Though many people have become fascinated with traditional forms of healing such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Native American healing practices, we have often overlooked the forms of traditional healing and herbalism that developed in the European world. Traditional European Medicine (TEM) encompasses the practice of healing that originated about 2500 years ago in Greece and Egypt and continued to develop in Europe up to the age of enlightenment in the 1600’s.
The modern practice of medicine really has its roots in these ancient civilizations. In early Egyptian and Greek society, many healing practices were conducted in temples devoted to Gods and Goddesses of healing such as Imhotep, Asclepius and Hygeia. Though spiritual practices such as these were common, the physicians of these early civilizations had abundant information on the healing properties of herbs as well. In Egyptian texts dating to the 16th century (The Eber’s Papyrus), one can find prescriptions for numerous ailments using various herbs, animal parts and minerals for healing.
From this eclectic beginning, numerous schools of thought arose that tried to systemize medicinal theories. In the 5th century B.C. in Greece, a Sicilian physician and philosopher by the name of Empedocles (490-430 BC) wrote down his theories of the natural world. He believed that the universe was comprised of 4 elements: earth, air, water and fire. Soon after, the famous Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC) developed a system of medicine that integrated this elemental theory. Hippocrates believed that each element found in the world corresponds with temperamental types and humors in the body. Thus, the earth element relates to the melancholic type and the black bile humor. The water element relates to the phlegmatic type and the phlegm humor. The air element relates to the sanguine temperament and the blood humor while the fire element relates to the choleric temperament and choler, or the yellow bile humor. The humors in the human body describe fluids and essences that are partly tangible and partly metaphysical. In this humoral philosophy, each person carries a dominant temperament and therefore a tendency for a dominant humor.
Temperament refers to constitutional health characteristics as well as behavioral traits For example, the choleric, or fire type, tends to be excitable, passionate, creative and occasionally angry. In terms of health, they can sometimes develop hot disorders such as rashes, high blood pressure, heart and liver ailments. Another example is the melancholic, or earth type, who is often grounded and practical but also has a tendency towards being slightly depressive. This type might develop conditions such as arthritis, tight musculature, constipation and skeletal weakness.
Elements and their Correspondences
|Humor||Blood||Yellow Bile||Black Bile||Phlegm|
|Quality||Hot and Moist||Hot and Dry||Cold and Dry||Cold and Moist|
|Time of Day||Dawn||Noon||Dusk||Night|
|Organs||Nerves, lungs|||||Heart, Liver|||||Spleen, digestive and skeletal systems|||||Reproductive, lymphatic and urinary systems|
|Planets||Jupiter||Sun, Mars,||Saturn, Mercury||Moon, Venus|
Hippocrates not only developed the theory of temperaments, he also forwarded a system of medicine that emphasized the body’s natural ability to heal itself. This concept is known as Vis medicatrix naturae. Hippocrates believed that if you provided the gentlest remedies such as a nourishing diet, clean air, and plenty of rest and exercise, most illnesses would dissipate. If necessary, this treatment plan could be aided by the use of herbs that would gently balance the system. The notion of balance is key to this ancient medicine. Hippocrates believed that when the four humors were in balance in the body, health would be achieved. This state is known as eucrasia. He believed that if one humor dominated, imbalance, or dyscrasia, would arise and illness would develop. The balance of the humors, therefore, was deemed crucial.
Though Hippocrates developed these ideas, it was a Roman physician by the name of Galen who actually codified this humoral system of medicine into a profound medicinal philosophy that would last over 1500 years. Galen (131-199 AD) began his career as a physician to gladiators. He quickly became well known for his skills and eventually became the physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius at the age of 35. Galen wrote volumes on the theory and practice of medicine. He promoted the doctrine of humors, temperaments and elucidated the concept of qualities and degrees in his works. Galen also wrote out a large list of herbs and formulas for different conditions that would influence Traditional European and Arabic medical practitioners for centuries to come.
The writings and wisdom of Hipocrates and Galen formed the basis for medicine in Europe and were taught in all the major medical scools. In Traditional European Medicine, each individual was seen as unique and carrying a particular constitutional framework. Illness developed when the excessive traits of a constitutional type began to dominate and caused an overall imbalance in both the personality and the physical body. Therapies would then be advised that were suitable to each individual person. These European healers viewed the natural world as the best source of healing and worked with simple herbs, diet, lifestyle choices and exercise as ways to bring a person back into balance.
