Herbalism: The Use of Botanicals to Restore Health
Herbalism is a huge topic. Its philosophical foundation embodies so much that in many ways it also chronicles the course and progression of human history. This article does not presume to cover every aspect nor the entire history of herbalism because the strictly material aspect of herbalism and its basic origins can be easily found in many places. This article does however, offer a different perspective of herbalism that is far more inclusive of its background and foundation that is not often presented.
Herbalism has always included at its core a decidedly spiritual or metaphysical component around which its philosophical science was organized. Hence, depending on who is writing, they will justify their position with quotes like these from the Western Spiritual tradition:
Genesis 1:29 (“Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed… to you it shall be fore meat”) Genesis 9:3 when God says, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.”
Some of the framework of Herbal theory has come out of Hebraic Kabbalistic concepts that were often misinterpreted but found compatibility with Eastern ideas that had already been in use for thousands of years. That said,”herbalism has pegged it’s understanding of life and existence on spiritual principles that can be verified physically and comprise some surprisingly comprehensive concepts that are as deep as they are simple.
In the same way as engineering has its quantitative aspect in its building material of choice and its qualitative aspect in its mathematical models, the product of which is a final built structure; the strictly physical aspect of herbalism is its materials such as herbs, oils, minerals, even animal parts, etc, can be considered as quantitative, the philosophical part is its qualitative foundation, the purpose and product of which is healing. These essential quantification’s address the physical and non-physical aspects of life and existence in order to form a cohesive working philosophy. No matter how much is written here the greater part of what comprises Herbalism will be left out because of its sheer magnitude.
Some might marginalize, belittle, diminish or otherwise scoff at the sometimes mystical quality of herbalism saying that it is not scientific. They should remember that no matter what science they may endorse or espouse, it has the exact same historical mystical origins; so much so that science often draws on mysticism to postulate some of its theories.
For example: The “Big Bang” theory of creation is of mystical origin. The link between matter, energy and light is also from mystical writings (see Robert Fludd). The theory of relativity is to be found verbatim in the mystical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Politics and industrial interests aside; when competently implemented herbal philosophy is logical and completely consistent, with scientific findings that are only coming to light now but only being admitted to by a few.
A General Definition Herbalism is a healing modality based on the use of plants and properly and “cleanly” derived plant substances within a natural and universal philosophical framework of organs and bodily functions that often and correctly considers the physical and non-physical and their corresponding interactive energies. Part of this consideration is that not only does a human being live within nature, who’s effects can influence the human being but, that the human being itself, being a complete multidimensional and closed system can and does affect itself through energies of the mind that are scientifically neither measurable nor definable. A Brief History
A Brief History
Herbalism, as a healing modality and art that is to be found on all populated continents and is therefore part of the recorded history and an integral part of the traditions of all peoples of the Earth without exception dating back at least 5000 years. Although not the only traditional healing modality that dates back to the beginning of civilization, its theory is certainly the foundation for most if not all of the ancient as well as other healing modalities including modern medicine. Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy. It’s seeming simplicity belies it’s often sophisticated principles of action.
Some Basic Herbal Theory
Herbs by themselves will do very little if they are not used and applied with a principle based philosophical logic. Among the principles employed in herbalism are the allopathic and homeopathic principles. These are opposing principles but are not at all antagonistic to each other. The allopathic principle uses the “opposite against each other to cure” while the homeopathic principle uses “like to cure like.”
When using the allopathic principle, that is to say; using the opposite element against the malady, herbalism will use something cooling against the heat that may be present in an ailment or body part or, something hot against a cold condition; the idea being that the excess hot or cold energy will be balanced out through its opposite. This is the philosophy of allopathy in practice in an absolute sense. Allopathy should not be confused with the more modern chemical therapies that are often confused with this principle.
