Herbs in History: Mint




By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | August 2023

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Illustration 1: Mint

From the Mediterranean to the North

With many subspecies and hybrids, the Mentha genus (Lamiaceae [Labiatae]) is considered to be native to the Mediterranean (Illustration 1). Before appearing in the botanico-medical literature, it can be found in the Greek mythology, which antedates by far and large all medical written documentation. Going further back in time, the very name of Mint in Greek, minthē, is traditionally interpreted as Pre-Greek.

Natural History

The mythological tale about Minthē is relevant for our purposes, even though it has been claimed to be a recent creation instead of going as far back as the mythological time of the Mediterranean World. It is not attested in an early or archaic source, but in a classical one: the Geography by the historian and geographer Strabo (1st cent. BC-1st cent. A.D.). Proceeding by major parts of the world, Strabo described them with a great many mythological tales, legendary or historical facts, description of monuments that did not exist any longer in his time, and also environmental and natural peculiarities. The latter are of interest here.


Illustration 2: Map of Greece, with the location of Pylos (Google Maps)

In his study of Greece, Strabo comes to the Peloponnese, in the south-west part of which is Pylos, capital of the kingdom of Nestor, a hero of the Greek expedition against Troy (Illustration 2). Strabo briefly tells the following mythological story, which relates the genesis of Mint, the plant, from the transformation of a human. According to Strabo (Geography 8.3.13):


Near Pylos, towards the east, is a mountain named after Minthē, who, according to myth, was loved by Hadēs. She was trampled under foot by Korē and transformed into garden-mint, the plant which some call Hēdyosmos. Furthermore, near the mountain, is a precinct sacred to Hadēs ... This plain is fertile; it borders on the sea ...

Going beyond the anecdotical nature of the tale—whether it is an expression of the mythological thinking or a recent creation—, all its elements are significant as they reveal a natural history of Mint translated into mythology as the history of a transformation. Minthē was a Nymphē, a young girl symbol of nature, freshness, and water. And of long-life. Minthē, specifically, was seduced by Hadēs, the king of the Underworld. Korē, Hadēs’s wife, most commonly known as Persephonē, probably caught them by surprise, crushed Minthē under her foot, and transformed her into the plant that bears her name. Significantly enough, the region is fertile, close to the sea, with high humidity. To this, Strabo adds another name of Mint, hēdyosmos, which means literally with a sweet smell.
We thus have here the genesis of a plant expressed in a mini-history inserted in a broader geographical description as a cameo, which relates the coming to being of a plant in a typically Mediterranean place, mountainous, yet fertile and possibly moist, with such qualities as freshness and longevity, the latter being particularly expressed by the opposition to the world of the death from which Persephonē saved Minthē by subtracting her from her husband. Interestingly—and apparently contradictorily—Persephonē also is a goddess of fertility. She protected the young Nymphē from her husband, not only because of her jealousy, but possibly also by solidarity within the female world. Whatever the motivation, this component of the story clearly hints at a plant that escapes death, that is, a plant that is particularly resistant. This is particularly the case of Mentha species, which might grow excessively and become invasive, being almost weeds.
Although the story stopped here, with the transformation of Minthē into a plant, it was not over. In the rituals of Persephonēs’ cult, representing and celebrating the yearly cycle of natural life with alternances of lethargy (Winter), growth (Spring), production (Summer), and preparation for the next year (Autumn), Minthē was present in a certain way, as Mint was mixed in the beverage that the participants in the Eleusinin Mysteries shared in the ritual, the kukeōn (cyceon). Translating again the ancient tale in botanical terms, Mint is associated with the Spring and the growth of cereals, to which it adds a note of freshness and sweetness.

