Potions, Alchemy, & Apothecaries: Inspirations from the Real World
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
Maybe 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
Admittedly, 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
Consider 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.
Of 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