Lemnian Earth

Latin Names: Terra lemnia

Other Names: Limnia sphragis (sealed earth), Limnia miltos (reddle from Limnia) – Greek;  Terra sigilata (Sealed Earth) – Latin; Tin – i – Makhtum (Sealed Earth) – Ottoman Turkish

Taxonomy: Mineral Kingdom

Part Used: Mined, processed and purified earth

Basic Qualities: Cooling and Drying

Other Qualities: Astringent, hemostatic

Taste: Unknown, but probably slightly salty and slightly astringent

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – staunches and stops bleeding; Phlegmatic – dries up stagnant fluids and dampness; Choleric – reduces swelling and inflammation; Melancholic – binds and astringes.  Lemnian Earth also has the ability to neutralize poisons and toxins, and to resist or counteract putrefaction.

Tropism: The blood and bodily fluids; the skin; the intestinal tract

Constituents and Pharmacology: Siliceous mineral material

Medicinal Properties: Antidiarrheic, antidote, anti-inflammatory, antipurulent, antiseptic, astringent, dessicant, discussive, febrifuge, hemostatic

Cautions and Contraindications: None known

Medicinal Uses: Lemnian Earth was used as an antidote against poisons, and also to treat the stings and bites of venomous animals. Galen considered it to be one of the best agents to treat malignant ulcers, and to counteract the putrefaction of blood and other vital fluids. It was also used to facilitate the healing of wounds, and to treat eye complaints, such as pus and abscesses in the lachrymal ducts. Its astringent properties were used to stop bleeding, diarrhea and dysentery, and its febrifugal properties were used to bring down fevers, and also to treat the plague.

Preparation and Dosage:

Herbal Formulation:

Classic Combinations: Galen mentions mixing Lemnian Earth with a Juniper preparation as an emetic to provoke the vomiting up of poisons. The dried, powdered Lemnian Earth is also mixed with vinegar or wine to make a paste for topical use.


Although the natural healing substances used in Greek Medicine are mainly herbs of botanical origin, there are natural substances of animal and mineral origin as well – and Lemnian Earth is a good example of a medicinal substance of mineral origin.  If we look at the Greek Medicine Wheel, we find that the Basic Qualities associated with the Earth element are cold and dry; and so, we find that most mineral substances used in Greek Medicine have cooling and drying properties, as well as a binding, astringent action that is also associated with the Earth element.  And so, generally speaking, the cooling, drying and astringing properties of most mineral substances like Lemnian Earth are used to treat conditions of excessive heat, or redness and inflammation, as well as excessive dampness or moisture, which is characterized by swelling, congestion and exudation.  A good example of the therapeutic properties of earthy mineral substances is the use of cooling and drying Calamine Lotion, which is made from the mineral Smithsonite, to treat the inflamed, oozing lesions of poison ivy.

Although other mineral substances like clay and sulfur are better known today for their use in natural healing, various kinds of earth have been used as well; in addition to Lemnian Earth, or the earth of Lemnos, which is an Aegean island that lies in between Mount Athos in northern Greece and the Turkish mainland, medicinal earths from other localities, such as Samos, have been used.  Medicinal earths are also used in Chinese medicine as well.  No one really knows exactly how far back in time the use of Lemnian Earth goes.  The first mention of it is by Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC) in a treatise he wrote on stones (De Lapidibus 52); he doesn’t give  any medicinal uses for it, but merely mentions it as a source of reddle, or red ochre.  The philosopher Flavius Philostratus, who was born in Lemnos, tells us that the great warrior Philoktetes, who took part in the Trojan War, healed himself of his wounds with Lemnian Earth.  The earliest references to the medicinal uses of Lemnian Earth date from around 70 AD, and are by the scholar Pliny the Elder and the herbalist Pedanius Dioscorides.  Pliny tells us that Lemnian Earth was greatly celebrated in antiquity, suggesting that its medicinal use was very ancient. 

Dioscorides gives us the following information regarding Lemnian Earth:
The Lemnian Earth comes from a cave-like hollow on the island Lemnos.  It is dug out there and mixed with goat’s blood, the people form it into pills and seal those with a seal with a goat on it, called ‘goat’s seal’ because of this practice.  It is very useful against deadly poisons.  Taken mixed in wine, it forces one to vomit the poisons.  It is a good remedy against the bites and stings of poisonous animals.  Some use it for cleansing rituals, and it is very useful against dysentery. 

In his treatise on Natural History, Pliny tells us the following about Lemnian Earth:
In medicine it is very highly esteemed.  Applied to the eyes in the form of a liniment, it allays defluxions and pains in those organs, and arrests the discharges from lachrymal fistulas.  To persons vomiting blood, it is administered with vinegar to drink.  It is taken also internally for affections of the spleen and kidneys, and by females for the purpose of arresting flooding (menorrhagia?).  It is employed too, to counteract the effects of poisons, and of stings inflicted by sea or land serpents; hence it is that it is so commonly used as an ingredient in antidotes. 

