A mithridate is an antidote to poison.
A recipe for a mithridate in Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician Enlarged of 1653 begins: “Take of Myrrh, Saffron, Agarick, Ginger, Cinnamon, Spikenard, Frankincense, Treacle, Mustard seeds, of each ten drams”. It goes on to specify schenanth, stoechas, galbanum, costus, turpentine, pepper, castorium, cubebs, troch, cypheos, bdelium, gum arabic, macedonian parsley seeds, opium, cardamoms, fennel seed, gentian, dittany, annis seeds, asarabacca, orris acorus, valerian, sagapen, and several other ingredients. It then says they should all be compounded with wine and honey.
By this time preparation is completed, your patient has probably expired, of old age if not of the poison or infectious disease that was the original reason for creating this extraordinary mixture. Many of Culpeper’s herbs remain widely known, but some others are a mystery or uncommon (such as cubebs, once a popular substitute for black pepper).
Culpeper’s comments on the efficacy of the remedy remind one of snake-oil salesmen at their most exuberant: “It is good against poison and such as have done themselves wrong by taking filthy medicines, it provokes sweat, it helps continual waterings of the stomach, ulcers in the body, consumptions, weakness of the limbs, rids the body of cold humours, and diseases coming of cold, it remedies cold infirmities of the brain, and stopping of the passage of the senses, by cold, it expels wind, helps the colic, provokes appetite to one’s victuals, it helps ulcers in the bladder, as also difficulty of urine, it casts out the dead child, and helps such women as cannot conceive by reason of cold, it is an admirable remedy for melancholy, and all diseases of the body coming through cold, it would fill a whole sheet of paper to reckon them all up particularly.”
The antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, a small kingdom on the southern shore of the Black Sea. He fought four wars with Rome, finally being defeated by Pompey in 65 BC. Mithridates is said to have tried to protect himself against poison by taking progressively larger amounts of the ones that he knew about until he was able to tolerate lethal doses. As a result, anything that was thought to provide a general antidote to poison or disease became known as a mithridate.