A Slow Start

In historical times, Mint appears as early as the first writings collected under the name of Hippocrates of Kos (460-between 375 and 350 B.C.), shortly followed by Theophrastus (ca. 371-ca. 287 B.C.), respectively the Fathers of Medicine and Botany.
According to the Post-Linnean botanists who have examined the medicinal plants mentioned in the ancient Greek medical texts, the phytonym minthē might have corresponded to different species of the genus Mentha: M. sativa Sm. (= M. aquatica L.), M. viridis (L.) L. (= M. spicata subsp. spicata), and M. aquatica L. It might also have designated species of the genus Calamintha: C. alpina (L.) Lam. (= Clinopodium alpinum (L.) Kuntze), C. nepeta Willk., and C. officinalis Moench (both = Clinopodium nepeta subsp. spruneri (Boiss.) Bartolucci & F.Conti. It probably was also confused with the genus Melissa.
In the Hippocratic writings, Mint is not much used. It is administered internally to treat a pulmonary affection and jaundice, as well as an irritation of the throat with swelling. There, it is mixed with parsley, oregano, salt and sumac plus honey, in the form of a mouth wash or as a direct application (in that case with thick honey).
Theophrastus does not provide much information either, even though he mentions that the plant was cultivated (Historia Plantarum. 6.7.6). Either he was not interested, or the plant was not much used. For him, minthē does not produce fruits (H. P. 6.7.2) and is the result of a mutation of another plant called sisumbrion when this is not often transplanted (2.4.1). Interestingly, according to Post-Linnean botanists, sisumbrion is a species of the genus Mentha: M. aquatica L. or M. sylvestris Sole (= M. suaveolens Ehrh.), or two species of the genus Calamintha: C. nepeta (L.) Savi (= Clinopodium nepeta (L.) Kuntze) and C. incana (Sibth. & Sm.) Boiss. (= Clinopodium insulare (P.Candargy) Govaerts).
To this, Theophrastus adds that the plant was mixed in crowns to enjoy its scent (H. P. 6.6.2) as per an ancient use consisting in wearing such vegetal flowery ornaments. This daily-life use, which appears again in Rome, might explain the lack of interest from Theophrastus in his Historia Plantarum in which he aimed to lay down the foundations of proper science of plants.
The subsequent history suggests that Mint made its way into the therapeutic arsenal of ancient physicians, even though it kept its nature and uses as a scented plant. According to the Roman encyclopedist Pliny (below), the Greek physician Dieuches (late 4th / early 3rd cent. B.C.) mixed its seed with anise (Pimpinella anisum L.) in a remedy prescribed for the treatment of dropsy and coeliac trouble.

A Much-Used Plant

Research on the benefits to be expected from Mint (sensu proprio and Pennyroyal) probably took place in the following centuries, as the plant appears in the classical work on materia medica by the Greek Dioscorides (1st cent. A,D.) with a great many uses. Before coming to these, we need to stress that the Mint was still much appreciated for its scent. In Dioscorides’ work it appears indeed in a significant and very unitary group of scented plants from Lavender to Thyme, which comprised Oregano, Cretan dittany, Sage, and Pennyroyal.


Illustration 3: Representation of two species of the genus Mentha in a manuscript containing the Greek text of Dioscorides, De materia medica, in MS New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 653, 10th century, Constantinople; 3a (left): Pennyroyal (f. 31 verso); 3b (right): Mint (upper plant, f. 58 verso)

Judging from Dioscorides’ explicit statement, Mint was much better known than in the past (De materia medica 2.34): “it is a well-known small plant”. Nevertheless, its different species were not clearly distinguished as was already the case in Theophrastus, and Mint and Pennyroyal were confused (Illustrations 3a and 3b). About Mint and its medicinal uses, Dioscorides’s described them as follows in summary:

  • green mint ... [has] warming, astringent, and drying properties;

  • its juice taken with vinegar staunches blood, kills round intestinal worm;

  • two or three sprigs with sour pomegranate juice stop hiccups, vomiting, and bile-vomiting;

  • it dissolves abscesses as a plaster with barley groats;

  • applied on the forehead it helps against headaches;

  • it reduces breasts distension and swelling;

  • with salt, it is a plaster against dog bites (hydrophobia);

  • its juice with honey mixed with water is good against earaches;

  • rubbed on the tongue, it smoothes roughness.

