the little grey green marjoram (Origanum Maru, L.) with the fragrant smell and masses of tiny white flowers, growing so commonly on rocks and terrace walls. It is used from one end of the country to the other as a spice or condiment and has some repute too, as a medicine, where it does not grow in abundance it will still be found in the market, having been brought from some more fortunate spot.
What is more interesting to us than this is that Za'tar is most probably the Hyssop of the Bible. This is generally accepted by botanists in Palestine, and the following is an attempt to give briefly the reasons which lead them – and ourselves – to be so confident of the identification.
Hyssop in the Bible
The way in which hyssop (Hb. ezobh, New Test. ύσσωπος is spoken of in the Bible gives only slight clues to its nature or the reasons for its ritual use.
In four cases it is mentioned as used to sprinkle blood: (a) during the Passover ritual; (b) "in the day of the cleansing of the leper" (together with a live bird, cedar wood and scarlet); (c) for the cleansing of a house (similarly to (b), and (d), according to. St. Paul, as having been used by Moses at the Making of the Covenant: "he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people." Again, (e) hyssop was used in the "sin offering," to sprinkle unclean persons and things with the "ashes of the burning" and "running water." These ashes also contained ashes of hyssop, for it was ordered to be cast into the midst of the burning of the red heifer, together with cedar wood and scarlet. Here a rationalising spirit might suggest that the aromatic wood and herbs would form a very welcome part of such a fumigation.
The linking of the cedar and the hyssop in these ceremonies is full of other suggestions as they are proverbial of the poles of the vegetable creation. Solomon's plant-1ore extended "from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall." arz el-Rabb, "the cedar of the Lord," as the Arabs say to this day, stands for power and majesty – may the cedar then have been a symbol of the infinitely great, and the hyssop, with the fragrance of its minute flowers, for a symbol of the infinitely small?
This much can be gleaned from these references towards our quest: the sacred hyssop was a small plant, such a one as could be used to make a bunch suitable for an aspergillum or sprinkler, probably aromatic, growing on walls, but though our Za'tar does agree exactly with these requisites so also would other small herbs.
The Samaritan Use
We turn here at once to what we think the strongest argument in favour of Za'tar, the fact that it is used as hyssop to this day by the Samaritans in their Passover ritual. These rigid Conservatives may well be still using the same plant they have used for the last 2,000 years or so: it does not follow, of course that their hyssop must be the hyssop of the Israelites, but the identification can be supported on other grounds and the Samaritan use goes far to make it certain.
We first learnt of this use on the occasion of a visit to the High Priest of the Samaritans at Nablus, who most courteously gave us information about the plant. Bringing out a copy of the Pentateuch in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, beautifully written with his own hand, he pointed out that where the Hebrew had ezobh, the Samaritan had zufa, and the Arabic sa'tar. The classical sa'tar is generally translated thyme, but to the High Priest it meant the Za'tar of daily life, Origanum maru, which grows freely on Mt. Gerizim. He declared that za'tar was of peculiar value for the ritual sprinkling of blood because, owing to its hot (hami) nature "it keeps the blood like water" (bekhalli el-damm zey el-maiya), and "Za' tar is to blood as water is to sugar" (el za'tar lil-damm mitl el-moiya lil-sukkar). In order that the plant should have its full value for the ceremony, he told us, it must be freshly gathered, a bunch of the dried plant would not avail.
We went away grateful for the information, which we took to mean that the Za'tar was useful because it perhaps prevented the blood from coagulating. Later, however, we learnt that this suggestion had been made before, but that experiments had already been made at the Hebrew University which proved that it had no such power. Further investigation was therefore called for.
In order to get more information one of us accordingly attended the Samaritan Passover on Mt. Gerizim in April, 1930. It was with some difficulty that the ritual sprinkling of the blood was seen at all, as it was done very quietly, a little while after the Sacrifice was over, so as not to excite the attention of the crowd. Secretively and rapidly a priest passed round the festival encampment, dipping a little bunch of hyssop (Za'tar) into a bowl of mingled blood and water and touching the door post and lintels of the huts with it. Strange relic of the past, still lingering on earth past its time! In the moonlight it was as if we saw the ghost of a custom and those who were practising it were already not of this world. Yet some of these strange folk soon broke the spell by their pleasant and practical conversation; again we heard praises of Za'tar and its suitability for the ritual purpose, the younger priests using the same phrases we had heard before in Nablus. The plant about which they were speaking was, however, used nearly 20 minutes after the Sacrifice, and the blood (as said to be customary) had been diluted with water, so much so that the smearing on the lintels left practically no traces behind. The only conclusion one could reach therefore is that the plant may have some practical value as a sprinkler or aspergillum, but it was no doubt used because it was traditionally the holy plant to use; and the answers given by our Samaritan friends were merely rationalising attempts to explain what neither we nor they could really understand.