In another passage, Pliny also tells us that Lemnian Earth can be used as an aphrodisiac when mixed with elephant’s trunk.
In the second century AD, Galen wrote about his trip to Lemnos to observe the production and preparation of their famous earth:
"The priestess collects this, to the accompaniment of some local ceremony, no animals being sacrificed, but wheat and barley being given back to the land in exchange. She then takes it to the city, mixes it with water so as to make moist mud, shakes this violently and then allows it to stand. Thereafter she removes first the superficial water, and next the fatty part of the earth below this, leaving only the stony and sandy part at the bottom, which is useless. She now dries the fatty mud until it reaches the consistency of soft wax; of this she takes small portions and imprints upon them the seal of Artemis; then again she dries these in the shade till they are absolutely free from moisture.

This then becomes what all physicians know as the 'Lemnia Sphragis' (Sphragis = Seal), being so named, as I say, by some on account of having the seal stamped on it, just as by others it is called 'Limnia Miltos' (Miltos = reddle*) from its color; for its color is the same as that of reddle, although it differs from this in not leaving a stain when handled.
It is also like the hills of Lemnos, which are entirely tawny in color, and on which there is neither tree nor rock nor plant, but only this kind of earth. Three varieties of it are found. One is the above-mentioned sacred earth, which nobody touches but the priestess. A second kind is the real reddle, mainly used by builders. The third is that which removes dirt, and which can be used, if desired, by those who wash linen and clothes.

Now, I had once read in the works of Dioscorides and others that the Lemnian earth is mixed with goat's blood, and that it is out of the mud resulting from this mixture that the so-called Lemnian seals are moulded and stamped. Hence I conceived a great desire to see for myself the process of mixture."
(Then follows a description of his voyage which is omitted here.)

"Now, taking the island of Lemnos as a whole, Hephaestias lies to the east, and Myrina to the west. As to what the poet said about Hephaestus, that he fell in Lemnos, it seems to me that the fable refers to the nature of the hill, which has every appearance of having been burned, both from its color, and from the fact that nothing grows on it. This, then was the hill to which, at the time I disembarked, the priestess came. She threw a certain quantity of wheat and barley on the ground, and did some other things in accordance with local ritual, then filled a whole wagon with earth. This she took into the town, as I have just said, and from it prepared the far-famed Lemnian seals.

I thought well then to inquire whether there was no tradition of goat's blood being mixed with the earth. All who heard this question of mine laughed, and they were not mere chance individuals, but people well informed about the whole history of the locality, as well as in other matters. In fact, I got a book from one of them, written by a former native, in which all the uses of the Lemnian earth were set forth. Therefore I had no hesitation myself in testing the medicine, and I took away 20,000 seals.

The man who gave me the book, and who was counted among the leading citizens of Hephaestias, used the medicine himself for many purposes: thus for old-standing wounds that were slow to heal, for viper bites and animal bites in general; he also used the seal for poisons, both in prevention and cure. He said that he had also tried a juniper preparation to which some Lemnian earth is added; this causes vomiting if drunk while the poison is still in the stomach. As a matter of fact, I have also myself had the experience of this in cases of poisoning by sea-hare and cantharides; when patients suspected they had taken something of the kind and were immediately made to vomit by the Lemnian seal preparation, they thereafter felt none of the symptoms that follow ingestion of hare or cantharis, although the taking of these poisons had been proved. I am not, however, certain whether the mixture of juniper and Lemnian seal has also the same potency against the other poisons which are called 'deleteria'.

In any case the citizen of Hephaestias went so far as to declare that it would even cure the bite of a mad dog, if taken mixed with wine, or applied to the wound with very sour vinegar. In fact he said that, mixed with vinegar, it was also a cure for the bites of other animals, if over it were applied the leaves of such plants as, we are taught, resist putrefaction. He especially advocated water-germander, then slender centaury, and next horehound. Indeed, whenever I have used Lemnian earth in malignant and putrid ulcers it has proved of great value; its use is here determined by the size of the ulcerating surface. If this be fetid, and very boggy and foul, it is checked by Lemnian seal dissolved in very sour vinegar, and brought to the consistence of mud, like these pastilles which are made in various ways. I mean those of Polyeides, Pasio, and Andro, and that just mentioned which is called Betinian. All these have a powerfully desiccative action and also help malignant ulcers; they are dissolved either in sweet wine, boiled wine, mead, or one of the white, tawny, or yellow wines, as required. Similarly they are sometimes dissolved in vinegar, or in wine, water, vinegar-and-honey, sour wine and water, and honey-mixture. The Lemnian earth dissolved in any of the above makes a suitable application to promote the closure of recent wounds, and to cure those which are chronic, slow to cicatrize, or malignant."
  - 1.
* The “reddle” to which my source is referring is not a mis-spelling of “riddle”, but actually another rendering of the word “ruddle”, which refers to yellow ochre.  The rendering of “reddle” implies that it is an earth that is redder in color than the yellow ochre.