Herbalism and Astrology
Early herbalists looked at the interrelationship between all of life and saw the cause of illness as a person being out of harmony with the environment. They sought to find remedies that were simple, natural and healing and that would restore a natural balance. Many of these herbalists looked to the skies and saw the relationship of the plants to the universe around them. They noticed that plants became more vibrant and alive during the full moon and seemed to be more dormant during the new moon. They saw how woody herbs stored their nutrients in their roots during the winter and expressed themselves outwards during the summer. By understanding these natural cycles, they could see the best time to plant and harvest. Many of these early herbalists also saw the relationship of all the planets to the herb world. To many traditional people, each planet was associated with a set of archetypes or natural forces. For example, Mars was related to outwardly directed and assertive energies. The moon was related to gentle, nourishing and watery qualities. Saturn was related to constricting and limiting qualities. These archetypal forces were related to human personality types as well as to natural substances, such as herbs. Thus, a plant could be said to have a lunar quality or a Saturnian quality.
In many traditional European herbals, herbs were categorized according to these energies. As I mentioned earlier, herbs classified as Mercurial (coming under the rulership of Mercury), such as peppermint and fennel, have an effect on the circulation, the nervous system and the lungs. These herbs often have a high percentage of volatile oils that also makes them aromatic and antiseptic in quality. Classifying herbs in this way helps us to see the connections and similarities as well as the differences between each plant. To understand the planetary classification system, let us take a look at each of these traditional planets.
Characteristics: The sun is the central radiating force of the solar system and brings light and heat to the Earth. Without its rays, life would not exist on the planet so it plays a prominent role in the pantheon of planets. The sun is associated with directed, outward energy.
Personality: Those who are “solar” in nature tend to be warm, open-hearted people with a healthy sense of confidence and an ability to lead and direct others.
Associated Parts of the Body: Heart, Eyes
Herbal Characteristics: Herbs associated with the Sun generally have red or yellow colored flowers, tend to be showy such as sunflower, often grow in sunny places and have a good strong aroma and taste. Some classic solar herbs are marigold (Calendula officinalis) angelica (Angelica officinalis) and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). Many herbs from the Sunflower family (Asteraceae) are associated with the sun.
Herbal effects: The Sun is associated with the heart and the eyes primarily. Herbs of the Sun often have an ability to heal those areas. Solar herbs often have a warming, drying and gently energizing quality, helping to move energy and remove blockages. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a wonderful example of a solar herb. It stimulates the circulatory system and h elps warm the body and raises the blood pressure. The renaissance herbalist Gerard wrote that it “comfort the heart, and make it merry, quicken the spirits, and make them more lively.” On a modern level, rosemary has been discovered to have volatile oils that are stimulating and warming in effect. In terms of location, rosemary loves to grow in dry, sunny areas and originally came from hot climates such as the Mediterranean.
Sickness: The sun is associated with the choleric temperament and often solar diseases manifest as hot and dry conditions or problems of overstimulation of organs. Solar type diseases often affect the heart and circulatory system such as high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arrhythmia, heart attacks and a diseased heart in general. Solar illnesses also include diseases or infections of the eyes, lethargy, fatigue and exhaustion. The 17th century astrologer and herbalist William Lilly mentions that solar problems can also include “disease of the mouth and stinking breaths, cattarhs, rotten fevers.”
Characteristics: The moon has always need associated with the feminine face of the natural world in European mythology and is the yin to the Sun’s yang. The moon has a strong effect on behavior and natural processes on the Earth. There has always been an ancient correlation between women’s menstrual cycles and the waxing and waning of the moon. The moon plays a powerful role in our psychology because it signifies the depths of our soul, the powerful unlocked emotions that are stored deep within. Healers have long used the cycles of the moon to help promote better health. For example, Galen first warned against surgery when the moon was in a sign associated with the body part that would be operated on. Recent scientific studies have shown correlations between rates of crime, and a greater likelihood for “crazy” behavior around the time of the full moon. Words such as loony and lunatic are associated with the moon and imply a powerful connection between the effect of the moon and human behavior. The moon is also commonly revered by nature religions that see the moon as a powerful and potent magical force.