When we turn to consult the later literature, the old Herbals, we find there no idea of sanctity or magical power attached to the name Hyssop; it is discussed as a plant of curative value. 'Wishing (with the optimism of inexperience) to distinguish the hyssop of the Israelites among the hyssops of the herbalists one finds oneself stirring the dust of old controversy. There are so many possible hyssops to choose from, for the name was used at different times for various aromatic labiates, marjorams, thymes, and savories, which have no very striking features to distinguish them. One fondly imagines that some mention in the early Greek herbals might be helpful; the Greek ύσσωπος is simply a form of the Hebrew ezobh, and those who first described it would probably have been meaning to describe the plant of the Hebrews. Disappointed at finding no mention of the name among the 500 plants of Theophrastus (372-285 B.C.) we gladly go on to welcome some scraps of information from Dioscorides, one of the greatest of the herbalists, who lived in the second half of the 1st century A.D. He gathered up knowledge from many earlier workers, and also gleaned much himself while a physician in the army of Nero, forming it all into a herbal, which became one of the chief text books of the civilised world during the next thirteen centuries. He speaks of two kinds of hyssop, one wild and the other cultivated, but describes neither.
Gerarde says: "Dioscorides, that gave us so many rules for the knowledge of simples hath left Hyssope altogether without description as being a plant so well known that it needeth none." Yet he left some clues to it in comparisons made to it while describing other plants. These, taken together, amount to something like this. The plant called Origanon "has leaves like the Hyssop, but not round (wheel shaped) umbels" and 'Onetis' "has whiter leaves and is more like the Hyssop." This Origanon is a Marjoram, probably O. heracleoticum, and the Onetis probably O. onites. L., White Marjoram of Greece. Further, he says that the best kind of hyssop grows in Cilicia, and Pliny says on Mt. Taurus in Cilicia. What plant is there growing in those regions that is nearest to Origanum onites? There is a white Marjoram there which is near to O. onites; but, what is more interesting to us, it is nearer still to O. maru, so near indeed that it is often taken for it, though it is now agreed that it shall have a proper name of its own O. dubium (Boiss). The specimen of this plant, collected by Kotschy on Mt. Taurus and preserved at Kew, was formerly labelled O. maru, to be later corrected to O. dubium by a more meticulous observer. This distinction is made because the plant has leaves with definite stalks, less prominent veining on the leaves, and is rather taller than O. maru. The difference between the plants is so slight that we can hardly be surprised if Dioscorides regarded them as the same.
Whether he was actually intending to describe the hyssop of the Israelites cannot be certain, but in the period in which he lived the Alexandrian School of Medicine was flourishing, and there was no doubt exchange of learning between it and Jewish physicians. It is not unreasonable to suppose that he really was describing the uses of the hyssop known to them, and he regarded, patriotically, the variety of his native mountains as the best kind of it.
When we pass on to examine the accounts of Hyssop in our English herbals of the 16th-17th centuries we discover that a singular transference has taken place, the virtues given by Dioscorides and the early writers are now being ascribed to quite another plant than a marjoram. Hyssop is now the plant we know as Hyssopus officinalis, a strongly aromatic herb with long pointed leaves and long spikes of purple flowers said to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans. When this transference took place we have not yet discovered, but the way in which it came about seems clear. The old herbalists were creating a primitive kind of botany by forming family groups of plants with supposed similarity of qualities – hence an early group of "hyssops" in Greek and Roman herbals, all very probably marjorams or plants very like marjorams. But when northern herbalists took over former descriptions of some renowned foreign plant they often applied them to a plant of like aromatic or medicinal nature more familiar to them – hence a later group of "hyssops" taken to be more nearly related to each other by the herbalists than by modern botanists. By some such transference the prescriptions of Dioscorides for the use of Hyssop, copied and re-copied, came in our English herbals to be applied to the hyssop of English herb gardens. Still, these herbalists did notice how little their plant agreed with the scanty indications given by Dioscorides.
Some were frankly puzzled and non-committal, as Wylliam Turner in the New Herbal (I55I):
"Dioscorides leveth Hisop undescribed, belike it was so well knowen in his days yt he thought it needed not to be described but by that meane it is now come to passe that we dowte whether this Hysop that we have be the true Hyssop of the anncient writers or no. Dioscorides in the description of Organe compareth Organe in likenesse unto the Hysop but no Organe that ever I saw whether it came out of Candi or out of Spaine or grewe here in England like unto our Hysop for theirs is brode leved and oure hysop has long leves wherefore ether we have not the true hysop oe els we never saw the true Organe." Others, being perfectly convinced that theirs was the true Hyssop, concluded that therefore the Hyssop of Dioscorides must be another plant. John Parkinson, for instance, writes, "But there is a great kontroversie among our later writers what herbe should be the true hysope of Dioscorides; for that our common Hysope is not it, but is the true Hysope of the Arabians, all doe acknowledge except Matthiolus," etc.
