Moretum, an early poem by Virgil
Long before humans appeared on earth, tools had already been invented by earlier primates. We don’t know which came first, fire or the mortar and pestle, but it wasn’t until primates discovered both that most of the energy that had been required by the stomach and intestines to process plants could redirect into developing bigger brains. Our distant ancestors in Africa discovered early on that pounding plants, seeds and nuts with stones made both cooking and digestion easier.
The Ebers Papyrus, named for German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, contains the first written description of a mortar and pestle. It dates to 1550 BC, although it likely was copied from much earlier scrolls. Containing 700 medicinal remedies and incantations, the scroll is 20 meters long (approximately 110 pages). Ebers bought the manuscript from Edwin Smith in 1872, and three years later, Ebers published the first translation.
In the 16th Century BC, the Phoenicians were developing their alphabet, the first hymns of the Rig Veda were recorded in Sanskrit, and the Sumerian civilization was eclipsed by Babylon. Sumerians had invented beer, discovered opium (the happy plant), and learned how to make flour by pounding wheat berries. One of their favorite treats was pistachio encrusted dates. A mortar and pestle would have been used to pound the pistachios into powder before dipping the honey-soaked dates.
The Rig Veda describes the making of soma, which was considered the greatest medicine, the “king” of healing plants. There are numerous mentions of “pressing stones” used and the clacking sounds they made. Strangely, virtually no historian seems to realize “pressing stones” is Sanskrit for mortar and pestle.
In the 1920s, some historians began pointing out the obvious: soma was most likely cannabis. In fact, the descriptions of soma match the current recipes for modern bhang, which remains a popular drink in parts of India. Whole kolas, leaves and flowers, are blanched in boiling water and then pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Typically, almonds, spices and hot milk are added, but the ancient recipes often included opium and ephedra.
In the late 1930s, Reefer Madness was launched by the just-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and a well-funded campaign to demonize cannabis swept across the world. At the same time, a campaign to misidentify soma as a mushroom was initiated by a vice president of America’s most powerful bank.
Check with Wikipedia today and you won’t find much of anything useful in the description of soma. The academic community refuses to accept the obvious and continues to obscure the real history of cannabis.
Someday this house of cards must fall.
Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to get a mortar and pestle. Pestos are easily made using any nut or seed with any green plant and any spices. Our modern pesto recipe originated in Northern Italy in the 1600s, but for millennia before that it was known as moretum.
Also made in mortars was Manna, the food that saved the Jews from starvation. Manna was just hemp seeds crushed into hempseed flour, which was baked into wafers. I have a separate blog on that subject if you seek further proof and clarification.
Poem attributed to the young Virgil and comprised of 124 hexameter lines and written in the Greek tradition (as in Callimachus’ Hecale and other poems involving meals with gods and people, aka Theoxeny).
Already had the night completed ten
Of winter’s hours, and by his crowing had
The winged sentinel announced the day,
When Symilus the rustic husbandman
Of scanty farm, solicitous about
The coming day’s unpleasant emptiness,
Doth slowly raise the limbs extended on
His pallet low, and doth with anxious hand
Explore the stilly darkness, groping for
The hearth which, being burnt, at length he finds.
I’ th’ burnt-out log a little wood remained,
And ashes hid the glow of embers which
They covered o’er; with lowered face to these
The tilted lamp he places close, and with
A pin the wick in want of moisture out
Doth draw, the feeble flame he rouses up
With frequent puffs of breath. At length, although
With difficulty, having got a light,
He draws away, and shields his light from draughts
With partially encircling hand, and with
A key the doors he opens of the part
Shut off to store his grain, which he surveys.
On th’earth a scanty heap of corn was spread:
From this he for himself doth take as much
As did his measure need to fill it up,
Which ran to close on twice eight pounds in weight
He goes away from here and posts himself
Besides his quern,’ and on a little shelf
Which fixed to it for other uses did
The wall support, he puts his faithful light.
Then from his garment both his arms he frees;
Begirt was he with skin of hairy goat
And with the tail thereof he thoroughly
Doth brush the stones and hopper of the mill.
