Friday, May 11, 2012

The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants

Book Review: The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants by Wolf D. Storl  (North Atlantic Books 2012)

This is undoubtedly the best book I have read about herbalism (and I have read a few) and possibly the best book on herbalism ever. It is full of useful information from various herbal traditions. It is a thorough and detailed study with much unusual information not easily gleaned from other sources. I have read Storl’s very good book about Shiva but I would say that this book is his masterpiece. He is an ethnobotanical anthropologist (actually he describes himself as a cultural ecologist by profession) who has also apprenticed with herbalists of various traditions around the world. His knowledge and experience of the subject is extensive. Rather oddly, the original manuscript for this book was turned down in the 80’s by several publishers, apparently on the grounds that it was a book about herbal traditions and so non-scientific. After this he set about revising it into its present form.

Storl decribes herbalism as a way of life, a way of thinking about our relationship to plants, rather than just seeking out the ‘active ingredients’ of herbs for their symptom-easing effects. “Wortcunning” is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “knowing herbs.” This knowing is not just scientific objective knowing but also the knowing of the magical attributes of herbs. He gives some further interesting Indo-European etymologies related to “wort,” one being “word, another the Germanic “ur” meaning ‘first’ or ‘primordial.’ These words, he says, denote the origin of things personified by the IE gods beyond and preceding space and time – Ahura Mazda (Ormazd) for the Persians, Uranus for the Greco-Romans, and Varuna, the Vedic guardian of the dharma and rta (ritual/rite/Germanic right). ‘Ur” points to the Nordic ur-goddesses of fate – Urd, Wyrd, and Skuld. Urd is the primordial coming into being, the primal earth. Wyrd is fate unfolding. He notes that Skuld is related to the word ‘should’ – which in German as schuld means “that which is owed.” He goes through more of these IE word origins for ‘cunning’ as well, noting that it is related to words referring to offspring, kin, gen (to produce), king, and can (to be able). Based on this he makes the statement that: “A wortcunner is not just a botanist or a knower of herbs, but one who has the occult power to see into the origin of things, to see beyond the surface.”

Storl provides an excellent history of herbalism. He suggests that the earliest herb lore was not just trial and error but an intuitive plant shamanism that began to fade as civilization developed with all its specialization of functions. In Vedic terms the revealed knowledge (shruti) of the rishis, or seers, gave way to the hearsay knowledge of tradition (smriti). Were early humans more clairvoyant than us? Possibly and legends certainly suggest it. Plant intuition is an important part of many indigenous and shamanic traditions. There is often rapport or communication with the plant spirit – in essence the Universal Form of the plant. Plant remedies given in dreams and visions are abundant in the accounts of history. The clairvoyant Edgar Cayce is a more recent example.

In time, medical ‘priesthoods’ developed in Babylonia, Egypt, and Greece. Herbal knowledge was passed down in oral and written tradition in China as the Pen Ts’ao (from 3000 BC) and in India as the Atharva Veda. Indian ascetics, forest dwellers, and Buddhist monks have studied medicine from early times and became caretakers of medical lore just as medieval Christian monks did in Europe. Storl also notes that medical and herbal healing traditions also include spiritual practices, yogic exercises and meditation techniques. For instance, in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions becoming enlightened through spiritual practices is likened to a form of healing the delusions of the mind.

In ancient Mesopotamia demons were considered the immediate cause of disease and it was treated with star omens and entrail reading. Many plant medicines were used as well. Even the Akkadian names of some plants –kamun and murra (cumin and myrrh) are still used. Cures were often administered in milk or beer and with corresponding incantations. Plants were associated with planets and the astrological houses of the zodiac. The Babylonian astrological medicine tradition spread throughout the known world probably influencing Indian Ayurveda as well as Greek and Roman medicine.

The prevailing medical analogy of Ancient Egypt was the regular flooding and flowing of the Nile and so the emphasis was on healthy flow – purgatives, laxatives, enemas, and bleeding were practiced. The temples had herb gardens with many common medicinal and culinary herbs used. The common therapeutic practices of fasting and bathing the patient and inducing a hypnotic sleep within a temple of the Great Mother Isis and seeking a dream indicating a remedy – became the basis for the Ancient Greek tradition of Asklepian healing temples.

