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  4. κρόκος

var.dim. κρόκινον

lat. crocus sativus, safranum


Saffron is a plant. The dried stigmas (thread-like parts of the flower) are used to make saffron spice. It can take saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice. Saffron is largely cultivated and harvested by hand. Due to the amount of labor involved in harvesting, saffron is considered one of the world's most expensive spices. The stigmas are also used to make medicine.

The drug, which derives from the orange-coloured stigmas of the crocus, enjoyed wide application in ancient medicine. Its mildly astringent and softening properties among others recommended it as an effective component of eye-salves and in fact it often turns up in the lists of ingredients in papyrus prescriptions.

One comes across crocus in collyrium prescriptions, and they are called 'crocodes', or 'diacrocodes'.


1-2. Etymology – General Linguistic Section.

A degree of uncertainty surrounds the origin of the word κρόκος, although it can be traced to have stemmed immediately from Persian. Saffron  comes from the Latin word safranum (Iridaceae). Safranum comes from the Persian intercessor زعفران, or za'ferân. Old Persian is the first language in which the use of saffron in cooking is recorded, with references dating back thousands of years.

The name of the genus is derived from the Greek κρόκος. This, in turn, is probably a loan word from a Semitic language, related to Hebrew, karkōm, Aramaic, kurkama, and Arabic, kurkum.

Saffron in therapeutics. The Ebers papyrus (ca. 1550 B.C.) mentions saffron as an ingredient in a cure for kidney problems. It was recommended as an addition to each meal as “a cheering cardiac medicament,” but with a warming that excessive quantities acted as an appetite depressant, although a reasonable amount would stimulate appetite and ease headaches and hangovers. In the recent times, it is being used as a remedy for catarrhal infections, for melancholia, to treat liver enlargement, as a nerve sedative, as a carminative, diaphoretic, and emmenagogue.  Saffron has been discovered to be easily the richest known source of riboflavin. Saffron would be likely to offset the decreased diffusivity of oxygen caused by elevated plasma protein and cholesterol level, reduced the severity of atherosclerosis. In addition, serum cholesterol levels were reduced by half. The addition of crocetin to an appropriate nutrient fermentation broth was found to increase the yield of antibiotics and other products.

Modern pharmacological studies have demonstrated that saffron extract or its constituents have antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor effects, radical-scavenging, learning and memory improving properties. Saffron extract also has chemoprotective properties and protects from genotoxin-induced oxidative stress in mice. Anticonvulsant effects have been reported and maximal electroshock models.

Ophthalmologists used saffron against epiphora (running eyes), as an astringent. Crocin analogs isolated from saffron significantly increased the blood flow in the retina and choroid as well as facilitated retinal function recovery and it could be used to treat ischemic retinopathy and/or age-related macular degeneration.

3. Abbreviation(s) in the papyri.

P.Ant. II 66.4 κρόκο(ν); P.Athen. inv. 2780/1.20 (not abbreviated); P.Mich. inv. 3243.9 κρόκο(ν).

B. TESTIMONIA - A selection of representative sources

Discorides, Mat. med. I 25-26 (I 29.9-31 Wellmann): κρόκος ἐστὶ κράτιστος ἐν ἰατρικῇ χρήσει ὁ Κωρύκιος, πρόσφατός τε καὶ εὔχρους, ὀλίγον τὸ λευκὸν ἔχων ἐπὶ τῆς ἕλικος, ἐπιμήκης, ὁλομελής, ἄθραυστος, ἀλιπής, πλήρης, βάπτων ἐν διέσει τὰς χεῖρας, οὐκ εὐρωτιῶν ἢ ἰκμάζων, ἐπακτικὸς δὲ ἐν τῇ ὀσμῇ καὶ δριμύς· ὁ γὰρ μὴ τοιοῦτος ἢ παλαιός ἐστιν ἢ ἀποβεβρεγμένος ("Corycian crocus is the best for medicinal use – new and well coloured, having somewhat white tendrils, somewhat long, having all its parts hard to break, without fat, full, colouring the hands, not dacayed or moist, alluring in scent and a little sharper; for that which is not such is either old or steeped").