Because the allopathic principle may not always be appropriate its opposing principle may be needed. The opposite of using opposites to heal is the use of “like to cure like;” a concept that Paracelsus also arrived at over 400 years ago. To implement this principle through herbalism it becomes necessary to seek out in nature, “specifics” or “specifica” that replace those of the physical body that have been consumed or depleted by the body because of an ailment and then using the suitable modality for administration. For this reason herbalism sometimes seeks out substances not only from the vegetable kingdom but, also from the animal and mineral kingdoms to fulfill its purpose. In principle herbalism can work comfortably as allopathy or homeopathy depending on the need. In this context only the application of a principle is meant. Homeopathy uses the like to cure like principle but, strictly speaking, in herbalism, homeopathic potentized remedies are not intended. Homeopathy itself is a much higher healing art that, like herbalism and many other finer professions is, practiced by many but mastered by only a few.
In an attempt to find the right “specifica” to address the specific depletion of a particular ailment there is a need to properly prepare the raw material before it is administered for maximum effectiveness. Every plant has a few main ingredients as well as dozens or even hundreds of other components that make up it’s chemistry.
Depending on which is needed, different methods of extraction have been developed by herbalists over the millennia. Distillation may be a common technique used in all chemistry and modern heavy industry but, it is not a recently discovered process. Distillation was developed thousands of years ago. It came about as a way of mimicking the digestive processes of the body for the purpose of extracting various ingredients in plants. But that is just one method of extraction.
Every extraction method extracts something different. This is why a whole herb taken internally as a capsule, prepared as a tea, a theriac, a pill, in oil, in vinegar, tinctured in alcohol, extracted, distilled, or, applied externally as an ointment, in a hand bath, a food bath, as a vapor, as a compress etc, etc, etc, will all generally act differently. Knowing how to prepare a remedy and how and when to apply it is part of the art of herbalism.
The most common and perhaps the most familiar preparation of herbal remedies is by the simple addition of hot water to make a tea. The purpose of water is to act as a “capturing medium” for the desired substance(s) in the raw material. The method of extraction separates the useful from the non useable component of the raw material (herb). In absolute terms the theory of extraction is based on the “cleaning of the herb.”
Paracelsus often said that all things contain a poisonous component. For this reason he stated that the only difference between a useful remedy and a poison is in the dosing or, in the “cleaning” of the remedy.
Although the medium to catch the extract may vary, as in digestion, heat is the ultimate separating force or agent be it latent as a distilled spirit or intentionally applied. Every industrial process uses heat to separate or refine its raw materials for a desired ultimate purpose. The origin of this simple process is in the distillations used in herbalism to produce remedies.
This concept needs to be clarified a little further to convey the interplay of the material and non-material aspects of herbalism and the methodology that would explain why things were done the way they were.
In ancient times there was an acute awareness, as is also mentioned in the Bible, that all things on Earth were a proportionate mixture of both good and bad elements – “clean” and “unclean” substances. Today, even though the terms may be different, we accept this more or less as being a material fact. Back then, these concepts very correctly had a more etheric or spiritual connotations. The idea of substances being predominantly clean or unclean is an Old Testament Biblical principle. Then, as now, heat was used to separate the good from the bad to otherwise clean it.
Based on this practice foods were cooked not only to make them more palatable and suitable for human consumption but, that they might also be “cleaned” by the fire. Towards this same end heat is used in the preparation of an herbal remedy to separate out what is clean and useable from that which is considered to be unclean dregs within a substance, thereby rendering it useable and beneficial. In more modern terms it was recognized that everything contains a useful component or a toxic, even poisonous components.
This very simple concept developed into elaborate distillation processes and the art of Alchemy came into being. This art became what we know as chemistry today and the basic equipment designs used then are still used to this day, varying only in scale and further refinement. Out of the endeavor, techniques and practices to produce herbal remedies came most of our sciences and industrial processes.
As you can see herbalism when properly approached is not merely naive folk medicine based on what is believed to be backward, uneducated or anecdotal guesswork. It is a science unto itself.
Esoteric Foundations – The Beginnings of Science
Esoteric Foundations Herbalism must have a system in order to work. It is to be found in a deeper understanding and fusion of physics and metaphysics.
A digression is needed to fully appreciate the scope of herbalism and the foundation it grew out of. Needless to say, Herbalism grew out of an organized mysticism rather than ignorant trial and error as is often implied. Modern scientific methods and existing evidence alone does not and cannot explain many of the anomalies of the remnants of ancient cultures. The ancients had their own science, only fragments of which have lasted to this day.