In ancient Greece there is evidence of a Wise Woman herbal tradition that may have been common to Indo-European societies. Herbs were considered to be the blood of chthonian animals. Asklepian temples began in the first millennium BC. As in many cultures the serpent was associated with healing. The half-human son of Apollo, Asklepios was taught medicine by the Centaur Chiron. Similarly the Indian medical hero-deity Dhanvantari was a student of Garuda. Asklepios carried a staff entwined with either one or two serpents - one of venom and one of antidote - this nearly identical to the caduceus of Hermes/Thoth. Storl notes the similarity to the dollar sign. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) favored a more rational approach to medicine. His ethical code for the practice of medicine – the Hippocratic Oath is still very popular today. A famed Greek medical doctor for Roman military campaigns, Dioscorides, wrote an herbal describing 600 plants. The ideas of Claudius Galen (130-210 AD) came to dominate both Christian and Muslim medicine of the Middle Ages. He elaborated on the four humors: black bile (earth), phlegm (water), yellow bile (air), and blood (fire). These are to be balanced with diet and herbs for good health. Galen’s medicines contained many ingredients and were often packaged with Egyptian symbols, one being the Eye of Horus (udjat eye). In Egyptian myth Set plucks out the left eye of Horus (the moon) and it is restored by the healing god Thoth – so it became a symbol for healing. It has since become our symbol of prescriptions, Rx. By the time of Paracelsus in the Renaissance doctors began to part with these multi-ingredient remedies and focus on single remedies called ‘simples.’ Now they could isolate and study the effects of single herbs. Paracelsus also favored alchemical remedies containing metals. The Arabs inherited the pharmaceutical wisdom of Ancient Egypt. Distillation and extraction of essences, balms, and perfumes was knowledge passed on. Much of this was involved in original embalming and mummification techniques. Eventually some of these techniques reached the Christian monks through Spain and Southern Italy. In the Middle Ages there was competition between the peasant herbal wortcunners and the official Church herbalists and eventually they mixed together somewhat. An example is the visionary Christian mystic and healer Hildegard von Bingen. She called the life-giving power of plants viriditas. The Christian monasteries of Europe kept many herbs symbolic of their mysteries as well as foods, medicines, and Mediterranean herbs. 

Storl suggests that the European tradition of avoiding metal tools to dig roots, instead using wood, bone, or antler, may stretch back to before the Iron Age (1000 BC). He gives examples of herbs that originally had attributes of Germanic gods had become Christianized: monkshood (Aconitum napellus) was Tyr’s helmet, valerian had been the root of Wayland, the magical smith. February Daphne had been Tyr’s tree and many of the herbs attributed to the Virgin Mary were once herbs of Freya, the matron of wise women and midwives. Shamanic travel to otherworlds through hallucinogenic drugs such as Nightshades in order to find the causes and remedies for diseases was severely discouraged by the Church. With the advent of mass conversions to Christianity and the following centuries of the Inquisition and murder of millions of women the traditions lived on only in remote areas: “Here, in the backward regions of the Alps, the inaccessible regions of Wales and Scotland, and the Gascogne, the old traditions of herbalism, starcraft, and leechdom survive.” He mentions a famed French herbalist, Maurice Messegue from the Gascogne region. His own teacher, Arthur Hermes (1890-1985) lived in the Swiss Alps. Hermes utilized the planetary qualities of plants based on alchemical lore. He was Odin-like with one good eye and one bad and possessed of an old wide-brimmed hat. He avoided meat and alcohol like many of these intuitive herbalists. He studied Paracelsus, Goethe, and Rudolph Steiner. Steiner (1861-1925) was an influential occultist-philosopher-scientist who instigated the ‘biodynamic’ movement of agriculture. His anthroposophic medicinal theory utilizes organic and biodynamic herbs. Greater than these known herbalists with their writings, says Storl, are the unknown country-women and grandmothers who pass on herbal knowledge to their daughters. Typically they have remedies for child diseases, child-bearing problems, nursing, and women’s issues. Along with this knowledge came the passing on of old fairy tales, craft lore, and pagan wisdom – things that the parish priests could never really control.