In matter of sexuality, Mint rouses desire and is also a contraceptive when applied by women on the cervix as a pessary before intercourse.
To that, Dioscorides added that its little sprays stirred about in milk prevent it from curdling.
Dioscorides’ Latin contemporary Pliny (A.D. 23/24-79), the author of the vast encyclopedia on natural sciences broadly defined, Naturalis Historia (Natural History), repeatedly deals with Mint, suggesting that it was better known and, probably also, much more used in the Roman World than in the Greek one. 
Knowledge of Mint at his time was not new, however, but dated back in time, up to the late 3rd / early 2nd century B.C. Cato (234-149 B.C.), the inflexible senator defender of traditions, recommended its use together with cabbage, of which he believed it was a panacea. The recipe is worth citing (Naturalis Historia 20.80):

Cato ...  approving the smooth cabbage with large leaves and big stem. He considers it good for headache, dimness of the eyes and sparks in them, for the spleen, the stomach and the hypochondria, when taken raw in the morning with oxymel, coriander, rue, mint and root of silphium, in doses of two acetabula, saying that their power is so great that he who pounds the ingredients together feels himself growing stronger.

And, indeed, Pliny described Mint cultivation with details indicating an exact knowledge of the plant and its peculiarities (N.H. 19.159):

This is also the time for planting mint (= vernal equinox), using a shoot, or if it is not yet making bud, a matted tuft. Mint is equally fond of damp ground. It is green in summer and turns yellow in winter ... One planting lasts for a long period ...

In terms of medical uses, Pliny echoed Dioscorides, probably because the two followed the same or similar sources, in addition to reporting different local usages. The two works differ on a small, but significant point that brings to light a transformation in the use of the plant: Pliny returns to the olfactory use (in fact, of Pennyroyal) and cites a recommendation by his predecessor, the polymath Varro (116-27 B.C.):

... Varro declared that a garland of pennyroyal was more suited to our bedrooms than one of roses, for an application is said to relieve headache; moreover, its very smell protects the head, so it is reported, against injury from cold or heat, and from thirst, nor do they suffer from the heat who carry when they are in the sun two sprays of pennyroyal behind their ears ...

Reporting the uses of his time, Pliny further adds (19.160):

It is agreeable for stuffing cushions and pervades the tables with its scent at country banquets.

With this return to olfactory use, which was indeed present in Theophrastus but absent in Dioscorides, the name of the plant was changed at Pliny’s time, apparently as a consequence of this renewed olfactory use (N.H. 19.160):

[in Greece] it used to be called mintha, from which our ancestors derived the Latin name (menta), but now it has begun to be called by a Greek word meaning ‘sweet-scented’.

The reputation of the benefits of Pennyroyal against the sun was so strong that it appears in the 9th century in North-Western Europe, in the poem Hortulus (Small Botanical Garden) by Walahfrid Strabo (808-849), in the Carolingian World. Between Antiquity and Strabo, it was probably relayed by the Herbarium attributed—but not by—the writer Apuleius (A.D. 125-?), which was compiled in the 4th century. Reproducing the translation by Raef Payne (1929-2000) augmented with a commentary by Wilfrid Blunt (1901-1987) published in 1966 and searching to reflect the original style of the work, we read the following in Strabo’s Hortulus (vv. 321-323):

When the sun is blazing down on you in the open,
To prevent the heat from harming your head, put a sprig
Of pennyroyal behind your ear.

Mint also was present, with all its different species and many benefits, which were appreciated (Hortulus 284-299):

I shall never lack a good supply of common mint
In all its many varieties, all its colors, all
Its virtues. One of its kind is thought to be good for the voice:
If a man who is often troubled with hoarseness wets his dry
Throat with a syrup of mint, the roughness will go and the tone
Come clear.
But if any man can name
The full list of all the kinds and all the properties
Of mint, he must be one who knows how many fish
Swim in the Indian Ocean ...