Saffron, and fennel juice, τὸ ϲπέρμα ἁρμόζον πρὸϲ ἀμβλυωπίαϲ μετὰ μέλιτοϲ λεαινόμενον καὶ οἴνου καὶ χολῆϲ ἀλεκτορίδων καὶ κρόκου καὶ μαράθου χυλοῦ, Mat. med. III 46.2 (II 60 Wellmann: "the semen is expecially good against amblyopia, pasted with wine and bile of alectorides, and saffron and fenugreek juice").

Galen, Simpl. VII 10.57 (XII 48.3-12 Kühn) describes the properties of crocus sativus: [νζʹ=57 Περὶ κρόκου.] Κρόκος ἔχει μέν τι καὶ στῦφον ὀλίγον, ὅπερ ἐδείχθη γεῶδες ψυχρόν. ἐπικρατεῖ δ’ ἐν αὐτῷ θερμαίνουσα ποιότης τε καὶ δύναμις, ὥστε τὴν ὅλην οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ τῆς δευτέρας μὲν εἶναι τῶν θερμαινόντων τάξεως, τῆς πρώτης δὲ τῶν ξηραινόντων, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο καὶ πεπτικὸν ἔχει τι, συντιμωρούσης εἰς τοῦτο καὶ τῆς βραχείας στύψεως. οἷς γὰρ ἂν μὴ σφοδρῶς θερμαίνουσι φαρμάκοις ὀλίγη προσῇ στύψις, ἶσον δύναται ταῖς ἐμπλαστικαῖς καλουμέναις οὐσίαις, ἃς, ὅταν θερμότητι συνυπάρχωσι, μὴ σφόδρα πεπτικὰς ἐδείκνυμεν ὑπάρχειν ("Crocus is a moderate astringent, that has shown a land cooling. But quality and strength, in this, have a warming force, so that the whole being of saffron belongs to the second class of the heating agents, being the first class of the drying agents, and for this reason it has also a peptic digestion. Saffron belongs to a moderate astringent agent. Those, in fact, which are most heating in the medicaments, have a little efficacy in astringensy; as well as they are substances which are indicated for plasters, that, when they are warming, they do not absorb enough peptic efficacy").

Galen, Comp. medic. sec. loc. IV 4 (XII 715.15-716.1 Kühn) τὸ Πακκιανὸν δι’ οἴνου κροκῶδες, ᾧ χρώμεθα παραμιγνύντες ἐλάχιστον αὐτοῦ τοῖς προειρημένοις φαρμάκοις. ἔχει δὲ τοῦτο πλεῖστον μὲν τὸν κρόκον, ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ κροκῶδες ὀνομάζεται, μέμικται δ’ αὐτῷ καὶ τῶν ῥυπτόντων μεταλλικῶν ἔνια ("Paccianum; it has the greatest for eye diseases with wine, that we use mixing a little of saffron to the alredy called pharmaka;  it contains most of saffron, for which reason it is named the saffron collyrion; it has also metallic elements which extirpate harshnesses").


