Written by: Rose Miller AKA Ravenwings
For thousands of years, herbs have been used for medicinal purposes as well as cosmetics, aromatics, cooking, and even embalming. The earliest known medicinal uses were documented it an Egyptian medical document called the Ebers Papyrus. This document contains over 800 medicinal drugs that were used from herbs and dates back to 1700 B.C. The Chinese claim that their use is even older than the Egyptians. Traditional Chinese medicine dates back to around 2500 B.C. Their form of using herbs also incorporates other treatments such as acupuncture and even massage. To treat an illness is to treat the whole person, to restore balance and harmony so that the body can then heal itself.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes that good health is the responsibility of the person. Herbs and diets are used to help restore a balance to the body in order for it to heal itself. The Greeks also believed in maintaining a balance for good health and incorporated herbal knowledge from Egypt, India and China.
Hippocrates – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
From Greece the medicinal practices reached Rome around 100 B.C. Medicine itself became a profitable business. Galen disagreed with Hippocrates idea of the body allowing to heal itself and reworked his ideas. Galen’s books became standard medical texts and his theories are still used in Unani medicine practiced by Muslims and even in India. Some of his theories are found throughout Shakespeare’s plays.
During the reign of Elizabeth I herbals were written by Gerard, Parkinson, and Culpepper. An herbal book that not only describes plants but, also shows how to use them. The herbal book was second only to the Bible at this time.
In an article in The Economist. 2002
“Chimpanzees suffering from intestinal worms in Tanzania dose themselves with the pith of a plant called Veronica. This plant produces poisonous chemicals called terpenes. The pith contains a strong enough concentration to kill the gut parasites, but not so strong as to kill the chimps (nor people, for that matter; locals use the pith for the same purpose).”
In the early days of medicine, drugs could only come from the plant. As society has changed and we have more scientific ways to find out what makes this herb do what it does. Then chemical structures can be identified and made synthetically. The active ingredient in Willow Bark is salicin, and was artificially made in 1852. In 1899 Bayer was the first company to introduce the aspirin using this synthetically made product. The problem with the synthetically made active ingredients found in these herbs have numerous side effects that using the actual herb does not have.
The use of herbs however over the thousands of years have been more than just for culinary and healing uses. In Rome the people actually paid their taxes with anise. Romans also used dill to make wreaths and garlands to keep away witches. In some places parsley was thought to repel head lice. There are some other great little tidbits about herbal folklore on http://www.almanac.com/content/herbal-folklore-and-old-fashioned-tips.
Whatever the reason we use herbs today it has all been tried and true over thousands of years by millions of people. So the next time you add oregano to a spaghetti sauce or take an aspirin, keep in mind that what you are doing is not new or unique, just a modern version of the days of old.