Now if there is one certain thing in the whole controversy it is that Hyssopus officinalis is not the true hyssop because it is not a native of Palestine. We, knowing this, are far more likely than these prejudiced writers to consider the claims of the plant of Dioscorides to be the true Hyssop itself or a plant very close to it.
All that we can learn in this quarter goes to confirm the identification of Za'tar with Hyssop. The Talmudists seem all to agree in considering it to be a marjoram, and some suggest Za'tar itself, e.g., Maimonides, when he explains the Hyssop of the Law as "plainly the sa'tar which the people use for their food."
It is considered that the identification can be supported, too, on etymological grounds, and Dr. Post says: "the Arabic zufa is etymologically near to the Hebrew ezobh and zufa is doubtless the same as za'tar. Not that this would clinch the matter, for the name sa'tar or za'tar is used in the present day in the East for as many or more plants as hyssop was in the past. In Palestine alone we know of:
Za'tar Origanum maru. L.
Z. farsi ("Persian") Thymus capitatus, L. (more usually zuhef).
Z. sabbali ("eared") Thymbra spicata, L.
Z. homar ("donkey's") Satureia thymbra, L.
Z. mane Calamintha incana S. et Sm.
Za'tar Sidna Musa Calamintha incana S. et Sm. (Sebastiya).
Z. hindi Ocymum indicum (rarely, usually Rihan).
But as far as this country is concerned O. maru is za'tar par excellence, and the other za'tars are always named with a qualifying epithet.
There are two passages in the Mishnah advising all good Jews to use the right kind of hyssap; one runs: "the rule for the hyssop is that it should not be Greek hyssop, nor stibium hyssop, nor Roman hyssop, nor wild-hyssop, nor any kind of hyssop to which a special name is given." And the other: "Any kind of hyssop that is given a special name is invalid; hyssop, simply so called, is valid; Greek hyssop, stibium hyssop, Roman hyssop, or wild-hyssop are invalid." Both seem to take it as much for granted as Dioscorides that all possible readers knew which hyssop was which and that there was no need to describe the right one to them. When one came first upon these passages it was just as if one heard a Palestinian saying: "You must use za'tar, not Z. farsi, or Z. sabbali, or Z. homar, only Za'tar.
Vl. Medicinal Value
It has often been remarked during the controversy that, after all, the hyssop of the Ancients was of medicinal value and Za'tar is a condiment. Could a plant, for instance, of which the Epistle of Barnabas says "he also who has pain in his flesh is cured by the foulness of the hyssop" be possibly used as a condiment? In reply to this one may say that most of our present day condiments were formerly used as drugs. Pepper and mustard are an acquired taste, and so no doubt is Za'tar. There is some difference, too, between a strong infusion of the plant, to drink which might be distinctly unpleasant, and the aromatic powdered dried leaves, specially prepared to sprinkle on food. For use in stews it is usually dried and often mixed with simmak (Rhus coriaria) or with simmak and kaliya (roasted ripe wheat) ground to powder in a stone hand-mill; it is then called z. imhawagi (Z with ingredients) or z. imtabalt (prepared Z.). This mixture gives a good spicy flavour to the dish and is also reputed to act as a digestive. Another very favourite use is to spread the powdered Za'tar on bread. The following is a rather more elaborate recipe than the usual one. Take Za'tar, simmak, simsim (sesame) qirfa (cinnamon), qmh muhammis (roast wheat), kak (dried Syrian biscuit), bizr battikh muhammis (roast melon seeds) all ground fine. Oil the dough, when well kneaded, spread with the powdered spice and bake. "Never will my husband eat a morsel of bread that is not made in this way" said the good housewife who proudly explained exactly haw the mixture should be made.
Though undeniably eaten for pleasure, the "prepared Za'tar" is regarded also as of medicinal value. It seems a curious way to us of taking medicine, but was recommended in the old herbals. Gerarde says of the simmak so often mixed with the Za'tar – his "Coriars Sumach," "the seed is no less effectual to be strowed in powder upon their meats which are Caelici or Dysenterici."