The moldable sediment deposited in unguents, as in LSJ s.v., quoting the Elder Pliny, NH XIII 19: faecem unguenti magma appellant. Magma is again left unqualified below at GMP II 5, vi 17 and viii 10, although at v 18 it is κρόκου μάγματοϲ. Sediment from a saffron unguent.
Galen does not usually leave μάγμα unqualified (but see a recipe for a plaster of many uses he attributes to Andromachus, Comp. per gen. VI 14 (XIII 925 Kühn). Otherwise Galen's habit is to specify the type of unguent yielding the sediment, with his most common qualifier being μάγμα ἡδύχροον. Sediment from an aromatic unguent (e.g. Comp. sec. loc. VIII 5 [XIII 183–5 K], and VIII 7 [XIII 204 K]; see also Antid. I 6 [XIV 39 Kühn]), where it is an ingredient in the Elder Andromachus' theriac called Galene; I 15 (XIV 84 K); I 16 (XIV 101–2 K), in Damocrates' theriac; II 9 (XIV 154 Kühn), in King Mithridates' theriac; II 10 (XIV 161 Kühn), in one of the theriacs attributed to Aelius Gallus; Ther. ad Pis. 12 (XIV 259 Kühn), again in a theriac attributed to Andromachus). μάγμα ἡδύχροον is also mentioned by Paulus Aegineta (III 24.4 [CMG IX.1, 194 Heib.]). As a medicament on its own and also in compounds μάγμα ἡδύχροον is praised for its ability to dry, soften, and soothe. After putting up for scorn a doctor at Rome because he thinks ἡδύχροον is a plant or other simple, and after he has tried to purchase it from the dealers in unguents, Galen quotes the hexameter verses in which Andromachus explains its preparation (Antid. I 10 [XIV 52 Kühn]); he also gives a prose version for preparing the ἡδύχροον he attributes to Magnus with many of the same ingredients (Ther. ad Pis. 13 [XIV 262 Kühn]).

In manufacturing, saffron extracts are used as fragrance in perfumes and as a dye for cloth. Dyes and colored garments (principal pigment of saffron is α-crocin, a water-soluble carotenoid).

Saffron as perfume. A pleasantly odoriferous compound, safranal, develops during the drying process, probably by enzymatic or thermal dissociation of the bitter compound, picrocrocin.


For additional information and further references, see Gazza 1956, 86; Préaux 1956, 137, 138 with n. 7; Nielsen 1974, 40; Youtie 1975, 562; André 1985, 79; Horak 1991, 128–33; Durling 1993, 212; Fournet 1994, 318; Andorlini 1995a, 108–9 ad II 37–38; Fausti 1997, 102; Reiter 1997, 808; Azzarello 2003, 51 (PKöln X 410.3n.); Clackson 2004, 78 (PHorak 14.7n.); Maravela–Solbakk, GMP II 7.2n.; Mitthof, GMP II 8, with n. 40, p. 132.

Alison Rix, George Maw, Joseph Hooker, AND THE GENUS CROCUS, in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, Volume 25 (pages 176–187). Article first published online: 6 JUN 2008 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8748.2008.00616.x


E. CPGM reference(s)

BKT III 32-33.8; O.Bodl. II 2181.4; O.Bodl. II 2185.2; P.Amst. inv. 148.4; P.Ant. II 66.4; P.Ant. III 134.4; P.Athen. inv. 2780/1, I, 20; P.Berlin. Möller 13, ii, 1; P.Mich. inv. 482.24; P.Mich. inv. 3243.9; P.Oxy. VIII 1088, i, 6; P.Ross. Georg. V 57.7; P.Ryl. I 29a.38; GMP II 4, ii.11, 17; P.Ryl. III 531 verso, i, 47; P.Strassb. inv. Gr. 90, i, r, a.4; P.Tebt. II 677.11-12 (= I. Andorlini, Trattato, ii 38, p. 108); GMP II 5 V.18, VII.21; GMP II 6 A.2, 8 (= GMP I, 12.2); TMP 5.19.

E. DDbDP reference(s)

O.Stras I 619 (1. κρόκου (δραχμὰς) β); P.Bingen 79 (7. κρ̣ό̣κου (δραχμαὶ) η); P.Cair.Zen I 59069 (21. κρόκου); P.Haun II 20 (8. κρόκου οὐγ(κίας) γ); P.Horak 14 (7. κρόκου (δραχμαὶ) β); P.Koeln X 410 (3. κ̣ρόκου); P.Lund IV 11 (11. κρόκου (δραχμαὶ) η); PSI XV 1558 (8. τοῦ κρόκου, ἔξοθεν(*) γὰρ ἀφέθη, ἵ(*)να μὴ λακηθῇ, and 17. κρόκου μν(α-) ).


Isabella Andorlini

Accepted term: 13-Mar-2015