PLANTS, MEDICINE, HEALING
“As dreams are the healing songs from the wilderness of our unconscious – So wild animals, wild plants, wild landscapes are the healing dreams from the deep singing mind of the earth.”
-Dale Pendell, Living with barbarians.
The western medical tradition extends from the prehistoric use of plants and herbs to heal wounds through the technological advances of the present day. Over this millennia of time and history the practice has shifted from olden holistic approaches to modern, scientifically supported explanations of pathology.
The late technology on medical practice with it’s scientifically grounded reasons and evidence, has armed the physician with specialised knowledge opening the way for him to take on a much more active role in treating disease. This in turn has eventually led to silence the earlier important voice of the patient and the power over the body has essentially been transferred from the person (as patient) to the physician.
(Some years ago a lady from Guildford, West Sussex called me to enquire about using the herbal remedies from Damascus we were offering at that time. At one point in our conversation she asked whether there was any contra-indication with regard to the pills she was taking for high blood pressure. I asked a few questions, enquiring also how long she’d had high blood pressure. She replied, “I don’t have high blood pressure”, adding “But the doctor recommended that I take the pills in case I developed high blood pressure.”
To understand her statement better I then asked how long ago that was. “Ten years” was her reply. Hmmmm.”)
Graeme Dinnen, Resources for Life.
In the early days of medicine, physical manifestations of illness were almost always explained in spiritual terms, where the relationship between people on earth and the gods, goddesses and nature played a central part in both sickness and health.
The concept of medicine, and in particularly mental disorders, during the Stone Age for example was a very mythical one. And the assumption was that disease stem from magical beings interfering with the mind. (A belief that the prominent philosopher Rudolf Steiner from the 20th century also supported.) Treatment of this kind of supernatural phenomena was mostly provided by individual groups of shamans whom accessed the spiritual dimensions. And even though herbal substances were used as a repertoire by the tribal physician, it was generally agreed that serious illness had spiritual rather than physical causes.
In the long process of discovering which plants were edible, humans started to identify many which seemed to cure ailments or sooth a fever. The long centuries of primitive experiments makes herbal medicine the earliest scientific tradition in medical practice. Something that remain an important part of medicine to this day, in a line descending directly from those distant beings.
Our early ancestors stumbled across herbal substances of real power, without understanding the manner of their working.
The Snakeroot plant has traditionally been used as a tonic to calm patients; it is now used in orthodox medical practice to reduce blood pressure. A tea of Foxglove leaves were for centuries given by wise women to patients with legs swollen with excess fluid resulting from a weak heart; Digitalis, a chemical derived from the plant Foxglove, is now a standard stimulant of the heart. Curare, smeared on the tip of arrows in the Amazonian jungle to paralyse the prey, is an important muscle relaxant in today’s modern surgery practice.
God creating Adam. Michelangelo, the Sistine chapel.
Over time the cosmology of the world and religion changed, something that has had an inevitable consequence for our general perspective, including healing and medicine. Going from deities, goddesses, and gods of the earth to one single male God almighty as a father figure hovering above us in heaven affect the way we see and deal with the world around us.
Before our male dominated age, women served as healers and priestesses and participated in holy rituals and worship. One such healer was Pythia the high priestess of Delphi, known as the oracle of Delphi.
19th century painting by John Weguelin of a priestess making offerings.
Hygieia was an important goddess in the Greek pantheon. She was the daughter of Asclepius, the legendary father of medicine. And she is still a part of medicine today. Her statue is often found in front of hospitals and her name is invoked daily in our word hygiene. Her sister Panacea is also often mentioned in medicine (Panacea; a remedy for all disease or ills).
Together they were invoked for the restoration of good health, and the practice of hygiene is today considered central to preventive medicine.
Hygieia by Gustav Klimt
In the dark part of the Middle Ages little respect was left for ancient tradition defying women, their bodies and their connection to nature. Once they had been the guardians of the earth, the protectors of sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the Middle Ages they had been highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by both common folk and nobility alike.
The wise woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions creating blessings for themselves and for their communities.
In the Norse practice of ‘utiseta’, “sitting out at night for the sake of evoking spirits, or for the sake of gaining knowledge” women would “sit out” on the land as dreamers: gazing, listening, gathering wisdom. A time of introspection in nature where the wise woman would sing in concert with elements, animals, birds and transcendent nature spirits called ‘landvættir’. In Old High German this was called ‘hliodarsaza’, “hearing-sitting.”
This practice has many parallels to shamanic traditions of spending time isolated from other human beings in nature for the purpose of connecting with spiritual resources.
Odin and Völven, The Norse witch – by Lorentz Frølich, 1820
But the power of the male-dominated church and the new fathers of experimental science decided there would be no place for woman healers and the misfortunate feminine species and their plants, got a bad light. The church had no problem specifying which botanicals were of the devil and which were of God and the witch holocaust followed.
Healing is part of the feminine principle in nature and cosmos, and women have always been healers – as the center of the family with domestic healing and cures; nurturing sick children, caring for the old, nursing the hurt and wounded…
At this insane and sadistic time in history, sometimes it did not take more than a woman having ointments or potions of herbs at home – common medicaments at the time – to be accused, brutally tortured, judged and then burnt alive to death.
Women were often targeted due to their responsibilities surrounding tasks that dealt with the survival of the community, such as preparing food, midwifery and tending animals.
As doctors were scarce, local healers were often the only options for cure.
It was believed that ‘witches’ had considerable control over the health and life of others. Because their activities were all jobs that had the potential of going very wrong, women were often blamed when someone died or became sick.
