The Herb Pantagruelion

Francois Rabelais

Pantagruel took leave of the good Gargantua, who offered up fervent prayers for the success of his son's voyage, and a few days later, he arrived at the port of Thalassa, near Saint Malo, accompanied by Panurge, Epistemon, Friar John of the Hashes, Abbot of Theleme, and others of the royal house, notably by Xenomanes, the great traveler and journeyer by perilous ways, who had come at Panurge's command, since he had some small holding in the domain of Salmigundia. When they got there, Pantagruel equipped a fleet of vessels, equal in number to those which Ajax of Salamis once gathered to escort the Greeks to Troy. He collected sailors, pilots, boatswains, interpreters, craftsmen, and soldiers, also provisions, artillery, munitions, clothes, money, and other such goods as were needed for a long and perilous voyage. These he took on board, and amongst the cargo I noticed a great store of his herb Pantagruelion,* both in its raw green state and also prepared and manufactured.

The herb Pantagruelion has a small, hardish, roundish root, ending in a blunt point, and does not strike more than a foot and a half into the ground. From the root grows a single round, umbelliferous stem, green on the outside, white within and hollow like the stems of Smyrnium, Olus atrum, beans, and gentian. It is woody, straight, friable, and slightly denticulated after the fashion of a lightly fluted column; and it is full of fibers, in which lie all the virtue of the herb, particularly in the part called Mesa, or middle, and in that called Mylasea. Its height is commonly from five to six feet. But sometimes it is taller than a lance; that is to say when it grows in a sweet, spongy, light soil, moist but not cold, like that of Olonne, and that of Rosea, near Praeneste in Sabine territory, and provided that it does not lack rain around the fisherman's festivals and the summer solstice. Then it grows higher than some trees, and so, on Theophrastus's authority, is called dendromalache, although the herb dies each year, and has not the root, trunk, peduncles, or permanent branches of a tree.

* This will prove to be hemp.

Great, strong branches issue from the stem. Its leaves are three times longer than they are wide. They are always green, slightly rough like alkanet; toughish, with sickle-shaped indentations all round, like betony; and terminating in points like a Macedonian pike or a surgeon's lancet. Their shape is not very different from that of ash or agrimony leaves; and it is so like hemp-agrimony that many herbalists have called it cultivated hemp-agrimony, and have called hemp-agrimony wild pantagruelion. The leaves sprout out all round the stalk at equal distances, to the number of five or seven at each level; and it is by a special favor of Nature that they are grouped in these two odd numbers, which are both divine and mysterious. Their scent is strong, and unpleasant to delicate nostrils.

The seeds form near the top of the stalk, and a little below. They are as numerous as those of any herb in existence, spherical, oblong, or rhomboid in shape, black, bright, or brown in color, hardish, enclosed in a light husk, and much loved by all such singing birds as linnets, goldfinches, larks, canaries, yellowhammers, and others. But in man they destroy the generative seed if eaten often and in quantity; and although the Greeks of old used sometimes to make certain kinds of cakes, tarts, and fritters of them, which they ate after supper as a dainty and to enhance the taste of their wine, still they are difficult to digest, lie heavy on the stomach, make bad blood, and, by their excessive heat, harm the brain, filling the head with noxious and painful vapors. Just as in many plants there are two sexes, male and female—as we see in laurels, palms, oaks, yews, asphodels, mandragora, ferns, agarics, birthwort, cypress, turpentine, pennyroyal, peonies, and others—so in this herb there is a male, which has no flower but plenty of seeds, and a female, which is thick and has little whitish useless flowers, but no seed to speak of; and as in other plants of this kind, the female leaf is larger but less tough than the male, and does not grow as high.

This pantagruelion is sown at the first coming of the swallows, and pulled out of the ground when the cicadas begin to get hoarse.

Pantagruelion is prepared at the autumn equinox in different ways according to the fancies of the people and to national preferences. Pantagruel's first instructions were to strip the stalk of its leaves and seeds; to soak it in still—not in running—water for five days, if the weather is fine and the water warm, and for nine to twelve if the weather is cloudy and the water cold; then to dry it in the sun, and afterwards in the shade, remove the outside, separate the fibers—in which, as has been said, lies all its use and value—from the woody part, which is useless except to make a fire blaze, as kindling, or for blowing up pigs' bladders to amuse children. Sometimes also gluttons will find a sly use for them, as syphons to suck up new wine through the bung-hole.

