Wherein the Greeks defeated Mr. Tooth Decay with a powerful combination of oysters and tree sap.
I remember commercials for Crest toothpaste from the 1970s–1980s with the “Crest Team,” a nicely diverse group of toothpaste-squirting superheroes, battling the dastardly Cavity Creeps to save the floating city of Toothopolis. While these were supposed to inspire me to brush with Crest, they instead always provoked more technical questions. For example, in what exactly was Toothopolis floating? Saliva? It couldn’t have been fluoride rinse, because you’d think that would have hideously dissolved the Cavity Creeps before they could even reach the gleaming white molar walls. And if the walls were gigantic teeth, why weren’t the roads a constantly moving, slick tongue, perhaps using taste buds as speed bumps? To the disappointment of both my dentist and the Procter & Gamble corporation, I too seldom moved beyond such pondering to actually do things like floss.
I think it’s a tragic lack in history that the ancient Greeks didn’t draft their gods into a divine dental team fighting the evils of tooth decay. I could easily imagine Hermes racing down from Olympus into a cavity-riddled mouth, toothbrushes swishing brusha brusha from his helmet and sandals. Hercules could have diverted a river of dental rinse to flush out the Augean lower palate. And Zeus could even praise Narcissus for constantly gazing at his own reflection to check for gum recession.
Ancient Greek Dental Care
While the ancient Greeks lacked my marketing acumen, they nonetheless had a sophisticated approach to dental hygiene. Galen, a first-century CE physician, concluded that teeth are bones with nerves inside. Even earlier, Hippocrates taught Greeks in the 400s–300s BCE to use ointments for tooth pain, examine tooth decay and gum disease, and to extract irreparably damaged teeth; Aristotle addressed many of the same things.
The Greeks (and later the Romans) liked highly abrasive compounds for cleaning teeth—no Sparkle Fun toothpaste for them. Instead, they used grit from such things as crushed oyster shells—and even crushed bones—to grind and scrape debris from their teeth. An Egyptian papyrus from Ptolemaic Egypt gives a specific recipe for ancient Greek-influenced toothpaste:
As for the ingredients and their measurement, the more than 1,500-year old recipe called for one drachma (one-hundredth of an ounce) of rock salt, one drachma of mint, and one drachma of the dried iris flower, all mixed with around 20 grains of pepper. According to the document, the composition should form a paste-like consistency when in contact with the saliva of the mouth.
Viennese researchers in 2003 tried the recipe and found, while it made their gums bleed, it was nonetheless more effective than many more modern toothpastes.
Ancient Greeks also chewed Mastic resin to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. Called “Tears of Chios” because the sap is drained in drops from mastic trees on the island of Chios, the vanilla-scented resin has also been found to reduce the bacteria in ulcers. Tears of Chios remain so popular in Greece that they are still used in dairy products, candy, and even beer (although I haven’t seen anyone claim they need to drain a six-pack to ward off Mr. Tooth Decay).
To finish our discussion, here is a video of the Crest Team in action. Perhaps you’ll be able to answer the question: what is the social order in Toothopolis, and could Cavity Creep operatives infiltrate the media to corrode the system?