Storl notes that Celtic herbal tradition is perhaps foremost in Europe, considering the Celtic tribes occupied much of northern Europe before Roman times. There are Druidic traditions of picking herbs or digging roots at the dark of the moon (since moonlight saps their strength). Another is the picking of medicinal plants at dawn on summer solstice, being beltless and barefoot, or preferably naked. The Gauls would hold aloft freshly picked herbs in offering. The houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) – sacred to the thunder god – was to be plucked between a flash of lightning and the clap of thunder. He recounts the legend of the Welsh healers, the Meddygion Myddfai, heirs of the Druid priests. The story is that a cowherd came upon an elfin woman and wooed her. She married him but he had to swear that he would not strike (or scold) her – if he did three times she would have to return to the elfin world. They had several children. His striking/scolding her for her refusal to attend a baptism, her crying at a wedding, and her laughing at a funeral made three occasions, so she had to return. Before she left she bestowed the gift of wortcunning on her sons and the sons of her sons who became the Meddygion Mtddfai. Another famous mythic herbalist was the Irish monk, St. Fiacre, son of a Celtic king, who went to meditate in France in a remote forest with his herb and vegetable gardens – thus he became the patron saint of vegetable gardens and cures of hemorrhoids.

By the Renaissance other influences on herbalism came from the Gypsies from the east, Jewish physicians from Spain, Byzantine scholars, and Neoplatonists and Alchemists. Storl devotes considerable section to Paracelsus (1493-1541) who studied the academic herbal traditions of Galen, Avicenna (the great Islamic Sufi doctor), and Rhazes. Even so, he was dissatisfied with the medical methods of his time as he preferred local cures from the ‘book of nature.’ He postulated five causes of illness: influence from stars, poisons/intemperance/blockages, bad habits (like overeating and overindulgences), imbalanced indulgence in disturbing emotions, and spiritual causes (possibly from previous lives). In his way he revolutionized medicine in that time and place – yet alchemy, astrology, and magic were still a key part of doctoring. Paracelsus rebelled against the medical institutions which he saw as corrupt, ineffective, and self-aggrandizing. His goal was curing of the sick. He favored local herbs – especially for maladies associated with climate, environment, and psychosocial conditions. From peasant lore came the important – Doctrine of Signatures – where plants that had appearances of body parts or causes of disease were the cures suggested by nature. The Hermetic principle of correspondences – ‘as above, so below’ was utilized especially in the astrological attributes of plants and maladies. Correspondences of colors, tastes, growing environments, etc. were utilized to compare the macrocosmic attributes to the microcosmic ones. By the 1700s and 1800s there were strong preferred medicines from around the world in more availability. Yet still there were dangerous cures like bleeding and utilizing poisons that did more harm than good. Early in the history of America there were black slaves noted for their healing abilities through herbs and possibly indigenous African practices. Unfortunately, they later became prohibited from doctoring (in South Carolina) under penalty of death. Housewives, as the cooks and nurses for the American family, were the most knowledgeable of cures. Early wortcunners on the American frontier where there were few doctors came to utilize American herbs like Lobelia as a purgative. Sam Thomson (1769-1843), guided by an old woman, was such a wortcunner. This Thomsonianism became a medical movement and was furthered by the Shaker societies. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of Homeopathy, was also such a practitioner, experimenting extensively with herbs in small amounts. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe came up with the idea of the Urpflanze, the primal or archetypal plant at a time when there was little interest in such ideas as empiricism was advancing. This idea was a more or less shamanistic conception of the Universal Plant Spirit and its potential on-going association/relationship with man and other animals. In later times when isolation of ‘active ingredients,’ vaccines, and wonder drugs were the norm, interest in whole plant cures was diminished.

