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In Robert Greene's novel Gwydonius; The Carde of Fancie (published in 1584) Clerophontes gives his son Gwydonius the following advice (italics from the original; bold by me):

Who so meanes to be a sutor to Circes, must take a Preservative, unlesse he will be inchaunted. He / that will fish for the Torpedo, must anoint his hand with the oyle of Nemiphar, least he be charmed, and who so meaneth to enter combat with vanitie, must first surely defence himselfe with the target of vertue, unless he meane to be a captive to care, or calamitie.

I have no idea what nemiphar means. It sounds like the French word nénuphar (water lily), but I don't see how oil from a water lily would provide protection against electric rays (who don't live in fresh water). Or am I misunderstanding "torpedo"?

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The answer seems to be that Greene played so fast and loose with biology that there's no point trying to make sense of it. "Nemiphar" is indeed (probably) the water lily, but the connection with protection from electric rays appears to be something Greene made up out of whole cloth.

In Carmine G. di Blase's chapter "Euphuism and the Uses of Falseness" in Trompe(-)l'oeil: imitation and falsification by Philippe Romanski and Aïssatou Sy-Wonyu is an analysis of Greene and other writers of the period by someone who seems to know what they're talking about

Greene took the greatest liberties, however, with natural philosophy. The vast majority of these references - and this is a telling fact - would suggest Pliny as a source, but nearly all of them have been falsified to one degree or another. It will suffice here to characterize, rather than to list, the numerous falsifications that were revealed in annotating Gwydonius alone. It must be said, first of all, that Greene seems never to have studied Pliny at all. As Don Cameron Allen has shown, "the index to Pliny supplies many names, but Pliny does not supply the matter" [Allen 1007]. For example, when Greene says, "He that will fish for the torpedo must anoint his hand with the oil of nemiphar, lest he be charmed" [Gwydonius 88], he very likely is appropriating the names from Pliny but happily inventing the properties. Pliny mentions the torpedo, or electric-ray, quite often [Pliny IX. 24, 40, 67, 74; XXXII. 2, 31, 32, 33, 46, 47, 49, 53], but never any herbs that might prevent a fisherman from being "charmed" by it. And by "nemiphar" Greene might mean Pliny's nymphaea, or nuphar luteum (the white lily), which is mentioned in the Natural History over a dozen times but never with the property Greene attributes to it [Pliny XXV. 37, 83; XXVI. 18, 28, 36, 48, 49, 61, 83, 87, 90, 92].

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  • That was quick ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 17 '19 at 17:17
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Searching the web for "oil of nemiphar" led me to this book.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 17 '19 at 17:32
  • Using Google I presume. I always use DuckDuckGo, which gave me nothing.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 17 '19 at 17:39

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