His hands he then doth summon to the work
And shares it out to each, to serving was
The left directed and the right to th’ toil.
This turns about in tireless circles and
The surface round in rapid motion puts,
And from the rapid thrusting of the stones
The pounded grain is running down. At times
The left relieves its wearied fellow hand,
And interchanges with it turn about.
Thereafter country ditties doth he sing
And solaces his toil with rustic speech,
And meanwhile calls on Scybale to rise.
His solitary housekeeper was she,
Her nationality was African,
And all her figure proves her native land.
Her hair was curly, thick her lips, and dark
Her colour, wide was she across the chest
With hanging breasts, her belly more compressed,
With slender legs and large and spreading foot,
And chaps in lengthy fissures numbed her heels.
He summons her and bids her lay upon
The hearth some logs wherewith to feed the fire,
And boil some chilly water on the flame.
As soon as toil of turning has fulfilled
Its normal end, he with his hand transfers
The copious meal from there into a sieve,
And shakes it. On the grid the refuse stays,
The real corn refined doth sink and by
The holes is filtered. Then immediately
He piles it on a board that’s smooth, and pours
Upon it tepid water, now he brought
Together flour and fluid intermixed,
With hardened hand he turns it o’er and o’er
And having worked the liquid in, the heap
He in the meantime strews with salt, and now
His kneaded work he lifts, and flattens it
With palms of hand to rounded cake, and it
With squares at equal distance pressed doth mark.
From there he takes it to the hearth (ere this
His Scybale had cleaned a fitting place),
And covers it with tiles and heaps the fire
Above. And while Vulcanus, Vesta too,
Perform their parts i’ th’ meantime, Symilus
Is not inactive in the vacant hour,
But other occupation finds himself;
And lest the corn alone may not be found
Acceptable to th’ palate he prepares
Some food which he may add to it. For him
No frame for smoking meat was hung above
The hearth, and backs and sides of bacon cured
With salt were lacking, but a cheese transfixed
By rope of broom through mid-circumference
Was hanging there, an ancient bundle, too,
Of dill together tied. So provident
Our hero makes himself some other wealth.
A garden to the cabin was attached,
Some scanty osiers with the slender rush
And reed perennial defended this;
A scanty space it was, but fertile in
The divers kinds of herbs, and nought to him
Was wanting that a poor man’s use requires;
Sometimes the well-to-do from him so poor
Requested many things. Nor was that work
A model of expense, but one of care:
If ever either rain or festal day
Detained him unemployed within his hut,
If toil of plough by any chance was stopped,
There always was that work of garden plot.
He knew the way to place the various plants,
And out of sight i’ th’ earth to set the seeds,
And how with fitting care to regulate
The neighbouring streams. And here was cabbage, here
Were beets, their foliage extending wide;
And fruitful sorrel, elecampane too
And mallows here were flourishing, and here
Was parsnip,’ leeks indebted to their head
For name, and here as well the poppy cool
And hurtful to the head, and lettuce too,
The pleasing rest at end of noble foods.
[And there the radish sweet doth thrust its points
Well into th’ earth] and there the heavy gourd
Has sunk to earth upon its belly wide.
But this was not the owner’s crop (for who
Than he more straightened is?). The people’s ’twas
And on the stated days a bundle did
He on his shoulder into th’ city bear,
When home he used to come with shoulder light
But pocket heavy, scarcely ever did
He with him bring the city markets’ meat.
The ruddy onion, and a bed of leek
-For cutting, hunger doth for him subdue-,
And cress which screws one’s face with acrid bite,
And endive, and the colewort which recalls
The lagging wish for sexual delights.
On something of the kind reflecting had
He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley’s graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,’ and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man’s
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff’rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit.
And Scybale i’ th’ meantime busy too
He lifted out the bread; which, having wiped
His hands, he takes, and having now dispelled,
The fear of hunger, for the day secure,
With pair of leggings Symilus his legs
Encases, and with cap of skin on ‘s head
Beneath the thong-encircled yoke he puts
Th’ obedient bullocks, and upon the fields
He drives, and puts the ploughshare in the ground.