Galen’s account, as quoted above from my source, is famous as the most detailed description we have from antiquity on the production, preparation, appearance, qualities and medicinal uses of Lemnian Earth.  The account is pretty self-explanatory, and gives us much valuable information on this medicinal substance and its uses in classical Greek Medicine.  An important point I would like to touch on, however, is that a purification process was necessary for the preparation of the earth for medicinal purposes, involving a sluice-like washing of the earth with water, a process that is also known as elutriation.  Besides Lemnian Earth, other earthy substances, like clay, are also used in natural healing; where they are not absolutely pure at their source, they have to be purified in some manner before they are ready for medicinal use, especially internally. 
The next reference we have to Lemnian Earth comes from the philosopher Flavius Philostratus (ca. 165 – 240 AD), who is otherwise famous for his biography of the Hellenistic holy man Apollonius of Tyana.  It comes from his work, Heroicus, from the chapter on Philoktetes, a legendary hero who took part in the Trojan War:  He (Philoktetes) was healed immediately by the Lemnian soil, onto which Hephaistos is said to have fallen.  It drives away diseases that cause madness and staunches bleeding, but the only snake bite it heals is that of the water snake.  By connecting it with the cure of Philoktetes, Philostratus alludes to the great antiquity of the medicinal use of Lemnian Earth.  – 1.

In late antiquity, the seventh century Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina does have an entry for Lemnian Earth in his medical encyclopedia, but only says that the Lemnian Earth is much inferior to the earth of Sinope.  From this we can see that, by Paul’s day, the use of Lemnian Earth as a medicinal remedy was definitely in decline.  By the time we get to the tenth century, the famous Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, does not even mention Lemnian Earth.  – 1.   

By the time of the Ottoman Empire, in the fifteenth century, Lemnian Earth had made a remarkable comeback from medical oblivion to once again become a treasured remedy.  The Ottomans regarded Lemnian Earth as being an especially useful remedy against the plague, and used it as a remedy against poisons as well.  The rediscovery of Lemnian Earth is officially dated to the year 1480, and the Ottomans called it tin-I makhtum, or Sealed Earth, which is similar in meaning to its ancient Greek name of Sphragis.  The fact that Lemnian Earth remained a popular remedy, and remained in the medical spotlight for some five hundred years thereafter, is evidenced by the reports of various travelers from 1485 to 1889; these travelers include the Frenchman Pierre Belon in the sixteenth century and the Englishman John Covel in the seventeenth century.  According to their accounts, the earth was ritually dug up and prepared only on one day of the year, which was the Feast of the Transfiguration in early August, being variously dated as either August 6th or 7th.  – 1. 

Lemnian Earth experienced a final fall from grace, medically speaking, at the end of the 19th century, when it was taken into the laboratory and analyzed chemically by Louis de Launay in 1894.  Based on his analysis, he concluded that Lemnian Earth had absolutely no medicinal properties whatsoever.  So – what is the actual chemical composition of Lemnian Earth?  According to the nineteenth century analyses of Louis de Launay and others, Lemnian Earth was confirmed to consist of nothing other than siliceous mineral material – nothing exceptional or remarkable.  The analysis of Thompson in 1914 also came to the same conclusion as to its chemical composition.  In the words of Thompson, its virtues, like those of many other ancient remedies, were chiefly due to the mystery surrounding its origin and the superstitions connected with the source.  – 2.
But still the mystique of Lemnian Earth lives on, and continues to haunt medical researchers seeking to delve more deeply into the medical practices of antiquity and premodern times.  A number of obvious problems confronting medical researchers emerge as they try to go back and verify what was real, and what wasn’t.  First of all, if you take a trip to the modern day island of Lemnos and try to dig up some of its earth, you have to be sure that what you are digging up on that fabled island is actually what the ancient and medieval physicians were writing about, and using.  You have to be sure that where you are digging on the island is where the vein of actual Lemnian Earth was – and some have maintained that the vein of the “good stuff” – the actual Lemnian Earth – had been totally mined out by the nineteenth century. – 1.  Another obvious problem confronting researchers is that chemical composition alone is not always sufficient to assess the physical or medicinal properties of a given substance.  Chemically speaking, for example, diamonds are identical in their chemical composition to charcoal – pure carbon – but their physical properties are quite different.  Or, chemically speaking, a pearl is pure calcium carbonate, no different than common chalk.  But, their physical and medicinal properties differ radically; chalk can be used to stop diarrhea, and is not flammable, whereas pearls, for some mysterious reason, can burn.  My secondary source does extensive detective work on the mysterious case of Lemnian Earth, and I highly recommend reading it.  – 2. 

Yet somehow, the incredible mystery of Lemnian Earth lives on – and that’s because some who still use it in this modern day and age manage to obtain healing benefits and results from it.  One such case history is that of the author of my primary source.  In the course of an acute inflammatory episode of the diverticulitis he suffers from, he applied a paste made of Lemnian Earth mixed with water to his abdomen, to the affected area, and was able to clear up the pain and inflammation in three days, as opposed to the usual one week for the standard treatment with antibiotics.  He is quick to put in a disclaimer, however, and point out that his personal testimonial is of no medical significance.  – 1.  Even today, the legendary Lemnian Earth beckons to suffering humanity.  There are definite possibilities for medical tourism here…

LIMNIA GI - The medicinal earth of Lemnos
Accessing past beliefs and practices: The case of lemnian earth

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.