In the 20th century the common belief was (is?) that new pharmaceuticals have drastically increased the lifespan and reduced premature death of humans – but this could just as easily be attributed to great advances in sanitation and food preservation. “Synthetic drugs – and if they fail, surgery – constitute modern medicine.” Synthetic drugs can be dangerous and many are removed from the market every year. Many are over-prescribed and there can be synergistic toxicity when added to other drugs. Much of the problem can perhaps be attributed to treating the parts rather than the whole, to treating symptoms with temporary fixes rather than treating underlying causes. The same can perhaps be said of herbicide and pesticide-intensive factory farming and agribusiness. Storl notes that in the 1980’s there was some backlash against newly popular herbal cures by doctors saying that they were dangerous and untested. Logic says otherwise since herb use has a vast history and almost all synthetics have only short-term testing. Even so, some herbs can certainly be dangerous, especially from overuse and it would be good for science to continue to test them for safety and long-term effects. Certainly more tragedies have occurred from unforeseen results of the use of synthetics than with herbs. Thalidamide babies were one result. According to Storl, it is estimated that 100,000 deaths occur annually in the U.S. due to “unforeseen synergistic effects of properly prescribed

Storl notes that the modern medical ‘priesthood’ has its doctors appear before us at the transitions of life: birth, marriage, illness, and death. Antibiotics and surgery are the strong points of modern medicine but they are both abused through overuse. Antibiotics are losing their power due to resistant strains evolving. The modern mechanistic model of disease has its usefulness but many problems as well. Ironically, even though our modern medical system spurns herbal remedies the pharmaceutical companies that finance them search the world over for herbal remedies, hoping to isolate their active ingredients and market them as cures. Standardized doses have become the norm in both pharmaceuticals and herbs – active ingredient concentrations can be influenced by variables like soil, elevation, and time of day gathered. Herbal cures often involve small gradual boosts to assist the body in healing itself rather than the “chemical hammer” approach. Of course, in the fast pace of modern times, people do not want to wait. Storl notes that modern scientific medicine is the prevailing paradigm based on the prevailing worldview but that older holistic models based on different worldviews can be just as effective and sometimes more effective. He goes through some of these systems: Traditional Chinese Medicine, Indian Ayurveda, Buddhist Medicine, Unani Medicine of Muslim societies, Primitive Medicine and Shamanism, Native American Herbalism, African Medicine, Homeopathy, Reflexology, and Marijuana Therapy in some detail. TCM uses acupuncture, moxibustion, harmonizing chi, inner organ therapy, and herbs. Ayurveda uses the tridoshic system of body constitution, harmonizing influences, purging, and many other methods. Charaka was a famous Ayurvedic doctor and compiler of remedies. Buddhist Medicine arose from Ayurveda. King Ashoka instituted the planting of medicinal herbs along roadsides so they would be available. There is evidence that the Neanderthals used medicinal herbs 60,000 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries became the first ethnologists bringing back strange medicines from around the world. Shamanic techniques may also work with a very real placebo or psychosomatic effect to encourage healing. It is now well known that emotional and mental states can strongly affect the condition of the body. The author notes his experience living with a Spiritualist community in Ohio where these types of cures occurred.

I enjoyed the section on Native American Herbalism. Much of it was a mish-mash of Indian and European lore. The tribes such as the Cherokee that were forced to migrate to a different area became separated from the plants of their native areas. The Europeans brought many new plants (and a few animals like starlings and sparrows came as well) that became naturalized. They cut down many of the forests and killed the game. Of course, this was rather inevitable with population increase. He goes through the Great Lakes Chippewa (Ojibwa) tribal curing methods. Their healers were part of the Bear Society. Roots were preferred since the bear digs roots. Medicines are often secretive. They are often powdered roots, sometimes inhaled as smoke from red hot rocks, sometimes epidermally administered with porcupine quills, or teas, salves, decoctions, or infusions, snuffed, chewed, or sprinkled into incisions, smoked with tobacco or red willow (Cornus amonum) or given as enemas. Often they were given in conjunction with a sweat lodge ceremony in order to sweat out illness. The Iroquois believe illness to be caused by: natural causes, witchcraft, unfulfilled secret desires (like Freud), or ghosts. Tobacco offerings, fasting, herbs, sweat baths, and charms were cures – often aided by songs with drums and rattles. Curing societies would originate when a hunter lost deep in the forest had an encounter with a spirit. There would then be a festival to the spirit with offerings and chanting. Causes of disease in African Medicine are similar: ancestral spirits, witchcraft, spirit possession, or an intrusion of an object ion the body. Other possibilities from the Swazi tribes are bad food, bad frame of mind, soul loss, astral and lunar influences, telepathy, and evils done in previous incarnations. Doctors might utilize divination, dream analysis, trance, and anamnesis (delving into the patient’s past including former lives). Many herbal potions have made it from Africa to the Caribbean and America. Methods and ways of giving meds are similar to other herbal traditions including the singing and chanting of shamanic traditions. Eating of clay is a practice that has persisted, especially among pregnant women. In summary, the indigenous holistic health and herbalist traditions throughout the world have much in common.

