Lemnos, NE Aegean

Lemnos is an island in the NE Aegean. The topography of the island is mostly flat although there is a mountainous enclave in the west. It is composed of a sequence of sedimentary rocks which initially formed in a deep water marine environment, eventually becoming terrestrial as volcanic activity increased. Volcanic activity on the island is very ancient and long extinct before first human occupation. In antiquity Lemnos  was well-known on account of the Lemnian Earth.

The earliest reference to the healing properties of Lemnian Earth can be found in the cycle of poetry associated with the Homeric poems and in particular the Iliad, telling the story of the Greeks  participating in  the Trojan War. One such participant, Philoctetes,  while on Lemnos, was bitten by a water snake and as the wound festered the stench became too much for his comrades. So he was abandoned on the island for ten years nursing his wound with Lemnian Earth. He was eventually  tricked into rejoining the campaign against Troy, by Odysseus. Theophrastus in the 4th c BC termed it Lemnian miltos rather than earth and this term remained in use until Dioscorides began to refer to it as Lemnian Earth. The Greco-Roman physician Galen strongly believed in its curative properties and on a visit to the island 'purchased'  20000 samples of the clay, shaped into small seals stamped with the sign of the goat, the favourite animal of the priestess of Artemis. As recently as the  early 20th century, there was very little doubt as to the curative powers of Lemnian Earth.

Images:Thevet's (mid 1600's) depiction of the location of the collection of the Lemnian Earth, on a single day every year and in the presence of many Ottoman dignitaries and the Orthodox clergy. Specimen of Lemnian Earth in the collection of the Basel Museum of Pharmacology, Basel, Switzerland, dated to the 16th century; view of Myrina, Lemnos' main town; geological map of Lemnos (from Photos-Jones and Hall 2011).

Site maintained by Allan Stroud: allanstroud@me.com.