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Healing Herbs and their Amazing History

Hello my darlings, and welcome to WiccaNow! I don’t know whether I’ve talked about it much, but I’m a huge herb and plant lover. It’s the green witch in me coming out to play. Today I want to talk about something that’s really important to me, namely healing herbs.

Magical herbs play an important role in many of our spells and rituals and today I want to briefly go over the history of herbalism. It’s super interesting and I always think it’s good to know the origins of things.

If you are interested in the herbal realm, maybe you’re a blossoming green witch, then check out these posts on herbs for love, one about herbs for self-love, another post on money herbs, and a deep dive into some of my favourite herbs, lavender, cinnamon and rosemary.

Warning: All opinions here are my own and should absolutely not be taken over the advice of a trained medical professional. If you are feeling ill, please seek the advice of a trained doctor and do not attempt to self diagnose or treat yourself with herbs you aren’t sure about.

The History of Healing Herbs

Healing herbs have a long and extremely interesting history. Below I’ve outlined their rise from ancient times to today, including some famous herbalists and where I think herbalism is heading to in the modern age.

Early History of Healing Herbs

Did you know that the use of herbs and plants as healing tools pre-dates any written history we have? Non-human primates are known to treat themselves with plants when they get sick. Evidence has been found by Archaeologists that suggests early humans were using plants as medicine about 60,000years ago. A Neanderthal burial site in Iraq, called “Shanidar IV”,  has been found to have contained large amounts of pollen from 8 different plant species. Out of the 8 species that were found, 7 are now used medicinally.

the entrance to the Shanidar IV cave in iraq where traces of early herbalism were found
The Shanidar IV cave in Iraq where pollen deposits were found.

Fun Fact: Ötzi the Iceman might be the earliest known herbalist. He was frozen in the Alps for which he was named for 5000 years. He was treating himself with medicinal herbs for a parasite found in his intestines. Researchers know this as medicinal plants were found in his belongings and remnants of these plants were found in his system.

Ancient Cultures using Medicinal Herbs

About 5,000 years ago (same age as Ötzi) the Sumerians in Mesopotamia were writing on clay tablets about which herbs they were using medicinally. These tablets include hundreds of plants, including Opium, which was probably used for pain. Hello, morphine, pleased to meet you.

Sumerian clay tablets detailing the use of healing herbs
The Sumerian Clay Tablets which detailed the herbal treatments people were using 5000 years ago. Image via The Trustees of the British Museum

Healing Herbs in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians have always been very civilised as far as I am concerned. Just look at the pyramids. How on earth were they created? Apart from the fact that thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people would have died building them, they really are a wonder of engineering.

The Egyptians are the first known race to create a medical document of sorts. The Papyrus Ebers contains lists of ailments and ways to treat them. The ailments range from a disease of the limbs to a disease of the skin. The papyrus lists over 850 plant-based remedies using herbs and plants like garlic, aloe and juniper. Unfortunately, the Egyptians were more interested in curing the symptoms of the disease rather than the disease itself as they didn’t understand that there was a difference between the two.

king tut wtf GIF by unimpressionism
Would the Ancient Egyptians be rolling their eyes at us right now if they knew how much we relied on big pharma?

The Papyrus Ebers also created difficulties for modern researchers because the papyrus has been written with the assumption that the reader already knows a lot about medicine. As such, the preparation methods for the various ingredients are not listed which leaves a lot of questions as to how each remedy should be prepared or used. However, traces of herbs have been found in jars in ancient tombs and on tomb illustrations. These give us some idea of how ointments and treatments were made.

the Papyrus ebers from ancient egypt detailing healing herbs
The Papyrus Ebers, giving detailed descriptions of Healing Herbs used in ancient times. Image via Hanf Museum Berlin

Ayurvedic Diets and Indian Herbs

Sanskrit documents found in India, which date back as early as 4,000BC, detail the use of spices such as Tumeric for the treatment of ailments in the form of an Ayurvedic diet. One famous herbalist is called Sushruta. He wrote the Sushruta Samhita, which is one of the most important ancient texts about surgery and medicine to survive till today. He describes over 1,120 illnesses, 700 plants and herbs and 121 various preparations for treating ailments.

