Around 1444, Queen Maria of Castile had a manuscript made for her by an unknown author. The document was a collection of plant drawings, together with their medical and culinary uses. The modern system of naming and categorising plants invented by Carl Linnaeus, would not be in existence for centuries and so the plants in the manuscript are identified according to their folk names. One plant was named Andromeda, after the Greek myth of Andromeda and Perseus.
There are many versions of most Greek myths, but the basic story of Andromeda is reasonably stable. She was the beautiful daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, rulers of an upper Nile region. Cassiopeia’s boasting of Andromeda’s great beauty offended the Nereids and as a result of this hubris, Poseidon had Cepheus and Cassiopeia’s lands ravaged by a sea monster. Cepheus and Cassiopeia chained Andromeda to a rock as a propitiatory sacrifice to the monster. Luckily, the travelling hero Perseus was in the neighbourhood and slew the monster just in time. Andromeda and Perseus were married and lived happily with many children in Greece. When Andromeda died, Athena had her whisked up to the night sky as the constellation named after her, near those of Perseus and Cassiopeia.
Ahh. Great story, no wonder people remembered it, including Linnaeus. So, what did he do with it?
In the fifteenth century, and probably long before, it was believed that the Rosemary-heather was good for preserving womanly beauty, an early anti-ageing potion. Mixed with holy water into bread dough, and with the uttering of certain magical words, Rosemary-heather was believed to reverse the ravages of ageing. It seems that this knowledge, or belief, was subsequently lost.
But it was known to Linnaeus. When he came to name Rosemary-heather, he drew on this ancient knowledge to call it Andromeda polifolia, his use of that term based on the connection between the Greek myth of the beautiful Andromeda and the alleged anti-ageing properties of the plant. It used to be thought that Linnaeus had simply made up the name based on the general popularity of Greek myths, but we now know that he was making use of a traditional connection between the two.
But how did Linnaeus know that? No-one else seems to have had the knowledge. Was he heir to some informally transmitted repertoire of ancient magic and medicine? He was a man of science, but at that period the modern rational character of scientific inquiry was not fully established and scientists, including the great Isaac Newton, among others, frequently delved into or were influenced by all sorts of esoteric traditions. Alchemy, magic and mysticism often coexisted with rational inquiry and experimentation. Linnaeus’s notes on his drawing of Andromeda show that he was familiar with the esoteric tradition associated with the plant. The Latin translates as ‘fiction that is true’, ‘mysticism that is genuine’ and ‘forms that are depicted’. He happily adapted that connection to give the Rosemary-heather the scientific name it has had ever since.
We’ll probably never know the answer to this intriguing mystery. But what it does highlight is the survival of venerable knowledge and ideas over considerable periods and the transmission of that knowledge independent of formal channels. A great deal of serious scientific and medical interest is now being taken in traditional medicines of indigenous peoples around the world, as modern science re-discovers the efficaciousness of natural treatments previously ignored and refuted. This is beyond quackery and a reminder that, despite the technological and other wonders of our modern world, we don’t know everything and it pays to keep an open – and always critical – mind.
The information and images in this post are drawn from Gerard E Cheshire, Plant Series, No. 6. Manuscript MS408. Andromeda polifolia at https://www.academia.edu/41594847/Plant_Series_No._6._Manuscript_MS408._Andromeda_polifolia, Jan 2020.