A Very Brief History of Herbal Medicine in the Pre-Christian Era
No one knows when the use of medicinal herbs was discovered by ancient man, but it was certainly long before recorded history. Archaeological evidence of the use for medicinal herbs dates back to more than 60,000 years ago! Nearly every ancient culture on earth passed down legends, verbally, about the use of medicinal herbs being revealed to man by religious deities. Such legends are easily dismissed as myths by modern Christians and "men of science", yet those stories were also recorded by the Jewish tradition in which Christianity is inextricably rooted. Consider the following entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica:
In ancient times herbs were the main source of remedies. According to the Book of Jubilees (10:12), the angels revealed the various remedies to Noah, who wrote them down in a book. Asaph the physician adds that Noah, having been taught by the angel Raphael the remedies obtainable from trees, plants, and roots, recorded them in a book which he gave to his son Shem and which was used by the ancient physicians (Asaph, ed. Venetianer, 6). Apparently in olden times books of remedies were common among the people. One of them, mentioned by Maimonides as having supposedly been written by Solomon (Maim., commentary on Pes. 4:9; cf. Jos., Ant. 8:45ff.), was suppressed by order of Hezekiah, king of Judah, for which action he was praised by the sages (Pes. 4:9); his purpose, so commentators explain, was that people should pray to the Almighty for mercy and not rely solely on remedies. Maimonides, however, rejects the legend. Except for צֳרִי (ẓori, "balm"), stated to be efficacious in curing wounds (Jer. 8:22, 46:11, 51:8), no medicinal herbs or prophylactics are mentioned in the Bible. It is suggested that the story of the *mandrake s (Gen. 30:14–17) alludes to this plant's properties in promoting pregnancy, but the passage seems specifically intended rather to point out that pregnancy is a gift of the Lord, for Leah, who handed over the mandrakes, became pregnant and not Rachel, who received them. The Bible several times mentions toxic plants from which poisons were extracted, such as רׂאשׁ or רוֹשׁ (rosh, " *hemlock "; AV, JPS, "gall") and לַעֲנָה (la'anah, "wormwood"), these having apparently also been used in minute quantities as remedies, as testified by Greek and Roman medical writings. Of the toxic plant פַֻּקּעוֹת (pakku'ot; AV, JPS, "gourds"), colocynth (see cucumber), it is told that during a famine in the days of Elisha one of the disciples, intending to gather אוֹרוֹת (orot; AV, JPS, "herbs"), that is, according to R. Meir, roquet, a medicinal herb especially efficacious in eye diseases, instead collected and boiled a dish of colocynth. After eating of it, the disciples cried out: "There is death in the pot," but by adding flour to the dish Elisha made it edible (II Kings 4:39–41), the flour having absorbed, some contend, the fruit's bitter toxic substance.
Missio Dei is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Whereas the Bible speaks very little about medicinal plants, talmudic literature mentions many herbs, some regarded as cures, others used as a prophylactic against various ailments. From time immemorial popular medicine has used numerous herbs, particularly wild plants, as remedies. The classical medical literature of Theophrastus, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and others shows that different remedial qualities were ascribed to the vast majority of herbs, some of which were used by many peoples. In talmudic literature close upon 70 plants are mentioned as having medicinal properties, including plants mainly used as food, such as olives, dates, pomegranates, quinces among fruit – and garlic, beet , hyssop , cumin , and fennel-flower among vegetables and spices. In addition wild plants are mentioned which were used principally for remedial purposes. The following are some of the medicinal plants enumerated in the Talmud: for a liver ailment, יוֹעֶזֶר (yo'ezer "maidenhair fern"; Adiantum capillus veneris; Shab. 14:3; Shab. 109b); as an antidote for snake poison, אַבּוּב רוֹעֶה (abbuv ro'eh, "knoodweed," Polygonum aviculare;ibid.); for eye ailments, scurvy, and intestinal worms, גַּרְגִּיר (gargir, "roquet"; Eruca sativa; Shab. 109a; Git. 69b); recommended for intestinal worms are the leaves of עָרָא (ara, "bay"; Laurus nobilis; Git. 69b) and אֵזוֹב (ezov, "hyssop"; Majorana syriaca; Shab. 109b); for intestinal ailments, שִׁחְלַיִים (shiḥlayim, "garden cress"; Lepidium sativum; Av. Zar. 29a; Git. 57a); for skin disease, תֶּרֶד (tered, "spinach beet"; Beta vulgarisvar. cicla; Shab. 133b f.), considered efficacious in many ailments, it having been said that "a broth of spinach beet is beneficial for the heart, good for eyes, and still more so for the bowels" (Ber. 39a); for דְּמָא דְּרֵישָׁא (dema de-reisha), apparently blood pressure in the head, הֲדַס (Hadas, "myrtle"), and the wild rose (Rosa canina; Git. 68b) are recommended; for stopping hemorrhage, כַּמּוֹן (kammon, "cumin"), תַּחֲלֵי (taḥalei; garden cress), and seeds of סְנֶה (seneh, "the raspberry"; Rubus sanctus) are suggested (Shab. 19:2; Av. Zar. 28 a–b). There is in addition a long list of medicinal plants, potions, and remedies from the plant world which are prescribed in the Talmud. A number of remedies were known for restoring virility, for increasing seed, for aphrodisiac purposes, for inducing temporary sterility, or for preventing conception. Several herbs are prescribed as cosmetics. Opium is mentioned once – as a plant dangerous to buy from gentiles (TJ, Av. Zar. 2:2, 40d).