Personality: Those who are lunar in nature tend to be sensitive, emotional, impressionable and are often nurturing in manner.
Associated Parts of the Body: Breasts and Stomach
Herbal Characteristics: Herbs of the moon tend to have one of the following characteristics. They tend to hold water and are succulent and juicy in nature. The leaves have a round shape (such as nasturtium- Tropaeolum majus) or have wide spreading leaves. They grow in damp places such as marshes or near lakes and streams. Their flowers or leaves are white, silver (willow-Salix), or pale yellow. Examples of lunar herbs are cleavers (Gallium), willow and purslane (Portulaca). Willow is a classic example because it tends to grow near rivers and streams and has long, droopy leaves that are silvery white in color. Willow has the ability to reduce inflammation and is therefore helpful for reducing hot or fiery type conditions due to its soothing, cooling and watery powers.
Herbal effects: These herbs tend to be cooling and moistening by nature. The moon is associated with the stomach, the breasts, the bladder and the womb and these herbs often help strengthen and heal these parts of the body. They also tend to be helpful in regulating fluid and hormonal balance and can often be helpful before and during menstruation. Like the Sun, it is associated with the eyes. Lilly says that the moon is associated with the right eye in females and the left eye in males and it is vice versa for the Sun. I have yet to see this direct correspondence but it is interesting to take note of it. Traditional herbals sometimes associated the moon with the lungs but I like to leave that connection to Mercury. Herbs of the moon tend to be cooling, moistening and nourishing. They also often have an ability to heal the areas I mentioned above. For example, the herb lettuce Talking with her family (Lactuca) is helpful for bringing on lactation in mothers, is sedating in quality and is also helpful for strengthening the digestion. Lettuce grows in whorls that are round as well and holds a great deal of moisture in its leaves.
Sickness: Those who have a lunar type of illness often display characteristics of being cold and excessively damp. They tend towards lethargy and fatigue and often carry an excess of phlegm. Illnesses associated with the moon include digestive problems, water metabolism problems, catarrh, menstrual difficulties, rheumatic and arthritic pains, eye infections or disability, poor immune system, intestinal diseases and bladder and kidney stones.
Characteristics: Mercury is known as the messenger planet. Mercury helps ideas to circulate and information to be gathered. Mercury is associated with communication and how we listen as well as how we talk.
Personality: Those who tend to be mercurial in nature are playful, communicative, intelligent, discriminating and curious. This type bounces from friend to friend and idea to idea, always ready with a clever remark or an interesting conversation.
Associated Parts of the Body: Lungs and Nervous system
Herbal Characteristics: The flowers of mercurial herbs can come in various colors and shades. They tend to have finely divided leaves and are often strongly aromatic due to their volatile oil content. Lilly says these herbs “do quicken the spirits, are subtle and penetrate, and in a manner insensible.” They often grow in a dry climate and Lilly says they “love sandy, barren places, they bear their seeds in husks or cobs and they smell rarely or subtly.” Classic Mercurial herbs include the culinary spices such as dill (Anethum), marjoram (Origanum majorana) and caraway. (carum carvi). The mint (labiatae) and carrot (umbelliferae) families are highly associated with Mercury.
Herbal effects: These herbs tend to be stimulating and enlivening. They also tend to affect the lungs, nervous system and the brain primarily. Many Mercurial herbs act as expectorants, digestive aids and can often help to bring on a sweat to help eliminate toxins. Mercurial herbs can also be helpful for problems in speech and communication. Mercury is also associated with the arms and hands and Mercurial herbs can sometimes have a healing effect on these areas of the body as well. Essentially, Mercurial herbs are stimulating and can help heal nervous system disorders. For example, lavender (Lavendula) is wonderfully strengthening to the nervous system as it helps calm and relax one while also promoting a happier, more enlivened state of being.
Sicknesses: Mercurial disorders include all nervous system disorders such as anxiety and insomnia. It also includes nervous system related disorders such as eczema and psoriasis. Mercury is associated with ailments such as speech impediments, mind disturbances and brain disorders. Furthermore, it is associated with dry conditions such as dry coughs and hoarseness of the throat. Because Mercury is associated with the lungs, disorders such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic coughing and other related ailments are associated with Mercury.
