© Kat Morgenstern, December 2004
In the last issue we explored the roots of western medicine and found that the medical masters of the distant past did not shy away from using herbs, on the contrary, they employed them quite skillfully. Thus one might conclude that the roots of western medicine and western herbalism are in fact the same. In some ways they are, but what today is practiced as modern herbalism is a very far, distant cry from the wilderness that is the domain of traditional herbalist.
As in all cultures, western herbalism and healing are intricately entwined with the realm of magic and mystery. It arose hundreds and thousands of years ago at the nascent beginnings of civilization itself, when the gods still walked the earth and the world was a vast mysterious place inhabited not only by humans, plants and animals, but by spirits and elves as well. Shamans and wise women who knew the secrets of each herb, their songs and spells, are the ancestors of herbal medicine. The herbal lore that has survived as fairy tales are but the thinnest shreds of ancient vestiges, echoes from a long forgotten past. In time healing became the domain of women and of midwives. Women naturally took care of nurture and sustenance, not just of their babies, but of their clan. The knowledge concerning the plants that feed and the plants that heal is very closely linked. Often they are the same, depending on how they are used. Woman, naturally also learned about the cycles of fertility and the herbs appropriate for each stage of womanhood.
It is difficult to investigate the history of western herbalism without considering the political dimension, the persecutions during the Middle Ages that sought to extinguish the flame of herbal knowledge with the same swooping campaign that was to extinguish the old religions with its ancient Gods and sacred trees. A campaign that specifically attacked the rights of women and their herbal healing practices. A brutal campaign of flames and torture that left behind an intellectual and cultural wasteland governed by the fear of God and by ignorance. Only in the remotest corners, hidden valleys and far off wildernesses, where the iron arm of the inquisition did not reach did the stories of ancient gods and spirits survive along with the herb lore and healing art.
Parallel to this development a new caste of medical professionals was bred at the universities, learned men who spent their years of training debating the old masters, but rarely saw an actual sick person, suddenly claimed the domain of medicine as their own. They practiced mostly in the cities, where trade was lucrative. In the countryside, where the herbalists had mostly been burnt at the stake (and any that hadn't were forbidden to practice), the task of healing ironically fell to the monks and nuns, who started to grow medicinal herbs in their monastery gardens. They of course freed themselves from the actual responsibility of affecting a cure, for they claimed that sickness was god's punishment for earthly sins and healing was his grace. This is how it came to be that those who felt a calling towards healing increasingly sought refuge within the folds of the church, the very instrument of the demise and torture that had been leashed on countless numbers of country healers that had gone before them.
And this is why today we find that the path to the roots of western herbalism leads through the monastery gardens where in the process of assimilation the ancient gods were clad in pious garb and their herbal lore was reinvented to fit the gospel rather than the old pagan tales.
In North America Herbalism took yet another turn. When western Europeans first began to settle there they did not know many of the plants that grew around them and depended instead to a large degree on the herbs and medicines that came by ship from the old world. But this journey was a long one and often the herbs by the time they reached the shore were spoilt. Also, much like in Europe, people in the countryside, far away from the cities had to learn to rely on their own knowledge and skills - and the knowledge of their native neighbors. Some people did not shy away from trying to learn the healing skills from the native people, or, later on, from the slaves. And that is how it came to be that today modern herbalism also makes use of many Native American or African American remedies. Prickly Ash or Golden Seal or Poke Root or Sarsaparilla and Sassafras to name but a few are all remedies that have recenty been added to the medicine chest of the modern herbal practitioner. In the course of its separate development in the United States herbalism sprouted all sorts of branches, which soon developed into 'isms' like Thompsonism and 'Eclecticism'.
Today we have quite a comprehensive body of knowledge regarding the action and composition of herbs, but this knowledge is derived more from the science of pharmacy than from herbalism. We also have a number of different herbal philosophies. In an effort to become more acceptable and in-line with the materialistic/rationalistic worldview modern herbalism has left the plant spirits and devas that were once the sould of traditional herbalism far behind. The modern practice has become 'clinical' and one would barely guess that the pills and tinctures on the shelves have any relation to the wild herbs in the fields and forest.
Only rarely now does anybody venture to find the old windy path of traditional herbalism. Indeed, it is not easy to find, since it just does not fit into the rationalistic and scientific cosmology of an age where any child can manipulate a computer to spit out a list of possible herbal candidates for a given complaint, complete with their action and constituents at the click of a mouse button. But this ability does not make anybody a healer.
While the practices between traditional and modern herbalism have changed drastically over the centuries, the core principle has stayed the same: to heal is to make whole. Wholeness is maintained through equilibrium, the natural balance between body and soul. Sickness is defined as a loss of that equilibrium. Thus, the primary aim of the practitioner is to assist the body to regain his inner balance once it has become disturbed. The body is not viewed as an inert machine that simply goes from birth to death in a process of gradual decay, but as a psycho-spiritual and physical entity that continuously strives for balance. Of course, our conscious mind can, and often does, interfere. At other times the imbalance is due to outer circumstances, but invariably the body-mind will try to adjust in order to regain its equilibrium. The healer's task is to assist the body in its efforts, usually by keeping the channels of elimination open, which affects an inner cleansing process.