Some modern Pantagruelists, to avoid the manual labor entailed in making this separation, use certain pounding instruments, formed in the shape in which the angry Juno held the fingers of her hands together, to prevent the delivery of Alcmena, the mother of Hercules. With the aid of these they bruise and break up the woody part, making it useless, in order to recover the fibers. The only people who practice this process are those who defy the world's opinion, and in a manner considered paradoxical by philosophers earn their livings by walking backwards.* Those who want to make better and more valuable use of the fiber imitate the fabled pastime of the three sister Fates, the nocturnal recreation of the noble Circe, and the lengthy stratagem practiced by Penelope to ward off her amorous suitors during the absence of her husband Ulysses. In this way it can be put to all its inestimable uses, of which I will tell you some only—for it would be impossible for me to reveal them all—if first I may explain to you the plant's name.

* These are the ropemakers, who draw the fiber from a bag, and walk backwards as they plait the rope.

I find the plants are named in different ways. Some have taken their name from the man who first discovered them, recognized them, demonstrated them, cultivated them, domesticated them, and applied them to their uses; as dog's mercury from Mercury; panacea (all-heal) from Panace, the daughter of Aesculapius; artemisia from Artemis, who is Diana; eupatoria from king Eupator; telephium from Telephus; euphorbium from Euphorbus, king Juba's physician; clymenos (honeysuckle) from Clymenus; alcibiadion from Alcibiades; gentian from Gentius, King of Slavonia. And so highly valued of old was this prerogative of giving one's name to a newly discovered plant that, just as there was a controversy between Neptune and Pallas as to which should name the country discovered by them both jointly, which was afterwards called Athens from Athena, that is to say Minerva—even so did Lyncus, King of Scythia attempt treacherously to murder the young Triptolemus, who was sent by Ceres to show mankind wheat, which was till then unknown. For by the youth's death Lyncus hoped to give the grain his own name and, to his honor and immortal glory, to be called the discoverer of a food both useful and necessary to the life of man. But, for his treachery, he was transformed by Ceres into an ounce or lynx. Similarly, great and long wars were waged of old between certain kings in and around Cappadocia, their only difference being which of them should give his name to a certain herb. Owing to their quarrel, the name it eventually received was Pofemonia, since it was the cause of war.

Others have kept the names of the regions from which they were once brought; Median apples—or lemons—for instance from Media where they were first found; Punic apples—that is pomegranates—which were brought from the Punic country, which is Carthage; ligusticum—that is lovage—which came from Liguria, the coast of Genoa; rhubarb, from the barbarian river called Rha, as Ammianus testifies; also sontonica, fenugreek, chestnuts, peaches, Sabine juniper, and stoechas, which owe their name to my own islands of Hyeres, called in ancient days the Stoechades, also spica celtica, etcetera.

Others take their names by antiphrasis or irony; absinthe for instance, because it is the contrary of pynthe—the Greek for beverage—being unpleasant to drink; holosteon, which means all bone, because there is no herb in all Nature more fragile and tender.

Others derive their names from their properties and uses, as aristo-lochia, which helps women in childbirth; lichen, which heals the skin eruptions so called; mallow, which mollifies; callithricum, which beautifies the hair, alyssum, ephemerum, bechium, nasturtium—or nose-twister, which is a breath-catching cress—pig-nut, henbane, and others.

Others derive their names from the admirable qualities discovered in them, as heliotrope, or solsequium, follower of the sun, which opens as the sun rises, climbs as it ascends, declines as the sun sinks, and closes as it disappears; adiantum, or waterless, since it never retains any moisture, although it grows near the water, and even though it be plunged in water for a considerable time; also hieracia, eryngion, etcetera.

Others get their names from men or women who have been transformed into them, as daphne, the laurel, from Daphne; the myrtle from Myrsine; pitys, the stonepipe, from Pitys; cynara, which is the artichoke; narcissus; crocus, the saffron; smilax, etcetera.