Next is a big section on the Philosophy of Western Herbalism. Much of this is from the Renaissance Hermetic/Neoplatonic perspective. This perspective includes the whole worldview/cosmology. There is the hierarchy from mineral to vegetable to animal to human and beyond and whole series of correspondences and categories based on planetary energies, stellar influences, and signatures. According to the medieval scholastics: “The stone is, the plant lives, the animal senses, man understands.” Storl notes that, “The human being is a microcosm because he manifests all four kingdoms within himself: the physical, the etheric, the soul (astral), and the spiritual.” Various plants and human organs are associated with the traditional seven planets. These Western esoteric correspondences also include the elements and the zodiac and can get quite detailed. Certainly, to me, this Western Esoteric tradition seems to be quite memory and symbol oriented.

Plant metamorphosis from seed to the structure of the plant is what led Goethe to postulate the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant. Some plants are leaf-oriented (ie. mints), some are root oriented (tubers), and some are fruit oriented (cucumbers). Certainly herbalists favor a different approach than modern medicine:

“…herbalists following the lead of Paracelsus and Samuel Hahnemann do not think that it is so much the active ingredient that links the metabolism of the body; rather it is the organism’s (often antagonistic) response toward the unusual astrality of specific plants. This astrality arouses the body’s own healing power”

The science of healing has eclipsed the art of healing, often to the detriment of the patient.

Steiner’s anthroposophic medicine makes note that whatever we encounter: food, drink, air, and what we interface with the senses, can affect our health. The trinity of plant structure is roots, leaves, and flowering parts. In Steiner’s system as in Alchemy and other systems the plant is inverted so that roots are often given for head complaints and flowers and seeds are given for digestive and metabolic problems. Of course, this generality is only one way of looking at it.

There is a section on how to become an herbalist. He recommends learning botany and plant identification but also doing things like nature walks and meditating on plants every day and drawing or painting plants and studying their lore. The yerberos of South America basically do a vision quest in order to bond with a particular medicinal plant and gain intuition with its use. He suggests being mindful and utilizing a sacred attitude when gathering herbs. Hen then goes through when to gather herbs, how to dry them, and ways to administer herbal medicine. He goes through alchemical distillation and the alchemical properties of plants. Sulfur is considered the soul of the plant as a lion, mercury is the spirit in bird form, and salt is the mineral body represented by a skull.

Storl proposes a continuum from staples (grains and sometimes tubers) to poisons. Vegetables provide minerals and can be balanced by culinary herbs and are best in the matrix of the staples. He mentions the Macrobiotic food combinations founded by George Oshawa. Eating foods that are in season is a rather necessary part of many health regimens. The life-sustaining properties of the staples, he says, are due to the primary metabolism of the plant. These are typically usable sugars, starches, proteins, or fats. The further one gets toward the scale of poisonous plants the more one confronts the products of secondary metabolism of the plants. Sometimes these are acids, Our bodies process these substances in organs such as the liver, spleen, kidneys, and bladder. Since plants have no organs of elimination these substances are stored in specific cells of the plant. The accumulated toxins are buffered with other substances in the plants. This is one reason herbalists would say that whole plants are preferred to active ingredients. Storl goes through some of these secondary plant metabolism products in detail. Some are glucosides of several types, ethereal oils, alkaloids, tannins, bitters, and mucilaginous substances. This is a fascinating foray into plant chemistry.

