A World of Magic and Medicine Through the Ages

by Katherine Bonnabel, MH

Our relationship with plants is as old as our species itself.  The advent of pharmaceuticals and modern manufactured conveniences have led to much of this part of our history being forgotten.  Plants have furnished foods, medicine, clothing, shelter, and comfort to us throughout the ages.  Their magic remains deeply embedded within us, and whether we remember or not, it is not so easily cast aside.

Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

Mythology and folklore are rich with stories of wondrous and mysteriously powerful plants, many of which reach across many lands and cultures.  For example, garlic has a long reputation for protective magic used against vampires, sorcery, and even plagues.  Chinese, Greek, Italian, and Jewish grandmothers still give a clove of garlic to their new grandchildren to protect them from the evil eye.

In contrast, other plants earned darker reputations because of their poisonous or narcotic effects.  Belladonna is a well known example of this.  It was used in the potions of assassins and earned the name of Deadly Nightshade, Witches’ Berry, and Sorcerer’s Cherry.  

Datura metel

Tales brought back to Europe by travelers to India told of a plant whose very fragrance could cause passers by to lose consciousness.  This plant turned out to be Datura metel.  Related to Angel’s Trumpet and Jimson Weed, it can indeed stupefy one who inhales it.  It was said to have been used by an Indian secret society known as the Thugs to drug lone travelers whom they would then rob and ritually sacrifice to Kali.  The name of this society is the origin of the English word for a violent lawless person.

Egypt has been well known as a land filled with plant magic.  The papyrus plant was the most important amongst them all.  Prolific and essential to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, it was often worn as an amulet to ensure the wearer of a long and prosperous life.  Another of the most sacred plants of Egypt was the onion.  It was a staple in their diet, and also a symbol of the Universe.  As each layer of the onion is surrounded by another, so the Underworld is wrapped by the Earth, and the Earth is wrapped by the Heavens.  As some would swear an oath on a bible today, the Egyptians would take their oaths upon an onion.

Myrrh was essential to the religious ceremonies of the Egyptian people.  The fragrant smoke was pleasing to the Gods, but it was not native to Egypt.  Queen Hatshepsut, had them imported from ‘the Land of Rent’ which was a region in equatorial Africa.  She planted them around the temples after formally offering them to the god Amon.  Amon was so pleased by this that he promised Queen Hatshepsut life, stability, and satisfaction forever.

Myrrh

The mythology of the Greeks included abundant associations with plant magic.  Each of the twelve Olympian Gods had their favorite plants. Zeus favored the oak as a symbol of his might, while his son Ares preferred the ash which made the best spear shafts.  The Goddess Athena chose the olive which provided wood, fruit and oil.  A wise choice for this Goddess of Wisdom whose name was chosen for the city of Athens.

Full title: Apollo and Daphne Artist: Antonio del Pollaiuolo Date made: probably 1470-80 Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk Copyright © The National Gallery, London

The beautiful nymph Daphne sought to escape the amorous pursuit of Lord Apollo.  As he closed in upon her she cried out “ Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!” No sooner than the cry left her mouth she felt “a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy.” Ever after that, the laurel was the sacred plant of Apollo.  

There are many more tales of the mythic plants of Greece, such as Dionysos, grapes, and ivy,  Persephone’s associations with flowers and pomegranates, Demeter’s with wheat, poppies, and really everything that grows, as she is the Goddess of Agriculture.

Brooklyn Museum – The Journeying Magi

Most of us are familiar with the plants in Biblical mythologies, beginning with the Apple in the Garden.  And there was Moses who conversed with the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames.  King David was advised by a Balsam tree to launch an attack on the Philistines.  Rachel wished so fervently to bear two sons for Jacob, but was successful only after taking a dose of Mandrake root.  And of course the Gifts of the Magi were gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense.

The Druidic tradition is also rich with plant lore.  They used herbs in their rites, but the trees were especially sacred to them.  The most sacred of all was the oak, and the mistletoe that grew upon it.  Six days after the new moon, the white-robed priests enter the oak groves to gather the mistletoe.  One of them climbs up the tree to harvest it with a golden sickle.  Another waits below, catching the sprigs in a  white cloak.  The mistletoe must not touch the ground, or its power will be lost.  Then they empower it with prayers, incantations, and the sacrifice of two white bulls.  Only then is it ready to be brewed into a fluid with magical and health giving properties.  