In a nutshell, Classical herbalism is a logical and systematic approach to healing that centers around the ancient concept of the Four Elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Ether – the Fifth Element – the Quintessence (God) and is linked to the highest spiritual principles and practices. The Four Elements are symbolized in the name of Jehovah as Iod-He-Vau-He. This connection between the natural and spiritual sciences is why the symbol of the caduceus is related to the healing arts in general. There is a further fundamental axiom in Classical herbalism that states that there is no need for experimentation as all things were created from the beginning in the most unchanging perfect order. The unchanging order of things is already existent and present; it just needs to be read and understood as it manifests in Nature.
How this has been interpreted around the world by the different cultural biases varies to some degree.
In China although the four basic elements are observed, for practical reasons, they have also been interpreted as the five processes – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood – that are also sometimes termed elements but are not.
In India, Ayurveda is also based on the Four Elements plus the Ether principle.
The fundamental premise of the Elements and their expanded accompanying framework is evident in all of the global herbal traditions. However, with the migration of people all over the world through the millennia much has gotten lost or misinterpreted especially among the jungle dwelling tribes yet, these primal principles remain even if greatly diluted and fragmented as herbal and spiritual beliefs and practices.
In Europe, as in other ancient cultures, there was a universally shared and clear awareness of our Earth being part of a greater universe after which all things were modeled after; the concept of a God that human beings had been made in the image of. Where God represents the great archetype – the macrocosm, the “Great Light” of Genesis, the human being, as an exact copy thereof in miniature was termed the microcosm, the “small light.” Within this simple yet all encompassing absolute idea, all that was and could exist found its representation by analogy. Hence, this paradigm produced the axiom, “as above, so below.”
Therefore, the idea that all things could be compared in analogy to the human form which was also analogous to the form of the Great Archetype; God and the universe remained a viable method of explaining and organizing creation up until the present where it is sometimes still implemented. From this very unifying vision of reality came into being the Laws of Analogy which, were the science of that now remote and semi-forgotten time. Upon closer examination this is still true even if not accepted by modern scholars. Anthropologists find that the herbal lore among indigenous people of the world is still generally based on this system and the uses of herbs established through this system is found to be amazingly accurate. So much so that the De Materia Medica, an old herbal book, written nearly 2000 years ago by Pedanius Dioscorides was proven to be at least 80% accurate solely based on the science of analogy. The 20% that was not validated was likely due to poorly prepared remedies or improper administration by the testing laboratories as the old methods of herbal preparation are for most people completely unknown and have less to do with “active ingredients” than far more subtle constituents.
The Ancient Science of Analogy
Books could be written on this subject. Here we will be as brief as possible.
In the ancient times the observation of the stars when viewed from within the above mentioned paradigm, many discoveries were made and associated to the “as above, so below” axiom. Unchanged to this day the keeping of time itself is based on the laws of analogy and the Kabbalistic concentric structure of the spiritual universe. This, together with astronomical observation a system of keeping time came into being out of which came the subdivision of time into seconds, minutes, hours, months, seasons and years. The cosmology of the time was also a keenly aware of unseen and organizing archetypal forces or influences that were orderly and cyclical. These archetypal forces were attributed to the seven primary ideas that existed within the Deity. And, even though these seven ideas were Love, Wisdom, Will, Order, Divine Earnest, Patience and Mercy. They were expressed in the West as the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon. Please note that these are not in reference to the physical orbiting bodies we have come to call the planets of our solar system. They were the names given to the archetypal forces within the organizational hierarchy of creation that guide the progression and maintenance of planet Earth. The physical planets have an analogy to these so-called spheres and were named after them but, the two have entirely different structures and modes of action but are still related to each other. This is the foundation of the study of the unseen forces that govern from a higher dimension, sometimes called the astral world. Each sphere contained a set of corresponding attributes such as colour, geometry, number, characteristic, etc., that could, by analogy be extended into human anatomy, plants, minerals, aquatic, air and land animals and much, much more. All things were classified accordingly by Element, Planetary sphere and seasonal constellation. In ancient times this was the basis of their religion which had at its center a singular Deity or analogous Higher Power.