Characteristics: Venus has long been associated with the emotion of love as well as beauty, wealth and luxury. Venus brings us into contact with our more receptive and sweet qualities. Venus is associated with an open heart and seductive, entrancing qualities.
Personality: Those who have a strong Venusian temperament tend to be warm, sociable, attractive, receptive, pleasing and open. This type needs to watch out for being overly accepting and open hearted as they can get taken advantage of. They also need to watch out for becoming too lazy or self-indulgent.
Associated Parts of the Body: Kidneys, Reproductive organs, throat, skin, hair
Herbal Characteristics: Venusian herbs are ones that have a sweet flavor and smell fragrantly. The leaves are smooth and lack edges or sharpness. The flowers are often white and have a flavourful and succulent taste. The Lilly (lilliaceae) family of herbs is often associated with Venus. Other Venusian herbs include violet (Viola), marshmallow (Malva) and rose (Rosa)
Herbal effects: Venusian herbs help to soothe and strengthen, tonify and nourish. Often Venusian herbs have an effect on the reproductive system, especially of women. They tend to be helpful in water metabolism problems, especially associated with the kidneys. Burdock is an example of a Venusian herb. Through its ability to cleanse and nourish the blood, it helps to reduce skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis and bring forth healthy skin and lustrous looking hair. It also has a marked effect on the kidneys, helping to replenish and strengthen this area of the body. Burdock (Arctium lappa) is also helpful for lowering blood sugar levels, another aspect of health associated with Venus.
Sicknesses: Venusian illnesses can arise from excessive use of sexual energy. They can also arise from excessive languor and lack of movement. Gaining weight, metabolism problems and heaviness in the body can develop from these issues. Venus is associated with the throat, the neck and the thyroid gland. It is also associated with the hair, the skin, the veins and the reproductive organs such as the vagina, uterus and ovaries. Venus is particularly aligned with the kidneys. Health problems can arise in any of these areas.
Characteristics: Mars is associated with the ancient god of war. In actuality, Mars represents our ability to be motivated and directed, vital and strong willed. As Venus is receptive and yin, Mars is active and yang.
Personality: Those caterer Martian in nature tend to be vigorous, direct, driving, autonomous and can be prone to impatience and anger from time to time. Though they are able to be leaders and help initiate projects and accomplish goals, they need to learn to share and allow others to take equal roles in activities.
Associated Parts of the Body: Gall Bladder, muscles, sinews
Herbal Characteristics: Herbs associated with Mars are often strong smelling such as garlic (Allium sativum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) and can have thorns or prickles such as Nettles (Urtica dioica) or Hawthorn (Crataegus). Martian herbs can have a red color such as red pepper (Capsicum annuum) and can have a strong, pungent and sometimes burning flavor. These are tough and hardy herbs that help stimulate and vitalize the system.
Herbal effects: These herbs generate heat and are often helpful for inducing a sweat as a way to throw off toxins and dispel infections. Because Mars is associated with the gall bladder, the blood, the tissues and the muscles, these herbs often help strengthen and cleanse these areas of the body. Martian medicinal plants are heating, stimulating, directing and energizing. For this reason they are often helpful for the melancholic or phlegmatic type, who tend to be more cool, damp and heavy by temperament. They promote vitality and are sometimes eliminative and purgative in nature. They help to rid the body of microbial invasion and help to strengthen and tonify the body. Nettles is an example of a Martian herb that strengthens the entire body. It is fortified with nutrients such as iron (ruled by Mars) that helps nourish the system.
Sicknesses: Those who have Martian inflictions tend to have an excess of heat and can have fevers, rashes, skin disorders, blisters and boils. They also may have a great deal of anger and may have liver problems. Martian problems also include headaches, migraines and bleeding wounds. Lilly also mentions the gallbladder and the left ear as being associated with Mars.
Characteristics: Jupiter is associated with the god Zeus in mythology. Jupiter is an expansive and regal planet. Traditionally, Jupiter was seen as the “great benificent” (along with Venus as the “lesser benificent”) and was a planet of good luck, prosperity and fortune.
Personality: Those who are Jupiterian by nature tend to be expressive, fun-loving, generous and often philosophical. They can sometimes tend towards indulgence carelessness and being somewhat blunt. Those who are strongly Jupiterian need to temper their expansive nature with a dose of caution and stability.
