Since the ancient times of India, China, Egypt, and Assyria, people have always turned to plants for help — for food, shelter, clothing, weapons, healing, and many other uses. This dates back as far back as the year 2700 BCE, and is a result of the struggle to achieve mastery over the forces of nature. It is no wonder, then, that plants have been invested with magickal powers. And certainly no wonder that many myths attribute to plants an intimate relationship with our daily lives and with our destinies.
Herbs in Ancient Egypt
Surviving Egyptian papyri dating back to around 1700 BCE record that many common herbs, such as garlic and juniper, have been used medicinally for around 4,000 years. In the days of Ramses III, hemp was used for eye problems just as it may be prescribed for glaucoma today, while poppy extracts were used to quiet crying children.
Herbs in Ancient Greece
By the time of Hippocrates (468-377 BCE), European herbal tradition had already absorbed ideas from Assyria and India, with Eastern herbs such as basil and ginger among the most highly prized. The complex theory of humors and essential body fluids had begun to be formulated by this time.
Hippocrates categorized all foods and herbs by fundamental quality — hot, cold, dry or damp — and good health was maintained by keeping them in balance, as well as observing a regiment of plenty of exercise and fresh air.
Pedanius Dioscorides wrote his classic text De Materia Medica in around 60 CE, and this remained the standard textbook for 1,500 years. Dioscorides was reputed to have been either the physician to Anthony and Cleopatra or, more likely, an army surgeon during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Many of the actions Dioscorides describes are familiar today: parsley as a diuretic, fennel to promote milk flow, white horehound mixed with honey as an expectorant.
Roman Contributions to Herbology
The Greek theories of medicine reached Rome around 100 BCE. As time passed, they became more mechanistic, presenting a view of the body as a machine to be actively repaired, rather than following the Hippocratic dictum of allowing most diseases to cure themselves. Medicine became a lucrative business with complex, highly priced herbal preparations.
Opposing this practice was Claudius Galenus (131-199 CE), who was born in Pergamon in Asia Minor and was a court physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen reworked many of the old Hippocratic ideas and formalized the theories of humors. His books soon became the standard medical texts, not only of Rome, but also of later Arab and medieval physicians, and his theories still survive in Unani medicine today.
Islamic Influences on Herbal Medicine
With the fall of Rome in the fifth century, the centre of Classical learning shifted east and the study of Galenical medicine was focused in Constantinople and Persia. Galenism was adopted with enthusiasm by the Arabs, and merged with both folk beliefs and surviving Egyptian learning. It was this mixture of herbal ideas, practice and traditions that was re-imported into Europe with the invading Arab armies.
Probably the most important work of the time was the Kitab al Qanun, or Canon of Medicine, by Avicenna. This was based firmly on Galenical principles and by the 12th century had been translated into Latin and imported back to the west to become one of the leading textbooks in Western medical schools.
Monastic Influences on Herbal Medicine
The Christian monks of the sixth century enlarged the medicinal use of herbs, and even created many tools for the use of herbs. They became really the first homeopathic specialists and each monastery had a special herb garden from which plants were exchanged and traded between orders, thereby developing and improving the herbs. Some of today's great medical centers are direct descendants of these monastery gardens.
The Impact of Superstition
During this superstitious times immediately preceding the witch trials, many herbs were credited with mystical and magickal powers; it was believed that angelica, bay and garlic would protect the user against witchcraft, and bay had the added advantage of warding off infection. Caraway and coriander were used in love potions, while fennel was held in high regard by the Romans as it supposedly protected the user against venomous bites, made him strong, brave and encouraged long life. As well, there were herbs to guard against nightmares, some to deter vampires and many more to keep lovers faithful.
The history of herbology has been contributed to by a series of people and cultures. The use of herbs as medicines and magickal aides goes back to ancient times. It is not surprising, then, that today, they are still in widespread use.
Welcome to the Order of the Sacred Star! This Pagan/Wiccan group, based in Winnipeg, Canada, is committed to teaching the Craft to all those who wish to learn. Our goal is to provide a complete and fulfulling learning experience. Our public classes are offered through the Winnipeg Pagan Teaching Circle.