Since women at the time were not allowed to study, the church authority reasoned that her healing knowledge and understanding of plants must have come from a pact with the devil.
Although this kind of botanical familiarity has practically always been a part of the human race as the healing lore of plants has been sustained through oral tradition and apprenticeship.
In places where the emergent male professionals had their greatest strength, any cure that escaped understanding done by women were readily attributed by the licensed doctors or priests as witch craft.
Herbs, flowers and perfumes formed a large part of everyday life in the Middle Ages and were inextricably linked with magic and medicine.
Medicines were made from herbs, bark, spices and resins and medicinal herbs and plants were a major and important part of the pharmacopeia.
Besides making brews, ointments and poultices it was also common to ‘smoke’ the sick with fragrant woods and plants as described in the oldest surviving English herbal manuscript the Saxon Leech Book of Bald written in about AD 900–950.
After the destruction of the Roman Empire, when the powers had shifted and Europe went from the dark ages into the the Middle Ages, these turbulent times witnessed the rise of Christian monasteries. And the study of medicinal plants was in the hands of monks who in their monasteries planted and experimented on the species described in classical texts. Even though the practice of medicine was still rooted in the Greek tradition, where it was believed that the body was made up of four humors that were controlled by the four elements; fire, water, earth and air – the herbals of the ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered and translated.
No monastic garden would have been complete without medicinal plants and some monks became very skilled in applying herbal lore to treat disease and physical ailments. This lore was then passed down from generation to generation in religious institutions as well though individuals, (often women), and became the foundation of modern medicine.
Science was not born independently from religion but directly from it. And the Roman Catholic Church effectively dominated what direction the medical world took.
Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. And starting in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. Up until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research.
Over time, science developed as a concept disassociated from theology and magic, and provided a sanctuary for those not comfortable deciding what medicine was from God and what not. And soon medicine and science became inseparable.
God designing the universe. From a twelve century French bible.
Today the contemporary “scientific worldview” is immensely influential. Science has been so successful in its achievements that all our lives are touched by it through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an enormous expansion of our knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space.
But our day’s science is based upon an assumption that everything essential is physical and all reality is material. The body is separated from the mind and consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious.
These beliefs make up the ideology of materialism – and the consequence where the power of the human raise and extends itself over the universe, with nature tamed and subdued by the mind of man and spirit conceptually eliminated from nature.
The scientific revolution paved the way for western medicine, with its objective, pragmatic fact-oriented philosophies and methodologies. Separated and away from the invisible realm and sacred spaces where fellow humans find comfort and spiritual uplift in times of distress, pain and peril.
Even though we are centuries away from the days of the witch hunt, certain remnants of the medieval christian cosmology is still reflected in western medicine until this day, dividing ‘modern medicine’ (male oriented ‘scientific/materialistic’ perspective) and ‘alternative medicine’ (feminine oriented ‘spiritual/earth’ perspective) into two separate camps, where one is to be believed and trusted and one is viewed with suspicion and doubt.
But as we have seen, medicinal plants have played an essential role in the development of human culture, and plants are resources of traditional medicines as well as being used indirectly for the production of allopathic medicines. Plenty of traditional remedies have produced the staple drugs of today as modern drugs are compounds directly derived from plants whose pharmacological effects on humans have been observed long before their mechanical actions scientifically have been shown. And the use of herbs ground into powders, filtered into extracts, mixed into salves, and steeped into teas has provided the very foundation upon which modern medicine today is derived.
“About a third of modern medication has its genesis in plants. For example, the most commonly-prescribed diabetes medication, Metformin, is derived from French lilac, a plant that has been used since the middle ages to treat symptoms of diabetes.”
– Dr. William Cefalu, executive director of Pennington Biomedical.
Witch hazel, the spooktacular herb.
In today’s society, people are again turning to plants for guidance and wisdom and the ability to be healed in body, mind and spirit.
And with this movement, an added new focus is directed towards what we can call ‘plant spirit medicine’, or herbal energy.
This kind of teaching of plants is an additional and other kind of herbalism than that of medical reductionism modern culture so embraces and that we are so used to and aware of.
It is a practice and knowledge that has existed for a long, long time and that indigenous peoples are accustomed to.
Traditional cultures have long understood that both nature and humankind are endowed with intelligence and spirit. They understand that plants have a spirit.
There is a healing power behind our relationship with the plant world that extends the boundaries of consciousness to include not just humans and animals but plants as well. An eternal source of intelligence most of us in western culture have been cut off from, living in a type of world that upholds illusional barriers between us and the natural world. In our rush for freedom in the New World, western culture suffered a severe setback in this regard during the Inquisition, when healers were considered heretics and burned at the stake.
Energy is the unseen building block of all life. The earth is made of energy, we humans are made of energy, and so are our green ancestors that supply the oxygen of the very air that we breathe.
Energy is flowing, constantly cycling in the microcosmos of the universe and the earth. The same is happening in the microcosmos of the individual species that inhabit it. This unseen and subtle energy is the underlaying template for our physical forms.
It lies in the invisible. The importance and power of the invisible is essential to life. It is life.
We are complex multi-dimensional energy beings, fueled by spirit.
“The relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted it’s potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something…. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us… The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure and biochemical reactions that take place within them are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique self.”
Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech republic. (‘The art of the impossible’)
Plants are containers of meaning. There is a ‘feeling’ to plant medicines, a living text with an invisible language. Working with plants, being with plants, listening to plants – simply having a relationship with plants – is a journey back to meaning. And a path with a heart.