Yet, over the centuries the methods employed have vastly changed. Where the old herbalists would regard healing not only as a physical, but as a psycho-spiritual process that requires time for introspection, the modern practitioner and patient are usually far too impatient for nature to take its course and sadly often don't give much thought to the psycho-spiritual dimension of disease and healing, but simply want to affect a cure, as quickly and painlessly as possible, and so the remedies that are given usually come in concentrated form. Labeled old fashioned and complicated the old applications, liniments, poultices, compresses, decoctions, tisanes, syrup, herbs mixed with wine or milk, steams, baths and washes, salves, oils, ointments, herb waters, potions, lotions and talisman have mostly been are mostly abandoned in favor of pills and tinctures.
These days nutrition is often treated quite separately from herbal medicine, but in the old days the distinctions between food and medicine were not drawn as sharply. The plants that feed us are often the same that heal. Some foods can be beneficial for some people but harmful to others, or act quite differently on the body depending on how they are prepared. Thus, the knowledge regarding the healing property of foods was naturally also the domain of the herbalist. Today, nutrition is still considered important, but nutritionists specialize in this aspect of health. The rules are simple. While there is no 'one-fits-all' dietary plan, the basic premise for all constitutional types should be to avoid highly processed and refined foods, to eat if possible only organic, additive free foods, avoid excessive amounts of meat and grease, not to eat more than your body needs, eat slowly, chew well and don't worry your mind while you are eating. Drink clean water or simple cleansing herb teas.
It sounds simple, but it is far more difficult to practice than to preach. In this day and age it is hard to even find unprocessed foods (let alone the time to prepare them), and thus wrong diet has probably become the single most important factor in serious diseases such as diabetes, stomach problems, cancers and heart disease, not to mention gout and arthritis and a host of other ailments. Before herbs will have any lasting therapeutic effect the diet must be addressed. But regular dietary needs apart, we should also never underestimate the healing power of common foods. If used properly common items of anybody's kitchen shelf can be employed remedially for a whole range of ailments, from burns, to colds and coughs and much more. (More about this in a later issue).
Generally speaking hygiene has much improved over the centuries and many diseases have disappeared completely, mostly because our sanitary services have improved, especially as far as the availability of clean water and vastly improved canalization is concerned. Thus, personal hygiene has also imporved - to the point where it has become almost obsessive, much to the delight of the cosmetics/household chemcial industry. But personal hygiene goes beyond regular showers and the ample use of soap. In fact overuse of soap and obsessive cleaning (with environmentally toxic substances) of either the body or our immediate environment can actually lead to an increased vulnerability towards disease causing organisms and sensitivity towards environmental toxins.
The idea of hygiene implies periodic cleansing, to rid the body of accumulated toxins. It is a term that should be applied not only to the physical body, but to the mental, emotional and spiritual body as well. In the old days people would set a few weeks in early spring aside to cleanse body and soul. They would fast and pray and drink cleansing teas, or would dispel the heavy winter sluggishness with fresh greens and bitter herbs. Fasting and sweating or steambath were also popular and not just with Native Americans, who practiced sweating as a method of inner cleansing. Herbal bath were used for healing as well as remedially for mental or emotional ailments.
Most of us carry far too much 'baggage,' yet we do not deem it important to purge ourselves of this excessive weight. Heavy thoughts that prevent us from moving on can make the body as sick as undigested food that lingers in the stomach. Lingering fear, hate or jealousy and other negative emotions can poison us from inside. These also must be cleansed. Yet, sadly instead of addressing them in terms of mental and emotional hygiene, doctors will prescribe prosac while many herbalists now have a tendency to prescribe 'anti-depressant herbs'. Traditional herbalist on the other hand would find a way to 'embody' such negative feelings and draw them from the person into an object, which could then be ritually buried or burnt. They might also prescribe baths with fragrant herbs, or advise the burning of incense to dispel the fears. They might also give calming herbs that bring light and strength to the soul to help it regain its balance.
Given our current level of movement, movement on our own two legs that is, it seems plausible that human beings will soon evolve to be born without legs altogether. The average lifestyle of a typical westerner is incredibly sedentary. We sit at work, in the office and at school and we sit more when we get home, mostly in front of the TV or computer. Our way to and from work is spent sitting in the car. The average American walks less than 1.4 miles per week! That includes walking around in the house, walking to and from the car and walking around the supermarket. Mothers deem it dangerous for their children to play outside. But muscles and bones need to be used in order to retain their strength. The blood and all cells of the body need oxygen. But movement and oxygen are not in rich supply when one lives in a sedentary, air-conditioned world. People wonder why they have circulation problems and look for an herb to stimulate their blood or their metabolism, when all they need to do is go for a brisk walk once or twice a day. One does not have to be superman or super-woman to maintain a healthy level of fitness that allows even older people to use the bicycle or walk for the pleasure of it. Instead of making use of one of the simplest and cheapest ways to achieve well-being and a good body tone many people rely on herbs or pills for cures once the damage has been done. It must be stressed though, that one can also overdo it. Not all exercise is good. Excessive exercise can wear out cartilages and bones and cause irreparable damage. Moderation in all things...
Traditional herbalism is a dying art, yet proportional to the degree that pills and tinctures are conquering the herbal market, the knowledge of the herbs from which they are derived drifts further into the nebulous world of forgotten knowledge. While we lament the loss of plant knowledge of a distant unknown Amazon tribe, we don't even notice how that same knowledge slips away from right underneath our own noses. Although the path of traditional herbalism is overgrown it can be rediscovered by anybody who chooses to embark upon the adventure and follow the call into the wild green yonder.
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.