The next time you bathe in an icy river of southern Russia, like the Amazons of classical antiquity, be sure to warm up afterwards with the Amazons’ secret massage oil.
The women warriors known to the ancient Greeks as Amazons dwelled north of the Black Sea around the Don River in southern Russia. In antiquity the Don was known as the Amazon River, because the Amazons used to bathe there. Amazons were women of Scythian tribes, nomadic horse people who crisscrossed the vast steppes from the Ukraine to Mongolia. These people were known in antiquity for their endurance and ability to withstand wintry temperatures and snow. Ancient Greek vase paintings depict the distinctive woolen leggings and tunics, leather boots, hats with earflaps, and animals skins worn by Amazons and Scythian warriors. Those articles of clothing designed for cold weather, along with weapons, have been found in graves of real women warriors of Scythia, who lived in south Russia and Siberia 2,500 years ago.
The Amazons’ secret weapon against freezing temperatures was mentioned in an obscure treatise, “On Rivers” by Pseudo-Plutarch. Along the Amazon (Don) River where the Amazons used to bathe “grows a plant called halinda, like a colewort. Bruising this plant and anointing their bodies with the juice makes one better able to endure the extreme cold.”
What was this mysterious folk remedy for warming the body in ancient Scythia?
Pseudo-Plutarch gives a clue for identifying the ancient Scythian word halinda by comparing it to colewort, cabbage. A little botanical detective work reveals that the halinda plant was probably Brassica napus, a hardy wild winter cabbage of Russia and Siberia, related to Brassica oleracea. These coleworts are the ancestors of today’s edible cabbages, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower (and rapeseed/canola oil). The cruciferous plants were first cultivated about 2,500 to 4,000 years ago, bred to reduce the amount of mustard oils, sulfur-containing glucosinolates, which give this species their pungent, bitter taste. Crushing wild cabbage yields a lot of mustard oil, which is an irritant. Rubbed on the body as a massage oil, it is a strong stimulant of circulation, bringing blood to the skin surface, causing a warm sensation and alleviating aches and pains of arthritis (a common affliction of Scythians, as studies of their skeletons show). The analgesic action of wild cabbage is similar that of capsaicin, the irritant oil from hot chili peppers from the New World, applied as a topical ointment to relieve arthritis and other pains. The Amazons of ancient Scythia would also have benefited from cabbage oil’s antibacterial properties, as a poultice for wounds, and it was useful in summer for repelling insects.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2009); and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.