Traditional European Herbalism

images-4In the summer I like to go out to the country and look for wild herbs that I can collect and use as medicines throughout the year.  Walking down meadow paths, sprays of chickweed and shoots of St. John’s Wort line the way.  As I enter the shadier side of the field, I notice a patch of nettles and a few clusters of Oregon grape.  I like to think of these herbs as more than just medicines. They are my friends.  By seeing them each year, admiring their color and texture and smelling their fragrance, I get to know each one of them intimately.  Each one tells a story, gives me a feeling that is like no other herb.  When I collect them, I take them home and lovingly dry them and then make teas and tinctures from their leaves and roots.  Each has a taste and flavor that is unique and profound.  I take these herbs in as closely and intimately as I can- into my body and into my heart.

Herbs work the best when we become friends with them, when we give back a little to them with our time, our appreciation, a prayer and a few offerings. Herbs work best when we know them like we know our own family members. I like to see them throughout the seasons and in all the places they like to grow. They change their mood and personality depending on where they live and who their neighbors are.

For example, yarrow is an herb that likes to grow in many places but I find that it is most pungent, aromatic and hardy when it grows high up on a windy crag where hawks and eagles like to fly. The low temperature and rugged terrain turn this white flowered composite into a tough survivalist. When you make tea from yarrow grown in these conditions, you will notice how strong and pungent the flavor is. This is medicine that reaches your very core. This is medicine that can heal you and change your life.

I fell in love with herbs in this way. It started out with a few walks in the countryside, and then looking at a few herbal books, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with teas and tinctures and friends asking for concoctions to help them with their ailments. This is how we begin a journey. We take tentative steps and are not sure where we are quite going. After a while, we realize we’ve traveled a long way and still have many roads to travel.

The Early Herbalists

Long ago, our ancestors took this journey in the same way I did. They looked at the plants outside their back door. They smelled and touched them and drank teas made from these herbs. A few of them went further and wrote down their observations and shared their wisdom with others who were interested. In this way, a tradition of herbalism developed that dates back thousands of years.
These early herbalists were not modern scientists and they didn’t think of the herbs in terms of biochemical pathways and molecular structures. They did, however, look at the herbs as having unique personalities and energies. They noticed how each herb helped with different ailments, how a pinch of peppermint could heal an upset stomach, or how a piece of clove could

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be placed on a sore tooth to reduce inflammation. Some of these early herbalists noticed that certain herbs were warming such as ginger while others were cooling like wild lettuce. They also noticed that certain herbs were moistening such as slippery elm while others were drying such as nettles.

These early herbalists began to see how herbs were similar or differed and how certain herbs worked best for some people and not very well at all for others. Eventually, different systems of medicine developed throughout the world based on these early observations. In Greece, a system of medicine and herbalism developed that would last for 2000 years. Eventually this system evolved and found its way into Western Europe. I like to call this healing form Traditional European Medicine (TEM) to differentiate it from the traditional healing forms of India, China, Tibet and Arabic lands.
All traditional forms of medicine are based on the use of medicinal plants and TEM is no different. When people were ill, depressed, wounded and debilitated, herbs were used as a source of healing and regeneration. To help choose the right herb for the right condition, traditional Europeans would take into account their innate constitution or temperament as well as the particular energetics of each plant. In this way, they developed a fascinating and powerful system of medicine that is as effective today as it was then.

Traditional European Herbalism

Though many people have become fascinated with traditional forms of healing such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Native American healing practices, we have largely overlooked the forms of traditional healing 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 Godesses 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.

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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.
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 schools. 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

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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 duringthe 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 some 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. Whether you believe in astrology or not, this classification system is fascinating as it allows us to see herbs categorized in a unique manner.

Traditional Herbalism in the Modern World

Traditional European herbalism is not something that is intuitively hard to learn. It simply asks that we start to see the world in terms of energetic patterns. Instead of seeing all people as alike, we can begin to notice the differences and see that certain healing therapies work best for some and not as well for others. It also asks us to look at herbs through new eyes. Traditional healers used classification systems that were discarded for more modern systems. Though many modern ways of describing herbs are incredibly valuable, traditional methods of herbalism

imageshold a great deal of wisdom as well. Seeing herbs in terms of their qualities, degrees and their planetary associations can help us to develop a more intuitive understanding of the healing power of an herb.

Working with herbs is like walking through a doorway into a new world. Each herb has a personality, a character, a medicinal property that shifts our awareness, that brings us a new understanding of the environment and ourselves. As in any friendship, developing a relationship with these botanical creatures takes time and patience. Over time, as we sit with them, meditate with them, take them in teas and soups and tinctures, a symbiotic relationship grows. A relationship is one of give and take, and we must always remember to return the care and support that has been so amply given by the herbs. Our actions as humans have a great effect on the plant world and by and large we tend to ignore how we impact these creatures. Giving our time and energy by protecting the environment, consuming less, reusing and recycling are all ways to give back to the herbs.

On a more intimate level, treating plants in our backyard and in our homes with care and respect and collecting them in the fields and woods with good intention, helps us to develop a healthy and harmonious relationship with the herb world. The early herbalists saw the world in terms of relationships, the interconnections between the planets, the animals, the rocks, the plants and human life. Protecting and nurturing these harmonious relationships is at the core of being a good herbalist.

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