Associated Parts of the Body: Liver
Herbal Characteristics: Jupiterian herbs tend to have large leaves or characteristics that are slightly oversized or showy. They also tend to have a pleasant scent, or at least one that does not smell badly. Jupiterian herbs can often have a bitter taste. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are two examples of herbs that are bitter.
Herbal effects: Because of their bitter taste, Jupiterian herbs often help to stimulate the liver. In this way they help promote better absorption in the digestive system and help rid the body of waste material by increasing heat in the system. Dandelion accomplishes this task wonderfully and is a supreme herb for healing the liver. Because Jupiter is associated with expansiveness, these herbs often help to heal excessive cell proliferation such as in skin eruptions, boils and tumors.
Sicknesses: Jupiterian ailments come often from an excessive lifestyle. This causes numerous problems often related to the liver. Hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver are two classic Jupiterian ailments. Hot conditions such as fevers, toxicity of the blood and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are associated with Jupiter.
Characteristics: Saturn was traditionally seen as the planet farthest away from the sun and took on the mythology of being the darkest and most malefic of all the planets. Saturn tended to cause illness, despair and pestilence in old astrology books. We now have a slightly different understanding of Saturn and see it more as a solid, wise friend who teaches how to be patient, persevering, grounded and disciplined. Saturn teaches us how to create boundaries and work with restriction and limitation.
Personality: Those who are Saturnian by nature tend to being serious and a little heavy in disposition. Their gravitas gives them a sense of power, however, and they often end up being leaders or in positions of authority. Saturnians tend to be more introverted and can be scholarly and sometimes disabled or hampered in some way. This type also has the great ability to endure and last longer than others. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise carries slow and steady Saturnian characteristics and tends to win over the speedier but more careless hate who I associate with the more expansive planets Mercury and Jupiter.
Associated Parts of the Body: Spleen, skeleton, teeth, nails
Herbal Characteristics: Saturnian herbs are often sour, sharp, salty and have a biting quality. They tend to be nutrient rich and some are long lasting and woody.
Herbal Effects: Saturnian herbs tend to be cooling and grounding in nature. They tend to cause a contraction of tissue and can sometimes cause obstructions and be dan gerous to consume. Saturnian herbs tend to build up tissue and deposits. They are generally binding and help to draw matter together. They can sometimes be sedating and can be poisonous. Saturnian herbs can also be helpful for strengthening the spleen, the bones, the teeth and nails and can increase calcium absorption in the body. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and comfrey(Symphytum officinale) are two examples of nourishing, bone strengthening herbs.
Sicknesses: Saturnian illnesses includes all dry, cold and melancholic conditions such as depression and fatigue. Saturnian ailments also include problems of calcium absorption and bone diseases such as osteoperosis. Saturnians often get a hunched, world weary look about them. They can develop long standing and chronic ailments that are difficult to cure and sometimes painful such as arthritis, gout and rheumatism. They can also develop stones in the kidney and bladder area due to built up deposits of uric acid. Other illnesses include toothaches, impotence, hair loss, brittle nails and hernias.
Conclusion Traditional European Medicine has its roots in the ancient philosophical, astrological and medicinal worldview of the Greeks and flourished as a system of healing for more than 2000 years. Eventually, the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th century and the subsequent scientific and reductionist methods of understanding medicines and health began to take the place of these traditional healing practices. In other cultures such as China and India, traditional medicine is still widely practiced and accepted. Only in the West has mainstream society eschewed the beautiful holistic understanding of health that our European ancestors gave us.
As an herbal practitioner myself, I do not solely view healing from this perspective. I personally borrow wisdom from many sources including from the Eclectics, homeopathy, modern scientific understanding, folk wisdom and Asian systems of healing. But when I see a client, I often return to viewing them in terms of their temperament and what humour seems out of balance. I often look at the client’s astrological chart to see if they have a predominance of a certain element such as Fire or Earth. I like to look at herbs the same way, categorizing them according to elemental and planetary energies. I look up at the gnarled Oak tree and see Saturn’s crippling restriction. Then I look to a Big Leaf Maple and see Jupiter’s beneficent expansiveness. I believe that being able to see the world how our ancestor healers saw it helps us be better herbalists ourselves, no matter what style of healing we do.
Originally printed in Plant Healer Magazine as “Traditional European Medicine” in Fall 2013Share This: