Herbalism ~ Yesterday & Today
Herbalism has been around as long as there have been, well, plants and people! Mankind has studied the usefulness of plants as food and medicine from the very beginning. In the early days women were the gatherers of plants for food. Therefore, they were entrusted with the duty of preparing food and mixing plants into ‘medicinal’ preparations to promote health.
During that time, it was a commonly held belief that disease originated with invisible spirit beings such as ghosts and fairies. Therefore, to appease the “anger” of these invisible beings, herbs (also believed to have spirits associated with them), were combined with magic rituals that corresponded to religious views.[A]
A different approach to herbs was practiced by the ancient Hebrews. While they also collected plants for food and medicine, they offered thanks for the food and medicinal value of the plant life all around them to their God whom they recognized as an all-powerful Creator and the God of their forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many of these herbs were recorded in the Torah which is also known as the Old Testament in the modern-day Bible.
The allium plant family of which garlic, leeks, and onions are a part were a dietary staple of the ancient Hebrews (and also quite popular today!) One of these potent herbs, garlic, which is a rather lowly herb, was consumed in everyday life, yet highly regarded by the Hebrews. They “believed that garlic increased virility and relied on it to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ as directed in Genesis.”[B] As such, they indeed were a prolific people which quickly grew into a very large nation.
In addition to the alliums, there were the balms such as the Balm of Gilead, an aromatic, medicinal substance derived from plants in the historical area of Gilead east of the Jordan river which was known for their spices and ointments. Also of significance were bitter herbs such as chicory, dandelion, sorrel, and watercress which were important for maintaining healthy digestion as they stimulate appetite and support the liver, gall bladder, kidneys, etc. These bitter herbs are especially nutritional, and we know now that they are chalk full of vitamins and minerals.
There were also cleansing herbs such as hyssop, marjoram, milk thistle, and the nettles. “Louise Baldensperger, who, in the early twentieth century, gathered lore about folk use of plants in Palestine, found that “People whip themselves with nettles for rheumatism, a most heroic remedy, rather like allowing oneself to be stung by bees for a cure.”[B]
Many were the herbs used in ancient times, anemone, poppy, crocus (saffron), anise and dill, cumin, mint, and rue along with grapevine, date palm, olive, myrrh, cassia (cinnamon), frankincense, hyacinth, lily, iris, lotus and many more. The benefits of these herbs were woven into the fabric of everyday living for the Hebrews. Everyone who partook at meals, received the benefits of many of these herbs, especially those that were edible as they were incorporated into recipes and cures for common ailments. Unlike today where one with a deep knowledge of herbs and their actions is unique, back then, the knowledge was commonplace and held within community.
At about 2500 B.C. the Egyptians began to practice what is considered a “rational and scientific” approach to medicine beginning with a physician named Herophilus. “The contributions of Herophilus to our knowledge of anatomy and medical terminology are enormous. Through his anatomical studies on the nervous system, Herophilus proved that the brain and not the heart was the seat of intelligence, a revolutionary breakthrough for that period since it contradicted a prevailing Aristotelian concept which stated that the heart is the seat of intelligence, rational thoughts, emotions, and desires. Unfortunately, their writings have been lost and most of our knowledge of these two is derived from commentators, especially Celsus and Galen.”[C]
“Galen is a giant in the history of medicine and casts a long shadow. His medical theories dominated European medicine for 1500 years. He was a Greek physician who practiced in Rome, becoming physician to five Roman emperors. He was prolific and wrote hundreds of treatises, compiling all significant Greek and Roman medical thoughts, and adding his own discoveries and theories, foremost of which was the humoral basis of disease: illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. He showed, through experimentation, that the arteries carried blood, and not air, as was commonly believed.”[C]
Interestingly, King “Solomon’s ‘refresh me with apples’ may have inspired the nineteenth-century saying, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ In biblical times Greeks believed the apple healed all disorders. In the second century, Roman court physician Galen prescribed apple wine as a cure-all for almost every ailment. An Arabic author from the same period wrote, ‘Its scent cheers my soul, renews my strength and restores my health.’ Scientists at Yale University have since discovered that the scent of spiced apples produces a calming effect that lowers blood pressure.”[C]
For many thousands of years herbs were so commonplace to diet and wellness that most people practiced a type of folk medicine in their homes and villages. When the knowledge and remedies within the home were not enough, caretakers would reach out to a more knowledgeable family member such as a spinster aunt or a grandmother with greater knowledge.
When a situation would escalate beyond their abilities the family would then seek out the next most knowledgeable person who was known as a “wise woman” or a “wise man” man of the village or what we might recognize as the community herbalist. To this day this practice continues to be practiced outside of first world countries.
Modern day examples of herb-based medical systems would be Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as other eastern religions where there is a synergy between lifestyle and worship, and the resulting states of either health or disease.
Modern-day Christianity had its very roots in the religion of the Hebrews which was birthed in the Eastern mindset. The Western mindset, based upon reductionist Greek philosophy, has pervaded the thoughts of generations of believers until this preset day.
As a result, our beliefs have become fragmented into separate criterion-based compartments such as ‘business and personal,’ ‘church and state,’ and even ‘health and sickness.’ There is some value in this mode of thinking as ideally each criterion would remain within consistent parameters no matter who does the assessment. However, illness can have many different roots and while a person’s lifestyle may appear healthy, there may be something amiss lying below the surface.
What does this have to do with herbalism? Well, a lot. Understanding people and physiology, while understanding herbs and their actions is the basis for applying gentle, supportive, and effective remedials. Although our bodies have all the same components (liver, heart, blood, lymph, etc.) which can be scientifically studied, there are significant variables that are individual to each person that the holistic herbalist is trained to uncover.
In the early days as it is today, the herbalist’s “medicine chest” is not filled with pharmaceuticals. Rather, the herbalist ought to be intimately acquainted with the actions of plant materials: roots, stems, leaves, and flowers as remedials to support the body’s design to heal itself.
What Does Herbalism Look Like Today?
A burgeoning passion for medicinal plants combined with a desire to support people in their recovery process are two distinct indicators of an intense “herbal” fire burning within one’s soul. The field of study is called herbalism, which is the practice of utilizing plant materials in a manner that supports the body’s ability to maintain wellness and to heal itself. In times past, herbalism was known as the “medicine of the people.” Herbal artisans were called “healers” or the “apothecary.” In modern times these same people are called herbalists.
There are precious few who have experienced the passing down of esoteric knowledge through familial generations. Therefore, it has become common for modern-day herbalists to seek out knowledge and training regarding the utilization and safety of medicinal plants and to intentionally gain an intimate experience with these wonderful, unique, and beautiful creations of immense benefit to mankind.
What is a Master Herbalist?
A Master Herbalist is a title that denotes proficiency in the use of herbs. What a Master Herbalist actually does often varies with the individual’s talents as well as the desired expression of such knowledge and creativity. This is where it gets exciting!
For instance, some herbalists are avid foragers and know much about plant identification, growth and habitats, as well as the medicinal and/or food uses of plants – a study called botany. Other herbalists are professional seed savers, farmers, or gardeners that specialize in providing plants for other gardeners, medicinal, or culinary use. Still others like to compound herbs and make herbal remedies such as infusions, decoctions, tinctures, salves, creams, medicinal syrups, suppositories, and encapsulations. Yet others find creativity and fulfillment in formulating lines of natural cosmetics, bath and body products, household cleaners, and personal hygiene items.
Herbalists have been known to dress in period costumes and demonstrate how herbs were a vital part of frontier wellness, while others find pleasure in teaching folks how to incorporate herbs into their daily lives. Still, some master herbalists spend their time studying and writing books, articles, and blogs while others capture the distinct beauty and intricacies of herbs through art, photography, painting, and crafts. Due to the popularity of pets, herbs are becoming more sought out in the support of the natural health and wellbeing of animals such as dogs, cats, and horses. Once again, we find our beloved Master Herbalists stepping forward to bridge the gap.
Some herbalists work in retail helping customers make the right product selections while others work in an herbal apothecary setting selling herbs by weight or mixing herbal blends to help with specific ailments. However, most commonly, herbalists are self-employed wellness consultants who observe and assess clients to offer natural solutions for their health issues and to maintain proper wellness.
Many licensed practitioners (doctors, dentists, chiropractors, nurses, massage and physical therapists, etc.) are adding herbalism to their knowledge base as well as carving out a space in their clinics for proficient Master Herbalists. Lots of moms just want to be grounded and knowledgeable in using safe and natural remedies with their family and friends. Others simply want to be an herbal resource for their local communities. Whichever way one chooses to express their passion for herbs is valuable and necessary as many people are searching for gentle-yet-effective alternatives to strengthen their bodies.
If you are interested in herbs and are unsure of what your long-term goals might “look like,” take a long, deep breath in and exhale. There is time and you have come to the right place. It is not unusual for a vision to bloom and grow as our students progress through the Master Herbalist and/or Clinical Master Herbalist program(s) at Genesis School of Natural Health and in their interactions with the other students and graduates in our private Student Discussion Group.
Herbalism is more than a career. It is a desire, a lifestyle, a dream, and an expression of what lies within a person, their beliefs, and the “communion and fellowship one has with nature, and with the Author of that nature.” ~Euell Gibbons
- A History of Western Herbalism by Christopher Hobbs
- B Healing Plants of the Bible: History, Lore, and Meditations by Vincenzina Krymow
- C The Air of History: Early Medicine to Galen (Part 1) by Rachel Hajar, M.D.