Sushruta includes the taste, digestive effects and appearance of the plants, along with their benefits, dosage and effectiveness. How amazing is it that he managed to gain so much knowledge over his lifetime?

Sushruta Samhita detailing healing herbs in india
Pieces of the Sushruta Samhita.

China and Its use of Healing Herbs

The mythical Emperor Shennong is believed to have written the first Pharmacopoeia in China. Whether he was a real Emperor or more of a God-like figure is debatable. He is credited with teaching ancient Chinese people about the use of plants as cures for disease. The Pharmacopoeia is called called the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing”. This book includes over 365 plants and their uses.

We know that China has a strong belief in the potency of herbs and animals. I don’t always believe in Eastern medicine, no one needs shark fin soup for virility or tiger bone for arthritis. Even if these “cures” did work, cruelty to another creature should be avoided at all costs, otherwise we would be violating the threefold law. However, I do believe however in the power of healing plants. In this respect, I think that eastern medicine is most definitely on the right track in thinking that sometimes these are just as good as many conventional medicines.  

The mythical God/Emperor Shennong trying healing herbs.
The mythical God/Emperor Shennong trying healing herbs.

The Beginning of Western Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome

Hippocrates of Kos is thought to be one of the founding fathers of western medicine. He is the disputed author of the “Hippocratic Corpus”. This collection of texts gives details of common ailments and recipes for prevention. His authorship is disputed as no one is sure if he actually wrote the texts or if they were written on his behalf. The ideas are undisputably his so does it really matter if he physically wrote it or not?

A lot of the healing herbs used in the Corpus are quite similar to those used within old school religious ideas about healing. The Corpus, however, has a distinct lack of religious rites and prayers which used to accompany the older remedies. The fact that Hippocrates prefered logic over religious belief shows us the beginnings of modern medicine.

usa network GIF by Rush
Modern medicine is indeed wondrous. Religious beliefs of smoking out the room and shutting the windows certainly didn’t help the healing process.

The Corpus details many local herbs to be used in its treatments but also includes some imported specialities from Arabia and further afield. I believe that we still follow some of Hippocrates’ teachings in medicine today. Well, maybe not his teachings but certainly his ethos.

Most people will have heard of the Hippocratic Oath all doctors have to take right? This is actually similar to what we Wiccans believe, with the oath all doctors are required to swear to stating “to abstain from doing harm”. I feel this is very similar to our own rede “An’ ye harm none, do what ye will”, except for the fact that doctors are by no means allowed to “do what ye will”.

Hippocrates of Kos sitting at desk writing drawing
Hippocrates of Kos believed that what we ate could help heal us. He was a pioneer of modern medicine and an early herbalist.

Ancient Greece and Rome had a lot of herbalists who wrote books about the subject.

Here are the most famous Greek and Roman Herbalists:

  • Diocles of Carystus – He wrote extensive works about herbalism and although none of his works actually survived, he was so often quoted by other herbalists that we can reconstruct some of his works.
  • Pliny – Pliny wrote the encyclopedic “Natural History” which has a huge catalogue of herbs and plants in it which are used medicinally.  Many people have learned what they know about ancient herbalism through his writings. Maybe I’ll have to put that on my next “to read” list…
  • Dioscorides – Dioscorides also wrote encyclopedic texts about herbs. His most famous work, “ De Materia Medica” lists over 1000 medicines. These medicines are produced from more than just herbs, they include mineral and animal products,  but even so, it’s very impressive! He remained the go-to drug expert for over 1600 years, proving how accurate his remedies were at the time. 
  • Theophrastus – He wrote “Historia Plantarum” in the 4th century BC. This book is the first book which systematically categorises the botanical world.
  • Galen – Galen of Pergamon was an extremely prolific writer and was obsessed with all things medical. He wrote a lot of texts about herbs and their uses. His most famous text is called “Works of Therapeutics” and it tries to combine all areas of medicine to provide one remedy.
drawing by healing herb expert Dioscorides
This is a drawing by herbalist Dioscorides. He was an authority on healing herbs. This particular plant was simply named as a “universal remedy” and Dioscorides states that it was good for treating ulcers, coughs, headaches, menstrual cramps, snakebites among other uses. It really is a “universal remedy” it would seem!

How Herbalism developed in the Middle Ages

Monasteries provided Europe with most of their medical knowledge during the early middle ages. The monk scholars were basically just transcribing old Greek, Roman and Arabic texts. Because of this, they weren’t experimenting to find new medicines or information themselves. The Monastery Herb Gardens, however, were extremely well-stocked and became the go-to place for treatments for common ailments. 

Aside from treatments provided by the Monasteries, “wise-(wo)men” were common in villages and as wandering herbalists. They would give advice, herbal medicines, spells and enchantments to people who paid for them. I feel sorry for the ones who continued this tradition later on, as the witch hunts can’t have been kind to them. 

One woman is a very well known herbalist. This woman was called Hildegard von Bingen and she was a 12th-century nun. She wrote “Causa et Curae” and believed in the power of spiritual and herbal healing. She’s a fascinating woman who could almost be called an eclectic witch if she weren’t a Catholic nun. She was multi-talented and also wrote a lot of very beautiful music. Give it a listen if you have a chance.

Not only was she an expert on healing herbs, but Hildegard von Bingen was also an expert composer. What a kickass woman

Modern Day Herbalism

Much of the development of herbalism is closely tied to the development of medicine and its practices. Because pharmaceutically produced drugs are so commonly available these days, many people don’t even know that a lot of those drugs have been derived from plants. I think is a bit of a shame. I’m not saying that we should all stop taking aspirin and start eating willow bark. However, I think knowing where things come from is important and we should acknowledge the beautiful sources of things and ideas. 

willow tree on water
Willow trees are amazing. They are one of my favourite trees and provide pain relief as well as supple branches perfect for weaving baskets and bowls

Much of the traditional way of treating non-life threatening ailments has been replaced with synthetically produced drugs. Unfortunately, these are often over-prescribed by doctors. I personally think that this has been changing recently. More and more people are trying out “alternative” options for the treatment of small things. Plus, we all know that overprescribing anti-biotics is something that has been heavily reigned in recently due to the rapidly growing resistance of many bacteria to antibiotics.

I started going to an acupuncturist recently for a pollen allergy I had developed. He told me to start taking a herbal remedy, full of various healing herbs called “Klosterfrau Allergin”. This, combined with the acupuncture, worked so, so much better than anything else I had tried before. I was so thankful to the acupuncturist for going down the herbal route rather than telling me to take antihistamines as my doctor had. Maybe we could call him a modern herbalist? Whatever he is, may more people like him come into all our lives. 

Modern Day uses of Healing Herbs

I have noticed that people seem to be searching for herbal treatments more often. Never before have I seen so many of my friends be interested in fermenting things and the health properties of certain foods.

Healing herbs are even creeping into the mainstream. How common has it become to see turmeric in smoothies and drinks? Personally, I like the way it’s going. I feel that the more people are interested, the more knowledge they gain and the more appreciation for the natural world they acquire. In my opinion, we can never appreciate this wonderful world and all her bounties enough. The more people that do, the better.

Maybe herbalism will have another renaissance and we’ll stop stuffing the pockets of big pharma for every cough and cold we get. I, for one, am learning as much as I can about healing herbs so as to further my Wiccan practises and be healthier in my own body.

healing herb tumeric being made into a latte
Although I’m not sure I love turmeric lattes, I love that turmeric is one of the most incredible healing herbs and I’m so happy that it’s properties are becoming better know.

I’ll leave you with a prayer to the natural world, it needs all the help it can get at the moment!

Prayer for the Earth

“I offer the sorrow in my heart for this desecration of the waters of Mother Earth into the agency of Fire.

May it be transformed in prayer and carried upward to the Heavens.

This sorrow is an expression of the love and intimate connection with Mother Earth.

May any tears of sorrow cleanse us of the sense of separation from Her.

May our intentions be received by the Celestials and lead to a restoration of balance to our planet.

So Mote it Be”

So, my loves, I hope this answers all your most pressing questions about the history of healing herbs and herbalism. It’s an absolutely fascinating topic isn’t it? The more I learn, the more I realise I know nothing and that I’ve only just started scraping the surface of how incredible the natural world it.

Until next time,

Blessed Be