To prove the validity and relevance of these points and our absolute connectivity to them please observe the following chart that generates what the entire world, to this day, uses as its perpetual calendar. It is based on the aforementioned seven main Kabbalistic spheres in their sequential proper order within a day that is subdivided into twenty four hours. The fact that no one has changed this order or even thinks about changing it may suggest to some that it has been given and is maintained from a higher Seat of power.
|3 Saturn||4 Jupiter||5 Mars||6 Sun||7 Venus||8 Mercury||9 Moon|
The above order of the planetary principles is correct according to the most elementary Kabbalistic theory. Even though the sequence presented above is not according to what we have known the sequence of the days of the week to be, watch what happens when that seemingly un-orderly sequence is placed into a 7 day and 24 hours matrix. Below you will see the days of the week as we have known them for millennia with the day being named after the first hour of the day for that day. If you happen to speak only English you will note that only Sunday and Saturday are obvious. If, however, you speak any Latin language you will notice that every day is named after a planet.
There is nothing coincidental about our calendar as much as there is no real way of writing off this orderliness without writing off God as well. If the logic behind this is flawed then it could not yield what it does and definitely gives validity to the rest of the philosophy in general.
Although this information goes back for thousands of years, these, more current depictions are by Robert Fludd who, in his time, was a physician. The above order was also recognized and identified, again by analogy, in human anatomy as is depicted in the drawings to the left and right and others in this article. Anyone who has used herbs according to this classical method will recognize their accuracy. Essentially, the system works. The dilemma arises when modern day orthodox science see this and states with scorn and indignity, “Astrology?” and laughs itself silly. Given that only very, very few still understand this system and the complete craziness of what astrology has become, one would have to agree them.
Also, because of the many who tried to mimic this art without understand its universal and far reaching concepts at times it became corrupted and gave rise to wild superstitions and associations to such things as witchcraft leading to the discredit of the natural healing arts in general. It must be admitted that science helped clear up the superstitions but rendered all of the finer mystical side of herbalism to the realm of the unprovable and therefore unnecessary. Perhaps the best example of “the baby was thrown out with the bath water.”
Based on this elementary “planetary” information these simple yet powerful charts, one knows which herbs to use and when to pick the various herbs at their proper time and in the proper season. This is one practical application of the immutable laws of the Kabbalistic order of the spheres (the Tree of Life in Genesis) not only in reference to Herbalism but to life in general.
The days of the week got their names from the order of the spheres in a repeating predictable cycle that made it possible to create calendars that could be made even for the distant future. (Fludd calendar) Robert Fludd depicts these concepts with clarity in the more recent times of the renaissance.
Out of Kabbalistic study several geometric concepts came into being among them the simple two dimensional figures such as triangles, squares, pentagons and so on, and the platonic solids. The concept of circles having 360 degrees is based on the association of Kabbalistic theory to the Earth and by extension the concept of a spherical, not a flat Earth. Anyone who has any knowledge of mathematics, physics and engineering will appreciate how much is associated with this elementary principles. Without them, physics, engineering as we know them and the mathematics that supports them would simply not exist as they would have no philosophical foundation.
The astronomical observations also produced mathematics, logarithms and so forth and several very sophisticated cultures flourished technologically because of it; the remnants of which survive to this day often posing the puzzling question – how did they know to do it?
All of this may seem like a digression but, this is actually as much an integral part of herbalism as it is of engineering varying only in how the knowledge is approached. The ancients were not helpless, naive, stupid fools as is often presumed by orthodox science.
The aforementioned astronomical observations were important because through them it was observed that astronomical occurrences coincided with the times that specific plants would grow. Even after having been harvested and stored it was noticed that specific plants would give off their fragrance at specific times of year even after having been picked. Which meant that there was an astronomical effect as well in nature that affected all life in general and specific organisms in particular.
(Perhaps the best book in our times that describes this phenomenon in detail is The Earth And Moon by Jakob Lorber.) Further associations were made and plants were attributed to the subdivision of time or season and therefore constellation and then the characteristic of the plants such as whether they were warming or cooling of a particular element. These were then generally associated to the planets in two ways. A herb was placed under the classification of a planet to identify it’s classification and then under a planet to classify what it did or, what it could be used for. For example: although sage is a silvery Mercury herb, it acts as Moon because of its very powerful drawing capacity.
