Using plants for medical purposes is an idea that has been around throughout history. Many different types of peoples, cultures, and religions use what is found in nature to cure their ailments, prevent illness, or prolong beauty. Many of these peoples use symbols, creams, or even watch the stars to achieve these actions all over the world. We see symbols of herbalism even as far back as the Garden of Eden. The bible states,
Out of the ground the Lord God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. Genesis 2:9 (1)
The trees in this passage from the bible are symbols of longevity, strength and fruitfulness. Trees represented perfect beauty and complete harmony in and with nature and change. This type of symbol is pertinent throughout time. The Buddha, for example, sat under what he called the cosmic tree and reached enlightenment. Later Buddha was reborn as a monkey and became king of the monkeys; he then divined the monkey kingdom’s downfall through a mango tree. When his divination came true he stretched himself across the gap between two trees, one of them the mango tree, and allowed himself to be used as a bridge, sacrificing himself to save his kingdom.1 These are some of the many reasons that Buddhists of today’s world consider the tree a sacred part of nature and their lives.
Another culture that considers the tree and all nature sacred is the Japanese. Over the centuries the Japanese people have treated trees and plants with the utmost respect, and have taken care of them in the form of bonsai. Bonsai are small trees that are lovingly shaped and molded to be visually aesthetic and to seem as though the tree was older than the one who created it. Although the person may have seemed youthful, one cannot judge a book by its cover or a person by their looks.
Like Bonsai, many other herbs may make people seem younger. Some herbs are said to be able to slow down the aging process, or at least the effects, and consequently make the person seem more youthful. I must stress that herbs cannot change your features so that people might look eighteen again, but they may help people loose those wrinkles or sagging skin. The Greek physician, or herbalist, Galen (c. 130-c.200) is credited with the discovery of cold cream. Since Galen’s time cold cream has been changed into what it is today, a mixture of chemicals and liquid paraffin. The original recipe made use of oil of roses, and spirit vinegar. Ninon (1620-1705) supposedly used cold cream with the juice of a houseleek added.2 Indeed, it may have been this that kept her free from wrinkles until age seventy.
Houseleek is not only good for the skin, but according to astrologers it is a plant that is generally governed by the planet Jupiter and Jupiter rules over the signs of Pisces and Sagittarius. Therefore Houseleek would be more powerful, or useful when used by a Pisces or a Sagittarius. The uses of herbs have been influenced by astrology for ages; it came to the forefront of herbalism during the fifteenth century. Astrologers say that each planet rules a sign, and each sign will influence herbs to treat a part or parts of the body. But astrology is not the only ‘explanation’ of herbalism.
People have been attempting to explain herbalism for ages. One of the many ways they have been trying to do this is through the Doctrine of Signatures. As far as can be found in my research the Doctrine of Signatures is not a book, but simply represents a body of accepted wisdom. The Doctrine of Signatures is believed to have come from the ancient world, or a time before. According to the Doctrine of Signatures the shape or appearance of an herb can help determine their use. One example is the wild pansy, it is supposed to heal the heart because it has heart shaped leaves. Paracelsus was one of the few men who supported the Doctrine. He said that a good physician should be ready to learn from all classes of people. He thought that all people could possess useful knowledge, including those without a formal education.
Many different cultures support and use herbalism. Buddhists of today learn from the teachings of the Buddha. They do as he did, and treat all nature as if it was an extension of themselves. The Japanese also value each of their trees as an extension of themselves as well as a part of nature. They capture the beauty of an older tree in a young potted tree in an age-old custom of their people. While the Japanese found ways to make trees seem older the Greeks found ways to make people seem younger. Ages ago in Greece, cold cream was invented so that the people could be free of wrinkles and look more youthful. Some people believe that the planets influence mixtures such as cold cream. It was during the fifteenth century that astrology came to the attention of the herbalists as an aid for their mixtures, from then on almost all herbalists used it. The Doctrine of Signatures is another aid to the herbalists in their mixtures. Herbalism is timeless; it has been relied upon since the creation of man and woman and still is. Today there are millions of herbalists all over the world and most of them still use the recipes passed on from generation to generation through their families.
1.Conrow, Robert and Hecksel, Arlene. Herbal Pathfinders. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press, 1983.
2.Seeger, Elizabeth. Eastern Religions. Toronto, Canada: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1973
Conway, David. The Magic of Herbs. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton ; Co., Inc., 1973.
Conrow, Robert and Hecksel, Arlene. Herbal Pathfinders. Santa Barbara, CA: Woodbridge Press, 1983.
McLeish, Kenneth. The Seven Wonders of the World. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Haartegen, Stephen and Ceroke, Christian. The New American Bible. Mission Hills, CA: Benziger Publishing Company, 1986.
Seeger, Elizabeth. Eastern Religions. Toronto, Canada: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1973
Souter, Keith. Cure Craft. Essex, England: C.W. The Daniel Company Limited, 1995.
Weiss, Gaia and Shandor. Growing and Using the Healing Herbs. New York, NY: Wings Books, 1985.