Natural Philosophy: #3 Basil and the Scorpions

Basil, that most popular of herbs strongly associated with Italian food especially pasta and pizza, has had other mysterious and quite frankly, weird science associations too! But let’s start with the positive and proven scientific stuff first:

Basil is full of powerful phytochemicals and nutrients. It’s low in calories and high in beta carotene, vitamins A and C, and other antioxidants. It is also a good source of zinc, iron, and protein. Promising preliminary research shows that some phytochemicals in basil may help with cervical, prostate, and breast cancers. Other studies show that basil may be useful for diabetes, high cholesterol levels, heavy metal poisoning, radiation sickness, and cataracts. These are all FACTS, not beliefs or superstitions, all based on chemical analysis and medical trials with data to support the facts which will include statistical probabilities. But that’s modern science and we’ve come a long way since the superstitions of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and even since the supposed science of alchemists and natural philosophers in the medieval times and the early days of the Enlightenment, particularly connected to basil:

Since the oldest written records, basil was associated with creepy-crawly things such as snakes and lice—but especially scorpions. In the Middle Ages, scorpions and worms were widely believed to be conjured from basil leaves. In the 1500s, doctors of the day warned that merely smelling basil would breed “scorpions of the mind.””

Spontaneous generation, Basil and the Scorpions

The highlighted part of that quote refers to something called spontaneous generation with some life forms arising spontaneously from non-living matter. A simple example of this being the “spontaneous” appearance of maggots on rotting meat. So, returning to our basil, it was believed that when basil was crushed and left outside overnight it would spontaneously generate live scorpions! But this gets even more weird when we read about an actual experiment conducted by the Italian natural philosopher Giambattista della Porta. He conducted an experiment to attempt proving/disproving the belief that crushed basil left outside overnight would generate live scorpions. And guess what ….. in the morning he found scorpions having the time of their lives luxuriating in a feast of basil!

He wrote the details of his experiment in a widely read book at the time “Magia Naturalis” (Natural Magic) published in 1558 which was so popular it went through 10 years of expansion and into several languages until it comprised 10 volumes of experiments. But ……. can you see the fatal flaw in Della Porta’s interpretation of the basil experiment? I’m sure you can, because it was a massive leap by Della Porta to think that all of the scorpions he found chomping on the crushed basil were spontaneously generated and weren’t just lucky scorpions passing by who chanced upon a free feed!

This is a classic example of pre Baconian thinking, but poor old Della Porta wasn’t alone in such a belief because natural philosophers/scientists believed in the concept of spontaneous generation up to and until a famous experiment conducted by Louis Pasteur in 1859 obliterated the theory once and for all.! Weird it took so long.


My blogging has focused a great deal on Wine for the past couple of years and with the occasional dash of philosophy (including Buddhism) and photography. For my regular followers you may have noticed that in some of my most recent wine posts I have referenced my science background in education and experience, and in particular gaining an MSc and PhD in Analytical Chemistry. It has been the analytical chemist within me that has slanted my approach to tasting and understanding wine, and only recently writing about it too.

It is this rekindling of my “earlier self” that has stimulated my current reading in the history of science, in particular the years from 1543 to around 1900, a period that includes The Enlightenment as well as the Industrial Revolution and marks the shift away from a cultish belief in everything emanating from the time of Aristotle, plus a breaking of the knot that tied every phenomenon, including movement of the planets, gravity, diseases etc, to “the will of God”. “Scientists” were known as alchemists and then as natural philosophers and were persecuted as heretics if they discussed or wrote something that was different from the prevailing order/view. They were shunned, lost their jobs, lost their wealth and property, and were sometimes imprisoned or worse at the hands of The Inquisition. Of course, this sort of thing couldn’t happen today?

So, I intend to share a few tales and events from 1543 onwards, not deep science stuff, but inspiring as well as weird science stuff from Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Halley, Wren, Faraday as well as the earlier Copernicus and Galileo and onwards to the “engineers” including Watt, Newcomen, and Brunel. All mixed in with a few personal experiences too.

Categories: Natural Philosophy, Philosophy

6 replies

  1. thank heaven that scorpions can’t spontaneously generate from basil!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinaring facts about basil I knew nothing about. Perfect for a Trivia evening (if these will survive Covid)!

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Natural Philosophy: #3 Basil and the Scorpions – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me
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