As many of my regular 6 or 7 readers may already know, I often turn to the Ancient Greeks and their old mythology for my writing inspiration…
And today is to be no different as I sit here with a thundery grey numbness rushing round my aching brain. Yes we are talking hangover city. That place where you’re impelled to cry out “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
Believe it or not, hangovers were indeed known to many if not all of the Ancient Greeks.
In fact, in certain parts of North London there are many Ancient Greeks who still get them today. And yet, it is less well known, that it was a Greek sage who first coined the pithy epigram ‘nothing in excess’; a piece of very sound advice that rings clearly down the ages, and, to this very day, is as soundly ignored and rejected now, as it was even then.
The earliest record we have of hangovers comes from the Bacchantes, famous priestesses of the god Bacchus.
They would hold regular festivals dedicated to their god and patron saint of non-returnable containers, and it was quite traditional that, at these gatherings, the most holy of the priestesses were thought to be those who got absolutely shit-faced and spent the first half of the evening snogging and shagging with their bosses behind the filing cabinets, and the second half alternately dancing and projectile vomiting.
It is actually from these ‘Bacchanalian’ feasts that we get our English phrase ‘wife-swapping’.
In his famous book on the Greek historian Herodotus, the Grable scholar N. J. Trivett mentions that his subject was known to have attended several Bacchanalia and recorded for all posterity, some of the strange elitist ceremonies and drunken rituals of the priestesses, although he never actually managed to get any one of these lofty lovelies back to his place afterwards.
Trivett points out that it is in Herodotus’ account that we first hear of the custom of dancing all night to the music of stringed instruments (the so called ‘Johann Sebastian Bacchanalia’), and that the word for hangover is first introduced.
It is interesting to note that in Greek the word for ‘hangover’ (which is second declension, feminine – and takes the genitive after ‘with’ and the accusative the morning after that) also has another meaning. It apparently meant, suffering ‘a disreputable and immoral fate, worse than death itself’.
Thus when Herodotus mentions one particular priestess, Phrygida, suffering from this condition, it is not certain in which context he was using the word. Or, if it was both, in which order he used it. But, since neither was curable and the preamble to each made the other more bearable, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
We next see mention of the hangover in the works of another Ancient Greek, the father of all medicine, Hippocrates. Hippocrates observed the evolution and natural development of the hangover and, after much pleading from his patients, invented the very first cure.
He took one cup full of white sand and mixed it with one frond of brown seaweed, stirring the result into one cubit (that’s about eight gallons or, after metrification, six gallons, oh all right then, 30 litres) of fresh sea-water in an earthenware gourd, which he then dropped onto the patient’s head in a desperate attempt to induce blackout and subsequent unconsciousness.
Of course our more modern day pharmacological scientists have taken us way beyond these crude beginnings, and most experts in the metabolic disorders field would now recommend using ordinary tap-water instead of sea-water.
In terms of the balance of the basic forces of life, the hangover is actually caused by dehydration, since alcohol is a relatively potent factor in promoting an increased urinary flow. Although it may nowadays, be an obvious fact of life, this so called diuretic effect of alcohol was not discovered until the second half of the 18th century, just before last orders and closing time to be precise.
Even today there are some very strange beliefs about alcohol that have a fervent, albeit minor following. For example, there is said to be a particularly stupid and somewhat in-bred race of men (mostly living in New Jersey), who still firmly believe that the cause of the dehydration is the excess of salt in the olives at the bottom of their martinis. It is however, not possible to talk to these curious men about their beliefs; not if you like your nose the shape it already is, that is.
On a slightly more reassuring note now, recent research into the central nervous system has shown that, during the hangover’s dehydration phase, the pressure inside the cells of the brain actually falls by a measurable amount. So when a sufferer states he feels as if his brain is shrivelling up and wrinkling like a ten day old toy balloon, he is absolutely right.
In such circumstances it would be reasonable to warn him not to blow his nose too hard in case he comes undone and goes flying round the room backwards with an accompanying obscene ‘farting’ type noise (much like a ten day old toy balloon would do).
Books on traditional or ‘folk’ medicine also recount a large variety of cures for the modern day hangover…
Some people like to go to bed with a large vegetable, a pumpkin or a red cabbage for instance. Others prefer to retire with a lemon sole or similar flat fish under the pillow, or a pair of flannelette panties under the mattress. Still more tend to favour vibrators, bondage and rubber-ware, while others just hang around bus depots whistling at sailors. None of these actually relieve a hangover, but they all help to pass the time. After all, this is the 21st century isn’t it?
Since the earliest days of fermented liquors, there has been a belief that a cure for a hangover can also be obtained by using ‘a hair of the dog that bit you’.
Medically speaking, this is about as sensible as a man who breaks his arm falling down 200 steps, trying to repair it by falling down the last thirty again. It would seem judicious to suggest to such patients that if they are able to identify correctly the dog that bit them, they should not trifle with stealing one of his hairs but wait until he is looking the other way and hit him on the head with a shovel. This may not relieve the patient’s hangover, but it will certainly ventilate any pent-up aggression and is also some protection against rabies.
However, there are other sides to the problem, or, as the old Kent saying has it, ‘there is more to a grapefruit than meets the eye’. For, apart from the headache side of things, there is the mouth and stomach side of things, and also the massive marital and domestic upheaval consequent upon all three effects (the so called ‘House of Hangover’).
It is generally felt that what is required is something to tickle and stimulate the palate, something to reawaken the taste buds that have been put so swiftly into hibernation. Hence in the smarter London hotels – or at least those of the smarter London hotels in which your researcher got a glimpse of the cocktail bar before being thrown out – many bar tenders serve ‘revivers’ and ‘pick-me-ups’.
Generally, there is much use of Angostura bitters, egg yolks, cayenne pepper and, among the more desperate ingredients, nitric acid. The idea of stimulation is not, of course, limited to the metropolis, and in certain parts of Cornwall there is still available the legendary ‘Piskie Highball’. This consists of one part orange juice, one part vodka and one part oxtail soup with a live hedgehog swimming in it.
It is uncertain whether the palate is meant to be awoken by the swallowing of the whole concoction or whether the patient is simply intended to wait for the hedgehog to develop the hangover.
The sheer number of so-called cures for hangover obviously attests to their utter uselessness, and I conclude that the malady is simply a fact of nature like a hardening of the arteries, fading eyesight with age and ill fitting waistcoats.
From my own point of view however, I must point out I have never had a hangover because I have been strictly tee-total since June 1968, which is when I had a shandy and promptly fell over. Even so, realising that I have been preaching at length on a subject about which, I have a minimal knowledge and no personal experience, does not worry me – I am after all a builder.
And traditionally, being a builder, I am supposed to knock off work early each day in order to hurriedly congregate around the nearest bar with ‘other builders’ and get totally rat-arsed together, sorry… network, through to the wee small hours… the time honoured way that builders since time in memoriam have done business throughout all history (and consequently blown all their earnings in doing so). That is why I go home (like a good little boy) and write blogs instead.
And far be it for me to propose abstention as a cure for hangovers because I can hear you now saying “Nope… not gonna happen mate”. So, as a writer, or builder for that matter, I would instead suggest, that in order to relieve the pains of hangover, you should maybe try reading the rest of my blog entries aloud, or chanting them, or even singing them. Or if all else fails, you could even try paying me for them.