Crossing the Channel and the Centuries


Illustration 4: A representation of Mint in the only surviving manuscript copy of the Old English Herbarium, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C III, early 11th century, England, f. 55 recto

Mint is traditionally supposed to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans. True or not, after the transition from Antiquity to the next centuries and the supposed—but non existing—Dark Ages, it is present in the so-called Old English Herbarium, which is a translation of the Latin Herbarium attributed to Apuleius made in the late 10th century (ca. 850-875). Mint (Illustration 4) is treated in a rather short way, with two formulae for medicines (122) expressed in an elliptic, dry style that the modern translation by Maria Amilia D’Aronco recently published faithfully respected:

For impetigo and a pimply body: take the juice of this plant, which is called menta and similarly by another name, mint; add to it sulfur and vinegar; pound all this together; apply it with a feather. The pain will soon be relieved.
If there are bad open sores or wounds on the head: take this same plant mint, pounded; apply it to the wounds. It will heal them.

Pennyroyal, instead, receives a much longer treatment (Illustration 5), with a botanical description and no less than thirteen formulae for medicines, which conclude all with a statement of the type “The person will soon be healed” or “It will relieve [the medical condition for which treatment pennyroyal is prescribed]”. The text has a specific, formulaic rhythm, with repetitive expressions that are typical (93):

The plant, which is called pulegium and by another name Pennyroyal, has many healing powers within it, although not many people know them. This plant is of two kinds, that is, masculine and feminine ...
For abdominal pain: take this same plant Pennyroyal, plus cumin; pound them together with water and apply this to the navel ...
For itching genitals: take this same plan; cook it in boiling water; then let it cool to the point where one can drink it ...
Again, for abdominal pain: this same plant is of benefit when consumed, and when fastened to the navel so that it cannot fall off ...
For the fever that comes on a person every third day: take twigs of this same plant; wrap them into wool; fumigate the patient with this before the time when the fever is due to strike. And if a person winds this plant around his head, it will relieve the headache.



Illustration 5: A representation of Pennyroyal in the only surviving manuscript copy of the Old English Herbarium, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C III, early 11th century, England, f. 48 recto

If a person suffers nausea on shipboard: take this same plant pennyroyal, plus wormwood; pound them together, along with oil and vinegar; rub him with this frequently.

For bladder pain, and if stones should grow there: take this same plant Pennyroyal, pounded well, plus two cups of wine; mix them together; give to drink. The bladder will soon get better, and within a few days this will heal the infirmity and will expel the stones that have grown inside.
If a person should suffer pain around the heart or in the chest, then he should eat this same plant Pennyroyal.
Again for stomachache: take this same plant Pennyroyal; pound it and soak it in water; give to the patient to drink in vinegar.
If a person suffers from a spasm: take this same plant, plus two cups of vinegar; he should drink it while fasting.
For pain in the spleen: take this same plant Pennyroyal; simmer in vinegar; give it to drink, warm.
For pain in the loins and for sore thighs: take this same plant Pennyroyal, plus pepper, the same amount of each by weight; pound them together. And when you are bathing, smear it on where it hurts the most.

Contrary to what happened on the continent, the use against the sun disappeared. A sign of an adaptation of the text to the differentiated climatic condition in the North, particularly in Britain?

Ancient texts cited
Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus : Raef Payne (transl.) and Wilfrid Blunt (comment.), Hortulus, Walahfrid Strabo. Pittsburgh, PA: Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.
Old English Herbal: John D. Niles and Maria A. D’Aronco (ed. and transl.), Medieval Writings from Early Medieval England, vol. 1: The Old English Herbal, Lacnunga, and Other Texts (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library). Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2023.

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