Artwork by Eugene Damblans

Branches of mistletoe were hung in homes to ward off witchcraft, disease, bad luck, and fire.  The berries contain a viscous white fluid which the Druids believed to contain the seed of the Horned God of the Forest, which would bestow fertility to their livestock.  One must wonder about the origins of Yuletide kisses under the mistletoe.

As the Old Ways and the New Religion began to overlap, many ceremonial plants were given new correspondences.  Some examples of this are:

  • Vervain, used in the religious rites of the Germanic and Celtic tribes, was renamed Herb-of-the-Cross.  It was said that this plant staunched the blood flowing from the wounds of the Chritst on Calvary.
  • The rose, associated with the Goddess Aphrodite and offered to the souls of deceased Pharaohs in Egypt became the flower of the Virgin Mary.
  • Holly, which the Druids taught gave winter refuge for the wood spirits and so protected against bad fortune became another Christ symbol – the spiny leaves recalling the Crown of Thorns and the red berries his blood.
  • St. John’s Wort, with its golden blooms appearing at the Summer Solstice, was used in many ceremonial ways by sun-worshiping cultures.  The Romans burned it on bonfires at Midsummer Day celebrations. It was renamed to commemorate the birth of St. John the Baptist on June 24th, a date very close to the Summer Solstice.
Photo by RENATA KELLY UNTALER on Pexels.com

Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times the practitioners of herbal magic and healing were sometimes called witches.  Many have embraced this, reclaiming this word as a symbol of knowledge and personal power.  A witch’s reputation often stemmed from the ability to create herbal remedies which healed the body or the spirit.  The typical parish priest did not condone such activities, condemning them as black magic, in league with the Devil.

The services these healers provided were ones that the people needed, but the Church could not always provide.  Perhaps one needed herbs to assist in an unfortunate pregnancy, a charm for a young man to win the heart of his beloved, to ensure a bountiful harvest, or heal an ailing child.  When prayers could not address the need even the devout would seek the aid of the Cunning Folk.  

A model of a 19th-century cunning woman in her house, at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, England

Discovery could result in execution, so their business was conducted in secrecy.  Not much is known outside of the unreliable accounts from the transcripts of the witch trials.  From what can be gathered, these cunning folk were heirs to ancient knowledge of herbal medicine, energy work, and sympathetic magic which the Church strived to suppress.

The period between 400 CE and 1500 CE included the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The Church controlled almost all medical knowledge, and made a point to discard all secular scholars of medicine. But the long arm of the Church could not reach as far as the herb gardens of the rural monasteries and those of the Cunning Folk living far out in the countryside.

The New World was a melting pot where plant magic and medicine converged from many lands.  From Europe and Africa, Central and South America, the indigenous peoples of the First Nations, and the mountain folk of the Ozarks and the Appalachians, the practices of these natural arts are thriving even to this day.  

 The lines between magic and medicine are not clearly defined. Healing is as much  mental and spiritual as it is physical.  In many cultures past and present, illness is viewed as being caused by spirits or deities, or even as a punishment for some transgression.  Look at the word ‘disease’.  It  is a dis-ease of some kind which causes an illness or affliction.  The healers treated the sick with rituals and herbal preparations, finding that certain combinations proved to be effective cures.  These were passed down through the generations, from one to the next.

In Neanderthal burial sites dating back 60,000 years, plant substances were found which are still in use today.  Among the plants identified were yarrow, marshmallow, and groundsel.  From Sumerian clay tablets there were references to the uses of plant medicines such as opium, licorice, thyme, and mustard.  The Babylonians expanded upon these to include senna, saffron, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, and many more.

The Egyptians had the legendary healer Imhotep who became deified as their God of healing.  One of the first medical texts discovered was the Ebers Papyrus, written in the 16th century BCE which contained over 800 formulae using more than 700 herbs, oils, and plant resins.  Some of the treatments seemed bizarre, such as putting moldy bread or mud over sores to treat infections.  Thousands of years later it was found that these substances contained microorganisms which we now use to produce our most powerful antibiotics. 

Traditional African Medicine

The Chinese have a well known healing system which dates back to over 2000 years.  Modern science is still ‘rediscovering’ the pharmacopeia they use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  There is Ayurvedic medicine in India, Kampo in Japan, Curanderismo in Latin America, Traditional Arabic & Islamic Medicine (TAIM), Traditional African Medicine, and so many other great healing traditions in every culture.

There is a world of plant magic and medicine to be explored, rediscovered, honored and preserved.  It is a journey with no end, one of continual learning, meant to be shared and passed on to others.  It is our hope for a whole and balanced path to healing.

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