Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine was important to the ancients. Theophrastus (372-287 BCE) compiled a detailed volume of medicinal herbs, describing formulas, recipes and usages. His book was entitled Inquiry Into Plants and Growth of Plants. And, in the first century AD, Discorides wrote a five-volume work describing over 600 plants and plant extracts. His herbal, De Materia Medica, was printed in 1478. And around 77 AD Gaius Plinius Secundur otherwise known as Pliny the Elder, provided an exigesis of information about herbal medicines in his Natural History Encyclopedia.

Medicinal uses of herbs mentioned in the bible:

Sores and wounds were treated mostly with poultices made from bear's breech, honey and lard, ivy gum (from the ivy plant), agrimony, linseed oil, and papaya peel.

Sprains were wrapped with an ointment made from the crushed leaves of comfrey plant.

Rheumatism was treated by soaking the balm of Gilead in olive oil and applied in liniment form. By having a massage with salt followed by a full body shampoo, you would feel as you do after enjoying a soak in a spa. This helps with blood circulation.

Upset stomachs were settled by gargling with rosemary water, and drinking it. Also gingerroot would have been nibbled on.

Headaches called for rosemary tea, or spearmint leaves being laid on the forehead. Sweet marjoram's oil was rubbed upon the forehead for relief.

Fever: Rosemary twigs were boiled in water and used to wash a feverish body. White willow was made into a tea for what we know as an aspirin effect.

Earache: Softened flowers of the mullein plant steeped in olive oil were used as drops. Garlic was also thought to have relieved pain and loosen the earwax.

In the 11th century Avicenna invented a coiled pipe which allowed the plant vapor and steam to cool down more effectively than previous distillers that used a straight cooling pipe. Avicenna's contribution led to more focus on essential oils and their benefits.

In the 12th century, the German Abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, wrote her Book of Healing Herbs. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard was taught the ancient doctrine of humors; she also was very clever and had a broad knowledge of folk cures gathered on her own.

The Aztecs quite were learned in herbal knowledge and lore. Fortunately, some of this knowledge survived the destruction of the Aztec’s civilization. King Phillip II of Spain, sent his personal physician to catalogue and describe Aztec plants. Francisco Hernandez wrote down this information, which was to serve as the basic text on the plants of Mexico for years to come.

Native Americans had a vast storehouse of knowledge regarding medicinal plants. They instructed the early settlers in healing wounds, safe childbirth practices, and setting fractures. Chippewa medicine-men were extensively educated in the medicinal uses of various plants. Particular medicine men specialized in one disease or related group of diseases. Included in their herbals were: cascara sagrada, American ginseng, joe-pye weed, goldenseal, sassafras and witch hazel.

In 1653, Nicholas Culpepper published The English Physician, a popular herbal.

The "Doctrine of Signatures" has been an idea of herbalists for centuries. The doctrine holds that God has marked elements of the world so that humans could identify the purpose of that element. Yellow plants, for example, was marked for use to cure jaundice. Red substances like rust or red wine were marked for use in blood related diseases.

In Ancient China there was a classification that plants had features that had parallels in human organs.

The "Doctrine of Signatures" was popularized in the early 1600s by the writings of Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), a master shoemaker in the small town of Görlitz, Germany. Böhme wrote a book “The Signature of all Things" that espoused one can determine from the color of a plant’s flowers or roots, the shape of the leaves, the place of growing, or other signs, what purpose the plant served in God's plan. The doctrine was a product of medieval alchemists and herbalists as well as a belief was held by Native Americans and Oriental cultures.

The first person to look on Bohme's theories as something more secularly useful than a method for spiritual meditations was Paracelsus who was writing in the first half of the 17th century. Paracelsus is considered by some to be the father of modern chemistry.

As science began to gain hold in the 17th century, herbals and the doctrine of signatures began to become superseded by chemically-based pharmacy. In London in 1618 the Royal College of Physicians produced a pharmacopoeia to be used as a standard of reference for making medications out of different chemicals and herbs.

Herbal medicines are still in use throughout the world. Today’s herbals include morphine, cocaine, atropine, digitalis, salicylate, ergot, quinine, ephedrine, and vinca. Some of these are now synthetic. The fact that herbals are effective in purified form today does not necessarily mean that they were useful in their pre-modern herbal form.

Writings about herbal remedies

Boehme, Jacob (1969). The signature of all things. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd.

Clarkson, R. (1972). The golden age of herbs & herbalists. NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Culpeper, N. (1650). Culpeper's complete herbal. London: W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd. London

Gerard, J. (1975). The herbal of general history of plants. Dover Publications Inc.

Junius, M. (1985). Practical handbook of plant alchemy. NY: Inner Traditions International Ltd.