Bad Air, Amulets and Mosquitoes

2,000 Years of Changing Perspectives on Malaria

Ernst Hempelmann; Kristine Krafts


Malar J. 2013;12(232) 

In This Article

Quintus Serenus Sammonicus

The somewhat mystical concept of bad air set the stage for an alchemistic malaria treatment in the third century CE. Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, directed patients suffering from fever and ague to wear an amulet with the inscription "abracadabra" (Figure 1) in his didactic medical poem "Liber Medicinalis:"

Figure 1.

Sammonicus' anti-pyretic abracadabra talisman.

Inscribis chartae, quod dicitur Abracadabra,

Saepius: et subter repetas, sed detrahe summae,

Et magis atque magis desint elementa figuris

Singula, quae semper rapies et coetera figes,

Donec in angustam redigatur litera conum.

His lino nexis collum redimire memento.[2]

Write several times on a piece of paper the word 'Abracadabra,' and repeat the word in the lines below, but take away letters from the complete word and let the letters fall away one at a time in each succeeding line. Take these away ever, but keep the rest until the writing is reduced to a narrow cone. Remember to tie these papers with flax and bind them round the neck.[3]

After wearing the talisman for nine days, it was to be thrown over the shoulder into an eastward-running stream. Failing this treatment, Sammonicus recommended the application of lion's fat, or the wearing of cat's skin tied with yellow coral and green emeralds around the neck.[3]

Some scholars dismiss the word abracadabra as meaningless. Others, however, translate it as, "let the thing be destroyed", "Out, bad spirit, out" (from the Hebrew words Abrai seda brai), or "Father, Holy Ghost, Word" (from the Hebrew words Ab, Ruach, Dabar).[3,4]