Words Crush Wednesday – An Unusual Method of Healing

Published February 10, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

This week’s Words Crush Wednesday is from The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin, the book I had to read for this week.  (Next week’s is also going to be from this book…so the quotes may start really falling behind me!)

I wanted to quote this because it reminded me of a myth.  The quote is:

It was part of the mechanists’ credo that all genuine effects in nature were to prove explicable based on ordinary, comprehensible mechanical and material causes.  So [Sir Francis] Bacon was suspicious of the claimed matter of fact involved in the celebrated “weapon salve.”  It had been commonly avowed that a wound caused by a given weapon might be healed by anointing not the wound itself but the sword or knife that caused it, even when wound and weapon were up to thirty miles apart.

Obviously the idea of a “weapon salve” made me think not of putting medicine on the weapon (though that’s a pretty unexpected way to try to cure a wound!) but of making medicine from the weapon!

Because — as you might expect, coming from me — that happened at one point in the Trojan War.

The short version is this:  the Greeks, in their first sailing for Troy, missed it entirely, landing in Mysia, to the south.  Of course, they start laying waste to the place anyway, because that’s what they do.  They’re in the realm ruled by Telephos, a son of Heracles, and he of course goes out personally to fight off the attackers.  (That being the norm for kings at the time, even ones not fathered by demi-gods.)  In the battle, he’s wounded in the thigh by Achilles, but the battle eventually ends with the Greeks realizing their mistake and sailing away again.

However, Telephos’ wound doesn’t heal.

For years.

Eventually, he seeks an oracle (which one varies), and is told that he can only be healed by the one who wounded him.  That doesn’t seem like a good idea to Telephos (or, doubtless, to anyone else!) but he’s suffered long enough that he’s willing to try anything, and goes to Mycenae looking for Achilles.  Now, what happens next varies by the teller (and it doesn’t help that we mostly only have summaries and fragments left of the majority of versions) but eventually, his situation is explained, and it’s agreed that he’ll help them find Troy (you wouldn’t think it would be hard to find, being a big trading city located on a major waterway) in exchange for having his wound healed.  (It is to be pointed out, of course, that the Greeks had received a prophecy that they could only reach Troy with the guidance of a son of Priam.  And Telephos is married to one of Priam’s daughters.  Though said prophecy may be a late excuse for their needing help to find the place.)

Anyway, in some versions, Achilles objects that he knows nothing of healing, though in other versions he can’t very well claim that, having been taught healing by Cheiron as a boy.  (In the Iliad, for example, not only did he learn healing from Cheiron, but he had since taught it to Patroclos.)  Even in the versions where he doesn’t object, he’s still clueless as to how to heal a wound that’s been festering for years on end.

But wily Odysseus, of course, has a plan.  (Doesn’t he always?)

He scrapes the rust off the tip of Achilles’ spear and puts it in the wound.

And it works!

(Of course, there’s the slight problem that bronze, like Achilles’ spear, does not rust in the sense we think of, but…well, it does oxidize in some manner.  Though why someone who’s supposed to be their best warrior would let his spear literally grow rusty is another matter entirely…)

Part of me wants to post the “Telephos” chapter from my Trojan War novel to share the full story, but unfortunately, that was one of the “omg, this sucks!” chapters I was going to utterly redo…and it’s the very one I got stuck in the middle of.  *sigh*


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