Malta’s World Famous Penis Fungus

October 14, 2019

Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, I have great news. I’ve found your next big
product idea for Goop. It solves everything. And I do mean everything. It’s both an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive
and it stops STDs. It lowers your blood pressure, stops nausea,
and if you put it on yourself like a paste, it can even heal open wounds. And the best part of all? It probably doesn’t even work. On a small island off the coast of Gozo,
there grows a parasite that was once so valuable that the rulers of this land would have
put you to death for picking it. In fact, it’s so valuable that even stepping
foot on the island where it grew was enough to get you three years as a galley slave. Because to the Maltese people,
this was the universal cure all. This was the most important medicine
on the island, if not the world. They tried it in every single way they could. They ground it into pastes and powders. They turned into liquid and ate it whole. Because to them, it could solve anything. They called it a fungus, specifically the
Maltese Fungus, but it’s actually a parasite. Its scientific name is cynomorium,
and at one point in history it was the most heavily guarded treasure
in this entire country. It’s a tiny plant with an incredibly deep history here,
yet if your average local found it today, it would probably go
completely unnoticed. I should mention that I don’t have any
actual footage of the fungus. I feel I need to state that up front. After all, they’re not going to let me out
on the rock, so how I’m supposed to get it. But that said, if we were in almost any other
Mediterranean country, both North Africa and Europe, I might actually have that footage. Because despite how valuable of a plant it is here,
in every other country it grows and dies relatively untouched. Which is kind of the point of this video. Why did it become such a wonder drug here? And to answer that, I do kind of need to
show you what it looks like. So if you could please bear with me while
I use a still image I found on the internet. We’ll pull of the bandage and be back
to the nice moving footage soon. Ok, there it is. Cynomorium. Exciting stuff. Get a feel for it because I’m probably
not going to show it to you again. Now, when you saw that photo, your first thought
probably wasn’t ‘wow, that looks really phallic’. Personally, to me, it kind of looks like
an old-timey microphone. I don’t know about you, but my penis doesn’t
start really thin and then bulb out like a corndog. Maybe I’m weird. But to the Maltese, who had never seen an old-timey microphone, and probably had never eaten a corndog, this was a particularly phallic plant. And we know that because their doctors kept
prescribing it for problems of the penis. Which I feel needs a bit of explanation. There was once a man named Jakob Bohme. He theorized that God really,
really cared about us. He cared about us so much, according to Bohme,
that he’d kind of arranged all the plants to look a little bit like body parts so that
our doctors would know which to use for which. Got a heart problem? Eat something that looks like a heart. Makes sense.
Sort of. Bohme was certainly not alone in
thinking this. He just happens to be the one who
most affected Maltese opinion. It’s actually a fairly natural theory, and
we see similar ideas cropping up in traditional medicines of the Middle East, China,
and elsewhere around the world. After all, it certainly sounds plausible,
at least by old-timey medical standards. If you genuinely believed that God made you
in his image was it really that big a leap to imagine that he made the plants that way, too? When the Knights of St. John were granted
Malta as their personal fief, it was the sinew that connected both sides of the Mediterranean. A European colony imprinted on a
North African landscape. A cultural, architectural and biological mix
of African and European history. It has intensely devoted Catholics speaking
a language just barely removed from Arabic. These lands have been ruled by the Lebanese
and Tunisians, Romans and Greeks. They’ve been ruled by the Normans
and Aragonese. By Arabs and the Pope. This is a true crossroads of history. To the knights of St. John, arriving here from
their castles on the European mainland, these islands would have held
the allure of the orient. The plants and landscape resembled that of Jerusalem,
and the language and history and culture of the people were all just somewhat Eastern, holier. In the same way that the Beatles would later
go on to imitate Indian spirituality, so too did the knights see something better
in their Maghrebi stronghold. One of the most important things
they found was the cynomorium. It fit all their needs. The local people spoke about it with reverence,
and the Muslim slaves they captured told about how they’d long
since used it as a medicine. So, confirmation from the Orient
was enough for the Europeans. They had read Bohme, and they knew
what that phallic plant was for. Before long, it was sort of a catch all for
all the problems of the penis. The knights may have been religious,
but they certainly weren’t chaste. This was a sailor’s haven after all. Got the clap?
Pop some fungus. Can’t get it up?
Pop some fungus. Don’t want a bastard?
Pop some fungus. It didn’t really matter
what your problem was. This was like the perfect medieval party pill:
if you were ever worried about your penis, for whatever reason,
just take some of this. And as if that wasn’t enough, the more they came to
rely on it, the more it was used for other things. It wasn’t just phallic,
the plant was also red. So clearly this meant that it could be used
to solve issues of the blood, as well. They ground it down into a powder, and turned it
into liquids and pastes. For internal issues, it was drunk from a vial and for
external wounds, it was plastered on like a cast. The more they relied on it, the more it was
claimed to be able to cure. Everyone had a story where they’d been saved
by cynomorium. Even the most important hero of all Maltese history survived a grenade blast due to the fungus. Or at least, that’s how they remember it. I have no idea if it works, by the way. Nobody does. There are tests that have sort of made it
seem like that it might lower blood pressure, but for all its historic value,
this is not a well studied plant. And on top of that, placebo effect can pretty
much summarize all of the historical anecdote if we want to look at it that way. It’s entirely possible that this plant did
everything that they claimed it did. But it’s far more likely that it didn’t. Once people here started believing that it
was a wonder drug, it took on a life of its own. I mean, if you genuinely believed that a
rare fungus could cure venereal disease and stop you from getting pregnant, you’d go through
some pretty great lengths to get some. This little penis enhancing fungus was soon
a treasured gift of kings, popes, and the world’s most powerful people. It was such a rare and valuable product that they even
shaved down the sides of the rock it grows on and put up a guard tower on the land, just so
nobody would go and steal any. With the advent of modern medicine the fungus
is no longer given nearly as much love. And even if it was, the reality is that there
are cynomorium plants all over this region. They grow on both sides of the Mediterranean and
variants of the plant exist as far away as China. It’s not nearly as rare as Maltese had once believed. For hundreds of years this island contained
Malta’s most important resource. It wasn’t important to them how rare
it was across the whole Earth, what mattered was this crop’s
connectivity to this local land. There would likely never be another society that
treats it as important as those ancient Maltese. Because they saw it in a new light. An incorrect light, granted,
but a new light, nevertheless. And to me, it shows that it isn’t really so
important whether or not it worked. What truly mattered was that
they believed it did. This is Rare Earth.

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