Za'tar is not often used in infusion - occasionally Za'tar-tea is ministered to infants troubled with wind, much as dill water is in England, – but the more nauseous Ja'de (Teucrium polium) is preferred to it far this purpose; it is also regarded as slightly purgative. "Purge me with hyssop" could perfectly well be said of Za'tar, if it were to be taken literally, which is unnecessary, the sense being no doubt an allusion to the ritual cleansing. But the chief medicinal value in local lore is as a stimulant to the brain, after eating it the student finds his head clear and can study well. O what a help to the passing of examinations here! Za'tar eaten fasting or rubbed on the forehead or round about the ear clears the memory, and would-be orators hope that it may give them fluency for: "he who eats Za'tar his tongue shall not stammer" (ille bokal el-za'tar lisanu ma betatar).
We can find little in these various uses that at all resembles those given for either Hyssops or Organies in the old herbals. According to Gerarde the Organies are hot in the third degree and have such a long list of virtues that it would be strange if some of them did not agree with those of our Organy, one indeed runs: "the bastard kinds of Organy or 'Wild Maieromes... are very good against the wamblings of the stomach, especially at sea," and Za'tar too, as well have seen, is reckoned a stomachic, but this is no very striking coincidence. In the realm of magic, however, there is a most curious connection with other Organies, for in Palestine folk say: "Who for forty days eats powdered dried leaves of Za'tar fasting can be harmed by no serpent." Now there is a very ancient belief that Wild Marjorams cured the bitings and stings of venomenous beasts, which we can trace back as far as Pliny. Culpeper says: "Thus much for this herb, between which and adders there is a deadly antipathy." As Step remarks, "It is not clear how the adder annoyed the herb, but the plant was said to make the biting of the adder of no effect."
Nowadays, some of the "virtues" endure for a time and some are passed away, but that which gave the plant its virtues, its essential oil, is still of value. Already the oil has been extracted and used, e.g., at the Convent of Beit el-Jemal in Bab el-Wad, and at the colonies of Artuf and Benjamina; it is said to be excellent for perfumes, especially Eau de Cologne. The commercial oil known as Syrian Oil is sometimes derived from this source, but other Origanums are used as well, so that one cannot be sure whether such analyses as do exist in books and reports are certainly of O. Maru. Unfortunately gatherers for commercial purposes are not so concerned as Samaritans to be sure that they get the right hyssop!
 As far as our scanty information goes, a charm is recited during the cautery, which is done with a red hot point like a nail; in the case of an infant always in the three places mentioned. The place touched inside the mouth is at the base of the frenum of the tongue, or just below the teeth, that on the head most unfortunately is the anterior fontanelle. Such a practice seems more to be classed with magical rites than with the cauterizations of a later stage of medicine. Dr. Canaan, describing it in "The Child," J.P.O.B., p. 184, explains how this barbarous practice exhausts the baby already weakened by illness.
 Perhaps this remark is already out of date; a new edition of the British Pharmacopceia appears this year, 1932.
 From the introduction by Mrs. Level to "A Modern Herbal."
 Readers interested in knowing what the plants have in them to justify their Palestinian uses will find a note on this subject at the end of this section, written by Miss D. M. Crowfoot.
 Exodus xii. 22.
 Lev. xiv. 6.
 Lev. xiv. 49.
 Heb. ix. 19.
 Numb. xix. 6, 17.
 I Kings v. 13.
 Dalman, op. cit., p. 544.
 Gerarde, "Herbal," ch. 167 (Ed. 1597).
 J. Berendes, "Des Pedanios Dioskurides aus Anazarbos Arzneimittelehre," p. 281 (ch. 27 (30); p. 282 (ch. 30 (32, 33)).
 "radformige Dolde" according to the translation given by Berendes, op. cit. These identifications of 'Origanon' and 'Onetis' cannot be made with certainty, but they must be Marjorams, if not those suggested, then others very similar to them.
 Pliny, Nat. Hist. bk. 25, ch. 87.
 When countries far from each other are in question, much stranger results can be noted, e.g., in Saxon herbals we find the virtues of Tribulus transferred to Gorse, and those of the Caper to the Woodbine, etc. (L.B. 1.30.3).
 John Parkinson, "Theatrum Botanicum," ch. 1.
 Maimonides on Mishnah, Neg. 14.6. See Dalman, op. cit., p. 54.
 Hastings, "Dictionary of the Bible," 1900, vol. 2, p. 442.
 Mishnah Negain, xiv. 6.
 Mishnah Parah, xi. 7.
 Epistle of Barnabas," trs. by Lake, "The Apostolic Fathers,'" I, p. 371 (Loeb Library).
 Gerarde, Herbal, p. 1475 (Ed. 1636).
 Plil1y, "Nat. Hist.", bk. xxv., ch, 87.t Cnlpeper, "British Herba1."
 Culpeper, "British Herba1."
 Step, "Herbs of Healing," p. 149.
 Finnemore, "The Essential Oils," p. 755.