There is an interesting section of vegetables as medicines and wild foods including spring greens and root cellar vegetables for winter. There is a section on herbs for cooking and beauty care and another on raising herbs in a garden. The section on companion herbs was also interesting.

He does a long section on the Garden of Hecate, referring to poisonous plants. The lore of Hecate, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Freyja and Holda (Hella) in the north includes much plant lore and those female deities were subjected to special scorn by the Church. In India it is Shiva who is the lord of poisons. Storl gives methods to neutralize poisons. One is the use of tannins, perhaps from tea, to bind the alkaloids. Bitter tastes are often indicative of alkaloids and possible poisons. Rudolph Steiner notes that banes, or poisonous plants have “taken into themselves too strongly the astral impulses” and “are eager to skip beyond plantdom to become animals.” Storl says that higher plants and lower animals often make poison. Poisons, he says, are formed at the threshold where the etheric and the astral meet. Chemically speaking he says that nitrogen is the anchor of the astral forces on the physical plane, carbon carries the physical forces, and oxygen carries the etheric forces.

For practical reasons women seem to have done most of the herb gathering, cooking, and gardening since very ancient times. Due to the necessity of women for child rearing and care this was most practical. This resulted in a rather universal difference between male and female culture. Although this is changing today it certainly does have a long history. These cultures were passed on in various ways. Men’s mysteries were perhaps more dramatic and traumatic while Women’s mysteries were more gradual and more practical. Some mysteries in some parts of Europe were passed from Women to Men and vice versa. Women’s lore included love magic, fertility, birth, weaning, menstruation, and lactation and according to Storl was clothed in folklore and myth. Herbal charms and incantations are a big part of European love magic as are aphrodisiacs. Wise women and midwives also took care of child birth. For this knowledge they relied on herbs to aid them. The midwife was considered sacred and magical and somewhat beyond reproach. In Indo-European societies it was common to offer the child to the earth (also its mother) and to walk around it three times. Raspberry leaf tea was often prescribed during the latter stages of pregnancy. There were herbs to aid recovery of the mother and nursing as well. Spinning and weaving were also the provenance of women. Herbal dyeing of cloth was another part of the craft. Storl goes through the dyeing herbs. He also mentions what he calls the darker side of women’s herbal knowledge, that of knowing which herbs can make ill and poison. He also touches on the cult of Freya and the Vanir in the north as a domain of women’s magic.

There is a section called – Consciousness, Society, and Drugs – which discusses cultural attitudes to everything from alcohol to coffee, tea, herbs, and hallucinogens. Basically, just about every indigenous society uses either hallucinogens, herbal narcotics, or herbal stimulants and usually all of the above. He includes a section on Magical Flight and the Third Eye – about shamanic drugs and witches salves. These include the Nightshades and other even more toxic substances and were used more in times when people perhaps lived closer to death and risked such toxicity for soul travel experiences. Fascinating are the sections on cultural drug use throughout history and around the world.

A section on communication with plants is interesting and an appendix includes hymns from the Rig Veda addressed to magical plants as mother goddesses. Throughout the world herbs were given along with special chants by wortcunners. He mentions the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga, or Lay of Nine Healing Herbs as a good example. These famed nine herbs are associated with Woden and are mugwort, plantain, chamomile, thyme, bistort, nettle, crabapple, chervil, and fennel. Mugwort is foremost among them. According to Theosophy the spirits of plants dwell beyond in the Arupa Devachen, a higher heaven associated with the Music of the Spheres.

The last section on Plant Family Portraits was one of my favorites. Quite obviously many plants share features and qualities and are classed together. This is perhaps a good way to classify their effects and abilities as well. The families he mentions are: spurge, poppy, pulses (peas), nettle, madder, and crowfoot (buttercup). There are also roses, milkweeds, mustards, heaths, witch hazels, composites, and many others such as the umbeliferous..

OK – long review but very informative book in many ways. One could ponder it quite much. I was able to utilize some practical ideas for companion planting since I have a rather large collection of herbs and plants on our farm. If you want to read a book about herbs – definitely choose this one. It is excellent.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent for my research on the history and working practices of the Wortcunner.