In practiced herbal theory and in past orthodox medical practice astrological terms were often used as a sort of jargon to classify organs and plants and what they did. This was called “medical astrology.” These astrological terms were also used to describe anatomy as anyone can see by examining medieval writings and the simple charts on this page. For example and in general, a herb for the heart would be a Sun herb in Leo. An herb for the genitals would generally be a Mars herb in Scorpio with some specificity to male or female, a herb for the kidney would be a Venus herb in Libra and so on.
It should be mentioned that all medical doctors up until relatively recently used botanical preparations exclusively and to this day the term of Herbalist is synonymous with Doctor in some parts of the world. However, as previously stated not all in a given profession are proficient, adept, conscientious or ethical. As much in the past as today, many simply follow protocol blindly. At one time, not that long ago, quicksilver (Mercury) was freely administered as a cure-all by the orthodox medical profession in the same way as some pain killers and antibiotics are sold freely today and producing nothing but sickness and often death. The word “quack” is a derivative of the German word for “quicksilver.” Hence, this term is used in reference to anyone treating medically without ethics or knowledge irrespective of modality. It would be equally incorrect to suggest that any recognized modality of healing should be labelled as quackery in an attempt to protect one’s financial interests.
Simple Herb Preparation Methods
- Whole herb consumption – Herbs are sometimes consumed whole; both in fresh or dried from. They can be used in a culinary fashion to enhance the flavor of foods or for specific health reasons. At times fresh herbs are sometimes pressed into juice. There is a company in Germany (Schoenenberger) that exclusively prepares plant juices for therapeutic use. Or, herbs are more commonly used in their dried form. They preserve longer and can be prepared as is desired at a later time.
- Tisanes or Teas – This is the simplest and likely the most common category of herbal extraction using only water. Generally, the water is boiled separately and then poured over an herb and left to steep for a period of time specified by the nature of the plant and the condition presenting itself. Teas can be steeped hot, cold, in sunlight, moonlight. Their steeping time can vary from a few seconds to several hours. The main parts of plants that are prepared by this method are leaves and flowers. Cold steeping is also called a maceration and can be left for several hours. The sun is also used to extract herbs placed in cold water. The taste of herbs prepared by this method is milder and finer than when they are boiled.
- Decoctions – This method uses boiled water to extract. The boiling time varies and the main parts of plant that need this method of extraction are roots and barks.
- Powders – herbs are often powdered after they are air dried as the first step in their further preparation and processing. Powdered herbs can be pressed into pills under high pressure and then coated with a variety of substances. Often a simple protein coating is used. Traditionally these types of pills were for a very good reason coated with sugar. The sugar would serve two purposes; first it would preserve the powdered herb and second it acted as part of the delivery system of the herb. The final product produced by this method and the following preparation method is called a “dragee” in German and interestingly, this word is the root from which the word “drug” is derived.
- Theriacs or Electuaries – These are made by first powdering the herb or herbal combination and then adding honey to them. As it is the nature of honey to “draw out,” the honey will mix itself with the powders and will in time extract the substance of the herbs and also neutralize some of the “unclean” elements of the herb. At first, this process produces a sticky, pasty mass that in time will solidify and lends itself to forming into pills and sugar coated to prevent everything from becoming one mass again. Also, honey being one of the very best preservatives will through this method produce a product that will last almost indefinitely without losing its potency or effectiveness. One of the most famous theriacs is the Theriac Venetian used in preparing Swedish bitters and Paracelsus elixir. It was used in the middle ages to prevent poisonings.
- Tinctures – These are produced by using alcohol as the extracting agent. Even though no heat is necessarily applied when extracting an herb with alcohol, heat is still the principle behind this method of extraction. It should always be remembered that heat, in principle, has as its main active force the capacity to separate things. Alcohol is classically considered to be Fire Element in liquid form therefore it is highly combustible. Native American Indians correctly called it “Fire Water.”
Never should 100% pure alcohol be used for extracting an herb. The alcohol should always be diluted with water to suite the nature of the herb. Some herbs need only 20% alcohol others may need 70% or higher. Too high a percentage of alcohol will “burn” the herb. The scent of the alcohol should never predominate when preparing a tincture; the scent of the herb should.
