The art of Herbal Healing is almost as ancient as human history itself. Though we have lost the origins of this tremendously rich body of knowledge, in many parts of the world significant amounts of it have been passed down through the generations and survive to this day. In some countries treatises on the healing arts were the very first scriptures to ever have been recorded, and fragments of these have survived to this day. Although these scriptures seem ancient to us today - some dating to several millennia B.C., by the time they were first recorded the knowledge they preserved was already old.
It is not known how people first discovered the properties of plants for healing purposes. Scientists have proposed the theory that trial and error led to these early medical discoveries. While this might seem plausible to modern scientists - (this is largely how they go about trying to discover things) it does not seem very likely.
In 'primitive' 1societies concepts of health and disease tend to be integrated into a larger cosmology. Health represents a state of wholeness and balance: balance within the individual and in relation to the society of which he or she is a part and in relation to the cosmic pattern. Disease on the other hand, is regarded as a deviation from this cosmic order, an expression of dissonance within family or social relations or a spiritual affliction. Healing then represents the attempt to realign an individual with himself, his social context and the cosmic order. Herbs used in this way represent mediators between the psycho-spiritual planes and the earthly reality. Their physical properties are often considered of secondary importance in the healing ritual. It is through the power of the ritual that they are transformed into therapeutic agents.
In many societies plants are believed to embody a spirit, which can be addressed, and if treated right, is drawn into the physical body of the plant by means of ritual, thus rendering it medicinally potent. However, in many traditions the healer then consumes the medicine, not the patient. The healer ritualistically assimilates the healing power of the plant, and thus can affect the healing.
It is recorded that healing rituals also often involved a dream therapy. The patient underwent cleansing rituals in a specially designated healing temple where he or she prayed to receive a healing dream, which would reveal the therapeutic process or agents.
When reading accounts of healing practices throughout the world it becomes clear that the obsession with 'active principals' as the therapeutically potent agent, is a fairly modern concept rooted in the utterly materialistic worldview that shapes our modern world. Many modern doctors deny the existence of a relationship between body and soul in their healing practice. Some, more perceptive doctors admit a certain correlation, but wish it was not there. Healing in accordance with the laws of mechanics is a much simpler matter, no different than taking a car to the garage. Psycho-spiritual realities are much harder to integrate in the modern medical system since they are hard to quantify and somehow undermine the fact-based reality of the scientist. Healing is often equated with getting rid of symptoms regardless of whether or not any underlying or peripheral causes have been addressed.
Medicines that act directly on the biochemistry are the norm in modern health practice, even though often the secondary effects on the overall organic balance has not been established. The results are rather underwhelming. The majority of the overall population is taking drugs to maintain some sort of perceived physical balance (absence or suppression of symptoms), and just as many are on psychopharmaceutical agents that are supposed to gloss over the dismal causes of their spiritual and physical imbalance. This is called modern medicine - a far cry from ancient and traditional concepts of healing.
It is hardly surprising that large numbers of people are becoming dissatisfied with this type of therapy. They are looking for alternatives and find them among the ancient healing traditions, which treat the body as a psycho-physical totality and not just as a biomachine. Chinese herbalism, one of the most ancient healing traditions in the world has become hugely popular in recent years. Western herbalism, Ayurvedic practices, Aromatherapy and others are also steadily gaining acceptance among the mainstream, though the medical and pharmaceutical mafia are trying to discredit these practices any way they can.
Yet, they too have relied on plant-based medicines as the basis of some of their most powerful weapons in their 'fight against diseases'. According to the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, just in the U.S. alone 56 percent of the top 150 prescribed drugs, are linked with discoveries made in the wild. This amounts to an economic value of $80 billion! Pharmaceutical companies are again looking at plant materials as possible sources for new drugs. They are targeting tropical plants in particular. The tropical forests are a huge reserve of bio- and chemical diversity. It is estimated that of the approximately 250 000 tropical plant species less than one percent have been tested. Yet, the few that have been tested have supplied the pharmaceutical companies with the raw materials of many of their most profitable and widely used drugs. And so they are sending 'ethnobotanists' into the field to gleam the healing secrets from the few surviving healers and shamans among some of the most primitive tribes on earth.
Many conservationists and ethnobotanists have jumped on this band-wagon as a plausible argument for saving the rainforest. While this is a vitally important and noble cause, the issues involved are full of controversy. First there is the question of ownership. Pharmaceutical companies usually want to own the patent on the plant materials they hope to turn into profits. Yet, without the shamans that entrusted their knowledge to the 'field researcher', they would probably still be randomly picking herbs and leaves in the hope of finding something, somehow. But the shamans or tribal people rarely receive an agreement on benefit sharing should any of their plants be developed into a successful drug. Meanwhile it is expected that even the people on whom's knowledge the discovery depended should one day pay for the drug. In recent years tribal people have become very discontent with this kind of biopiracy and are now beginning to fight for their rights.
All the while the forests are still being cut down, the tribal communities are becoming displaced, acculturated and impoverished, and the healing knowledge and traditions are disappearing together with their cultures, while modern development and western drugs are moving in.
Another effect of the steadily rising popularity of herbal medicines is the fact that unethical commercial collectors gather not just a modest amount of wild species for their own supply, but ravage the countryside till there is nothing left in sight. This kind of 'feeding frenzy' is beginning to take its toll and increasing numbers of wild medicinal species are getting scarce and endangered. Ethical herbalists and herb companies recognize this fact and are acting accordingly to bring in measures to preserve and sustain the wild stnds of medicinal herbs and their habitats.
It might be time (we don't have much left) to reconsider our attitudes towards health and wholeness within a truly holistic context that includes our environment as an extension to ourselves. Nothing in this world lives in isolation and everything is affected by everything else. Such is the web of life - if we touch one string the whole web resonates. To heal ourselves we also have to heal the planet and to heal the planet we also have to become whole once again ourselves - by adjusting the balance of personal, social and cosmic interactions.
Most of the links on this page lead to resources and information on herbs, such as on-line manuscripts and pages that deal with specific kinds of herbal therapies, along with some databases and links to organisations that promote herbal medicine.
More links and documents on indigenous knowledge and healing systems, along with some organizations and resources concerned with intellectual property rights and biopiracy can be found on the indigenous knowledge resource pages and in the relevant section of the newsbytes
Links to Resources on Medical plants and conservation issues can be found on the Conservation page. As all these issues are very intertwined it is sometimes difficult to decide where the most appropriate spot for a particular resource would be. In some cases they are therefore listed more than one page.
© Kat Morgenstern, Aug. 2002
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1 I use the word 'primitive' in the original sense of the word - primitive=original