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Potions, Alchemy, & Apothecaries: Inspirations from the Real World

The Alchemist by N.C. WyethA witch hunched over a bubbling cauldron; a reclusive alchemist searching for the secret to eternal life; a hooded figure procuring a poison from a shady apothecary…

While these are classic images from fantasy and storytelling, they are rooted in history. People tried as witches often “confessed” to making potions and salves that caused others to sicken (under torture and coercion, so the likelihood they actually did is low). Healers and herbalists were suspected of witchcraft by superstitious citizens. Alchemists searched for a way to transform lead into gold and prolong life with elixirs. Countless people met their end through poisoning, both deliberate and accidental, or went to apothecaries to treat their ailments.

So, if you’re looking to get a glimpse into that world, or get inspiration for writing about it, you don’t necessarily have to pick up a fantasy book and you don’t even need a time machine. Here are three real-world ways you can explore the realm of potions, poisons, remedies and alchemy.

Visit a Pharmacy Museum

Deutsches Apotheken Museum Schloss Heidelberg by mike griceMaybe this doesn’t sound like the most riveting kind of museum, but you’d be surprised how fascinating they can be. The German Pharmacy Museum (Deutsches Apotheken Museum) in Heidelberg is a great example and has the added benefit of being in a castle, which gives it an extra old-world feel. However, there are others around, like the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum in London, and the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hangzhou.

What are you likely to find in such a museum? Old ceramic jars, glass vials, and wooden drawers used for storing medicines, the counters and shop fronts from old pharmacies, cabinets displaying many odd and fascinating ingredients (eye of newt and toe or frog, perhaps literally!), old machines and tools for making pills and distilling substances, and information about the way the pharmacists of old worked and what they believed.

Shop in an Old Pharmacy

Alte Hof ApothekeAdmittedly, you probably have to be in a country with a long history of pharmacies for this to be an option. Maybe make it part of a trip to a country like Germany, where I’ve accidentally wandered into pharmacies with old interiors and facades, such as the Alte Hof Apotheke in Baden-Baden (founded 1701, relocated in the 1800s). With its painted ceiling, wooden counters and old carpets, the surroundings can make the banal purchase of throat lozenges feel like an experience.

There are antique pharmacies in other countries too. Reavleys in Oxfordshire, for example, was founded in 1734 and is the oldest pharmacy in England, and the Alte fürst – erzbischöfliche Hofapotheke in Salzburg, Austria was founded in 1591.

Hundreds of years ago pharmacies looked nothing like the clean bright shops full of branded boxes and mass-produced blister-pack pills we know today. Pharmacists used to make many of their own medicines, and their shops were often filled with rows of ceramic jars, wooden counters, tiny drawers and metal scales. Some modern pharmacies have retained these elements to add that old-world charm.

Wander Through a Medicinal Herb Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden by Nick BaileyConsider visiting your nearest botanical garden and see if it has a section filled with medicinal herbs and plants. For example, the Singapore Botanic Gardens has a Healing Garden that showcases 400 varieties of plants that are used medicinally.

These displays can give you the chance to see, touch, and smell medicinal herbs, as well as learn what they were used for. It might not have the old-world feel of the apothecary, but this is the kind of garden where many a fantasy healer, herbalist, or witch would cultivate and gather their ingredients.

Other Inspiration

Jenny Dalfin 5 by sharandulaOf course, even if you can’t physically tour such places, there is plenty of information about the history of medicine, science (including alchemy), healing, and poisons out there. The recent BBC documentary series Pain, Pus, and Poison: The Search for Modern Medicines provides a truly fascinating overview of the history of medicine and how many modern medicines were developed.

When it comes to alchemy, tales and myths abound, many of which are based on real historical figures and blend fact with fiction, for example, the tale of Dr. Faust or Nicholas Flamel. These can be fascinating to delve into and have inspired many an author in the past.

So whether you’re hunting for inspiration for your fantasy healer, witch, potion-brewer, poisoner, alchemist, or apothecary, or are simply fascinated by the world of ancient medicines, consider taking a closer look at the relics in the real world around us.

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Want to learn more about herbs, healing, and poison? Check out these other Fantasy-Faction articles!

Fantasy Medicine – Part One: Healthcare, Magical and Mundane

Fantasy Medicine – Part Two: Pretty as a Bairnwort

Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part One

Arsenic and Old Leaves: The Art of Poisoning Your Fantasy Characters – Part Two

Title image by Eats & Retreats.

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4 Comments

  1. Joie says:

    Great article!
    As a pharmacist, I’d also recommend chatting up your favorite enthusiastic pharmacologist/pharmacist or toxicologist. The world of drugs is a fascinating thing * rubs hands together *.

  2. Patrick says:

    I enjoyed reading this thinking I would surely be the only pharmacist reading it – then gazzumped by Joie! Agree completely – there are plenty of modern medicines derived from botanical or other natural sources which could provide inspiration for realism in potion making. Obvious one like willow bark and anti-inflammatory pain relief (in the form of salicylic acid or aspirin).

    We also do have to deal with figuring out what might be in the various herbal/alternative concoctions that people take and what effects they might have on human physiology. Always interesting – try googling colloidal silver and argyria…

    For the less faint of heart, medical museums can be quite interesting – if very bizarre in places. Not sure how many still exist but all sorts of weird and wonderful things, many of which surely could only come from the minds of a fantasy author…

  3. Thanks for this article! I’ve seen a few “old world” pharmacies and apothecaries, and they ARE fascinating! I haven’t been over there for forty years or so, but I remember some things very vividly. This article helped bring back certain memories. 🙂

    We have an excellent botanical garden in Fort Worth, Texas, that might have a “healing garden” section. I need to get up there and check it out this coming spring!

  4. JS Hamilton says:

    Great article! If you go back far enough, before the sciences were broken out into their current disciplines and key discoveries had cut everything up into the slices of study they are in today, everything was interrelated.

    My WIP focuses on gems and crystals and elements of alchemy, and crystallography and gemology were once included in alchemy. My research has continually surprised me – how long it took for us to understand the chemical composition of things – and yet, more often than not, they were way ahead of their time. It would take the advent of x-ray technology to improve upon their complex, ancient calculations of the angles involved in the lattices of gems. And even with technology, we find they were pretty darn accurate. Low-tech doesn’t mean stupid, by any stretch.

    Consider this modern commentary on the angles involved in the common crystal Calcite, which is practically everywhere: “Remarkably the classical crystallographers usually got it right, confirmed by indexing the X-ray diffraction patterns. However, for calcite and the calcite group they got it wrong. The old morphological calcite cell had c/a = 0.8543. The structural cell has c four times as large as would have been calculated for the morphological cell, now c/a = 3.419 (Maslen et al. 1993). Most of the Miller indices here are from ancient times and the c value should therefore be multiplied by 4. E.g. the rhombohedral cleavage is given as “Perfect on {1011}” in the old setting and should be “Perfect on {1014}” in the correct structural setting.”

    This is probably gobbly-gook to most people, but the point is that even when mistaken, the ancients were CONSISTENT, and we can still use their figures by multiplying by 4. Not too shabby.

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