The Beginning of Herbalism
Who were the first herbalists? A question Jeanne Rose puts forth in her essay titled A History of Herbs and Herbalism. The first herbalists were the animals that roamed this earth long before humans were thought of. They knew what plants to eat to purge their bowels when they had eaten something bad. When we, as humans, came along, we learned this technique by watching the animals that had been doing it for eons before use. But when we ate these plants we saw that it was the work of spirits, gods, that allowed us to be free of the evil that had befallen us. This led to the beginnings of herbal thought.
For much of human thought, herbs worked as medicine by transferring a power from the divine to us. This now a days is thought of as magick though we not know that the power these plants contain is not divinely inspired. The more we learn about plants, the chemicals they contain, and how our bodies interact with those chemicals, the more we see how there is a science to how these plants work. There are still some mysteries that these plants contain that we do not yet understand and they still hold their magick even today.
There is little known about herbs being used in Egypt back in 3000 BCE but we know they were being used. The Ebers Papyrus from 2000 BCE lists a few plants we know and use today. Onions, mint, dates, poppy, gentian, elderberry, myrrh, chamomile, henna, honey, olive oil, wheat, and licorice among others. Much of the knowledge of the Egyptian herbs was thought to be imparted onto the people from the Goddess Isis. She was a well-known herbalist as she traveled the world to put her husband’s body back together successfully after he had been torn into 14 pieces.
Ancient Chinese herbalism is still practiced even today. The most famous author’s texts still exist today from the 2600 BCE period, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine by Huang-Ti. This text is very important for all medical knowledge because it first puts forth the idea of a disease as a theory of medicine. It puts into words the idea that a body cannot truly heal until is has unity. Unity of the mind and body, putting a mental image to disease showing that disease can be effected by our feelings as well as physiology is such a novel idea that even today physicians and individuals alike have a hard time comprehending this.
Even in Sumeria in 2500 BCE an herbal text was written. A copy, dated from 650 BCE still exists in the British Museum today. It is thought to have been copied from a much older text, perhaps near 2000 BCE.
At this time in India the Vedas were written. These texts are filled with magical charms and practices for treating disease including leprosy, coughs, and intestinal challenges. The materia medica of India, the list of prescriptions for disease, a list of herbs and their uses, was larger than even Egypt’s. Indian medicine was known for the amazing ability of using vegetables and leaves rather than using animal parts in surgery.