Others from physical resemblance, as hippuris, or horse-tail, since it is like a horse's tail; alopecuros, which is like a fox's tail; psyllion, which is like a flea; delphinium, like a dolphin; bugloss, like an ox's tongue; iris, whose flowers are like a rainbow; myosotis, like a mouse's ear; coronopus, like a crow's foot, etcetera.

Reciprocally, some men have taken their names from plants; the Fabii from beans, the Pisones from peas, the Lentuli from lentils, and the Ciceros from chick-peas. And again from more exalted similarities come Venus' navel, venushair, Venus' basin, Jupiter's beard, Jupiter's eye. Mars's blood. Mercury's fingers, hermodactyls, etcetera.

Others again, are named from their form, as trefoil, which has three leaves; pentaphyllon, which has five leaves; serpillum, which creeps along the ground; helxine or pellitory from its clinging properties; petasites or sunshades, and myrobolan plums, which the Arabs call been, for they are acorn-shaped and oleaginous.

The plant Pantagruelion got its name in all these ways—always excepting the mythological one. For Heaven forbid that we should in any way resort to myth in this most truthful history. Pantagruel was its discoverer; I do not mean the discoverer of the plant, but of a certain application of it. Thus applied, it is more loathed and abhorred by robbers, and is their more unremitting enemy than are dodder and choke-weed to flax, than reed to ferns, than horse-tail to mowers, than broom-rape to chick-peas, than darnel to barley, than hatchet-weed to lentils, than antranium to beans, than tares to wheat, than ivy to walls; than the water-lily Nymphaea heraclea to lecherous monks; than the strap and the birch to the scholars of the College of Navarre; than the cabbage to the vine, garlic to magnetic iron, onion to the eyes, fern-seed to pregnant women, the seed of willow to immoral nuns, and the yew-tree's shade to those who sleep beneath it; than wolf's bane to panthers and wolves; than the smell of a fig tree to mad bulls, than hemlock to goslings, than purslane to the teeth, than oil to trees. For we have seen many robbers end their lives high and briefly because of its use, after the manner of Phyllis, Queen of the Thracians; of Bonosus, Emperor of Rome; of Amata, wife of King Latinus; of Iphis, Auctolia, Lycambes, Arachne, Phaedra, Leda, Achaeus, King of Lydia, and others, whose only complaint was that, without their being otherwise sick, the channels through which their witticisms came out and their dainty snacks went in were stopped by the herb Pantagruelion, more scurvily than ever they could have been by the dire spasms or the mortal quinsy.

Others we have heard, at the moment when Atropos was cutting their life-thread, woefully lamenting and complaining that Pantagruel had them by the throat. But, gracious me, it wasn't Pantagruel at all. He never broke anyone on the wheel. It was Pantagruelion, doing duty as a halter, and serving them as a cravat. Besides they were speaking incorrectly and committing a solecism, unless they could be excused on the plea that they were using the figure synecdoche, taking the inventor for the invention, as one uses Ceres for bread, and Bacchus for wine. I swear to you here, by the wit residing in that bottle, cooling there in the tub, that Pantagruel never took anyone by the throat, except such men as neglect to ward off an impending thirst.

Pantagruelion is also so called by similarity. For when he was born into the world Pantagruel was as tall as the herb in question; and it was easy to make this measurement since he was born in a time of drought when they gather the said herb, and when Icarus's dog, by barking at the sun, makes every man a troglodyte, forcing the whole world to live in caves and subterranean places.

Pantagruelion owes its name also to its virtues and peculiarities. For as Pantagruel has been the exemplar and paragon of perfect jollity—I don't suppose that any one of you boozers is in any doubt about that—so in Pantagruelion I recognize so many virtues, so much vigor, so many perfections, so many admirable effects, that if its full worth had been known when, as the Prophet tells us, the trees elected a wooden king to reign over them and govern them, it would no doubt have gained the majority of their votes and suffrages. Shall I go further? If Oxylus, son of Oreius, had begotten it on his sister Hamadryas, he would have taken more delight in its worth alone than in his eight children, so celebrated by our mythologists, who have caused their names to be eternally remembered. The eldest, a daughter, was called the vine; the next, a son, was called the fig; the next, the walnut; the next, the oak; the next, the sorb-apple; the next, the mountain-ash; the next, the poplar; and the last, the elm, which was a great surgeon in its time.