Even though all alcohol is chemically called ethanol, not all alcohols are considered equal by herbalist. The preferred alcohol for extracting herbs is the alcohol derived from fruits in general and grapes in particular.
Alcohol is also referred to as “spirit.” In herbalism every plant has its own specific “spirits” which require another stronger spirit (alcohol) to extract and hold onto. This is what the alcohol as a “spirit” does. For this reason tinctures work at a higher level than herbal teas or pills. Elixirs are therefore prepared by maceration in alcohol.
Finished tinctures can also be further processed through an additional distillation to produce what is called the “spirit” of a particular herb. Spirit of Melissa, etc.
- Extracts – Herbal extracts are not to be confused with tinctures even though they often are. An extract is produced by at least a two stage process. First the herb boiled in water at the specific temperature of the herb and the water level is reduced to about half. Then the remaining liquid is filtered and an equal amount of alcohol is added. The alcohol will then, in time, complete the extraction.
- Wine Extractions – Wine derived from grapes is a common liquid used for extraction. The desired herbs are placed into either red or white wine and allowed to macerate. Often natural sugars are added to aid in the extraction, honey in particular. The various, vermouths are a good example of what can be produced by this method. Also, there are some excellent mulled wines that are bottled and can be served hot.
- Vinegars – Vinegars are considered to be cleaned spirits. They are made from fruit wines; grape being the most popular. As wine is produced from fermentation to release that which is undesirable. Should the process be permitted to continue too far it will continue until the wine has nothing more to surrender? The result is vinegar, which literally translated means “sour wine” and against conventional wisdom is more than mere acetic acid. In fact acetic acid by itself is little more than a good cleaning agent but not suitable for consumption. Herbs can be placed in vinegar to macerate to produce simple flavored vinegar or specific compresses. Vinegar itself can be cold distilled before herbs are added to it. The vinegar can be frozen and the non frozen liquid that remains is poured off and used as the menstrum for the extraction. This extract is called the “spirit of vinegar” and when fresh rose petals are continually added to it, it produces a very fine and aromatic liquid that softens the skin and cleans and cools sores and wounds like none other.
- Dried Extracts – These are prepared by allowing the water from the juice of a plant to evaporate leaving behind a dry mass which is then further processed into powder and then likely into a pill form.
- Freeze Dried Extracts – After producing a juice from a plant it is sprayed into a cold environment and because of the cold and dry environment it dries and crystallizes sometimes with marvelous results. It is then called a nebulisate. (See Schoenenberger Red Beet Crystals)
- Syrups – Extracts of herbs made with syrup or honey. Sixty five parts of sugar are mixed with 35 parts of water and herb. The whole is then boiled and macerated for up to three weeks.
- Essential oils – are produced from a low temperature distillation especially the more aromatic parts of specific plants. These have various applications. Either mixed as perfumes or towards a therapeutic purpose. Essential oil extracts are rarely applied in their pure form as many essential oils can burn the skin or are simply too high dose used straight. Therefore they are usually diluted in a carrier oil – diluting in olive oil or other food grade oil can allow these to be used safely topically.
- Aromatherapy – can be used as a mood changing treatment that often uses essential oils to fight a sinus infection or cough, or to cleanse the skin on a deeper level (steam rather than direct inhalation here)
- Salves, oils, balms, creams and lotions – Most topical applications are oil extractions of herbs. Taking a food grade oil and soaking herbs in it for anywhere from weeks to months allows certain phytochemicals to be extracted into the oil. This oil can then be made into salves, creams, lotions, or simply used as an oil for topical application. Any massage oils, antibacterial salves and wound healing compounds are made this way. Sometimes these oils are sometimes emulsified with a wax, usually bees wax, to make them into a more firm form. At times various oils are beaten for days on end to aerate the combination to produce a white fluffy salve or ointment.
- Poultices and compresses –One can also make a poultice or compress using whole herb (or the appropriate part of the plant) usually crushed or dried and re-hydrated with a small amount of water and then applied directly in a bandage, cloth or just as is. These are highly effective yet simple preparations. They can relieve congestion in places like the lungs.
- Foot and Hand Baths – used often by Maurice Messegue.