I shall forbear to tell you how the juice of this herb, squeezed and dropped into the ears, kills every kind of vermin that may have bred there by putrefaction, and any other beast that may have got in. If you put some of this juice into a bucket of water, you will immediately see the water coagulate like curds, so great are its virtues; and this coagulated water is a prompt remedy for horses with colic and broken wind. Its root, boiled in water, softens hardened sinews, contracted joints, sclerotic gout, and gouty swellings. If you want quickly to heal a scald or a burn, apply some Pantagruelion raw; that is to say just as it comes out of the earth, without any preparation or treatment; and be sure to change it as soon as you see it drying on the wound.

Without it kitchens would be a disgrace, tables repellent, even though they were covered with every exquisite food, and beds pleasure-less, though adorned with gold, silver, amber, ivory, and porphyry in abundance. Without it millers would not carry wheat to the mill, or carry flour away. Without it, how could advocates' pleadings be brought to the sessions hall? How could plaster be carried to the workshop without it? Without it, how could water be drawn from the well? What would scribes, copyists, secretaries, and writers do without it? Would not official documents and rent-rolls disappear? Would not the noble art of printing perish? What would window screens be made of? How would church bells be rung? It provides the adornment of the priests of Isis, the robes of the pastophores, and the coverings of all human beings in their first recumbent position. All the woolly trees of Northern India, all the cotton plants of Tyios on the Persian Gulf, of Arabia, and of Malta have not dressed so many people as this plant alone. It protects armies against cold and rain, much more effectively than did the skin tents of old. It protects theatres and amphitheatres against the heat; it is hung round woods and coppices for the pleasure of hunters; it is dropped into sweet water and sea-water for the profit of fishermen. It shapes and makes serviceable boots, high-boots, heavy boots, leggings, shoes, pumps, slippers, and nailed shoes. By it bows are strung, arbalests bent, and slings made. And as though it were a sacred plant, like verbena, and reverenced by the Manes and Lemurs, the bodies of men are never buried without it.

I will go further. By means of this herb, invisible substances are visibly stopped, caught, detained and, as it were, imprisoned; and by their capture and arrest great, heavy mill-wheels are lightly turned to the signal profit of humankind. It astounds me that the practicability of such a process was hidden for so many centuries from the ancient philosophers, considering the inestimable benefit it provides and the intolerable labors they had to perform in their mills through lack of it. By its powers of catching the waves of the air, vast merchant ships, huge cabined barges, mighty galleons, ships with a crew of a thousand or ten thousand men are launched from their moorings and driven forward at their pilots' will. By its help nations which Nature seemed to keep hidden, inaccessible, and unknown, have come to us, and we to them: something beyond the power of birds, however light of wing, and whatever freedom to swim down the air Nature may have given them. Ceylon has seen Lapland, Java has seen the Riphaean Mountains, Phebol shall see Theleme; the Icelanders and Greenlanders shall see the Euphrates. By its help Boreas has seen the mansion of Auster, Eurus has visited Zephyrus; and as a result, those celestial intelligences, the gods of the sea and land, have all taken fright. For they have seen the Arctic peoples, in full sight of the Antarctic peoples, by the aid of this blessed Pantagruelion, cross the Atlantic sea, pass the twin Tropics, go down beneath the torrid zone, measure the entire Zodiac, disport themselves below the Equinoctial Line, and hold both Poles in view on the level of their horizon. In a similar fright the gods of Olympus cried: 'By the power and uses of this herb of his, Panta-gruel has given us something new to think about, which is costing us a worse headache than ever the Aloides did. He will shortly be married. His wife will bear him children. This is fated and we cannot prevent it. It has passed through the hands and over the spindles of the fatal sisters, the daughters of necessity. Perhaps his children will discover a plant of equal power, by whose aid mortals will be able to visit the sources of the hail, the flood-gates of the rain, and the smithy of the thunder; will be able to invade the regions of the moon, enter the territory of the celestial signs, and there take lodging, some at the Golden Eagle, others at the Ram, others at the Crown, others at the Harp, others at the Silver Lion; and sit down with us at table there, and marry our goddesses; which is their one means of rising to the gods.'

In the end they decided to deliberate on a means of preventing this, and called a council.

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