The most comprehensive ancient, recorded knowledge we have of Herbal Medicine comes, perhaps not coincidentally, from ancient Egypt. The influence of the Hebrew people in Egyptian culture and the influence of Egyptian culture on the Hebrews was vast. That they shared their knowledge of herbs and their uses is unknown, but very likely. Babylon, as well, had a strong tradition of herbal medicine. It is most likely that everywhere the Hebrew people went, and under every nation by which they were ruled, this intelligent race of people, rightly recognized for the value they placed on wisdom and knowledge, would learn all they could of healing. Surely, they continued to learn from Greeks, Romans and Arabs... and then on, through modern times, wherever education was provided to Jews in Europe. During times of persecution, the Jewish doctor was still honored and recognized for his medical skill. Well into my lifetime, as the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses and terrorized people on the basis of their race, religion or political affiliation, in any town in which there was a synagogue, there was a Jewish doctor who was a respected member of the community.
The Ashkenazi Jews were those who settled in central Europe around Germany and France during the Holy Roman Empire and gradually shifted east into Poland, Ukraine, Russia and eastern Europe. They brought with them their Hebrew traditions, and certain aspects of Babylonian and Mediterranean culture, including Herbal Medicine. This was the culture who spoke Yiddish and faced extreme persecution for centuries, especially during the Holocaust. Through persecution, they held fast to their traditions and continue provide insight into thousands of years of herbal history.
The oldest written (chiseled into a tablet) record on Herbal Medicine is from ancient Mesopotamia, written in Sumerian around 2100 BC. The most extensive Babylonian medical text dates to around 1060 BC. It was called The Diagnostic Handbook and includes extensive information about the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
The Ebers Papyrus dates to 1550 BC. It was named for George Ebers, who purchased it in 1873 and donated it to the University of Leipzig in Germany. The Ebers Papyrus is one of the most ancient and important documents discovered in ancient Egypt. It is believed to have been copied from texts that were even centuries older. This 110 page scroll is the most extensive recording of Herbal Medicine of the era to survive into modern times. It contains descriptions of herbs and their use, along with magic spells and folk remedies. It describes the function of the heart, discusses mental disorders, depression and pregnancy. This would indicate that Egypt had a very sophisticated knowledge of medicinal herbs and their use.
Meanwhile, remarkably advanced traditions of Herbal Medicine were developing in Asia, which are still practiced today. Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India and what we now call Traditional Chinese Medicine is the same for China. Interestingly, both of these traditions share an "energetic" understanding of people and herbs that would later be embraced by the ancient Greeks... although, there is no record that these people learned that concept from each other. While the philosophies and religions of India would have a dramatic effect on China with the spread of Buddhism, the ancient Chinese Taoists had little knowledge of the developments in Indian medicine, nor did the ancient Greeks. Yet, each of these traditions developed systems for understanding how a person's body type and nature/disposition would make him more or less likely to develop a specific disease, and how herbs would affect individuals differently based on their constitution. In very simplistic terms:
Ayurveda had its "doshas": Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These doshas not only described a person's body type and personality, but also the characteristics of herbs and the nature of diseases.
Taoist Chinese Medicine viewed people, disease and herbs in terms of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are in essence opposite forces that must be in harmony for health. Herbs that are more Yang are used to balance Yin conditions. Herbs that are more Yin are used to balance Yang conditions.
Ancient Greek medicine is based on the concept of "humours"; again, forces or characteristics that must be kept in balance. Imbalance causes disease.
I once heard a dermatologist summarize his practice as, "If it is dry, moisten it. If it is wet, dry it. If it is inflamed, soothe, it, etc." So, such concepts are still used in modern, western medicine. But, I must stress that this is an incredibly over-simplified explanation of two great medical traditions. Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine are remarkably complex systems that require a lifetime of intense study to master. That they are effective is evidenced by the very fact that these are the only two school of ancient medicine that are still practiced today, completely intact and authentic, alongside modern or allopathic medicine in nations where they are respected. I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine with professional practitioners for about a decade and only began to scratch the surface.
The foundations of western medicine though, and the Christian tradition begin with the Greeks and Romans.
Known as the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates lived between 460 and 370 BC. His Hippocratic Corpus became the most influential medical texts of all time. Although mainly concerned with diagnosing disease and treating injuries, his works did include a number of herbal remedies, including Ptisan used as primary treatment. Ptisan is an herbal tea that may include a number of herbs, but is most often made with Linden flowers now. Hippocrates often recommended a simple barley water:
Ptisan, then, appears to me to be justly preferred before all the other preparations from grain in these diseases, and I commend those who made this choice, for the mucilage of it is smooth, consistent, pleasant, lubricant, moderately diluent, quenches thirst if this be required, and has no astringency; gives no trouble nor swells up in the bowels, for in the boiling it swells up as much as it naturally can.
In fever attended with singultus, give asafoetida, oxymel, and carrot, triturated together, in a draught; or galbanum in honey, and cumin in a linctus, or the juice of ptisan. Such a person cannot escape, unless critical sweats and gentle sleep supervene, and thick and acrid urine be passed, or the disease terminate in an abscess: give pine-fruit and myrrh in a linctus, and further give a very little oxymel to drink; but if they are very thirsty, some barley-water.
A linctus for pneumonia: Galbanum and pine-fruit in Attic honey; and southernwood in oxymel; make a decoction of pepper and black hellebore, and give it in cases of pleurisy attended with violent pain at the commencement. It is also a good thing to boil opoponax in oxymel, and, having strained it, to give it to drink; it answers well, also, in diseases of the liver, and in severe pains proceeding from the diaphragm, and in all cases in which it is beneficial to determine to the bowels or urinary organs, when given in wine and honey; when given to act upon the bowels, it should be drunk in larger quantity, along with a watery hydromel.
When the loins are in a tetanic state, and the spirits in the veins are obstructed by melancholic humors, venesection will afford relief. But when, on the other hand, the anterior tendons are strongly contracted, and if there be sweats about the neck and face, extorted by the violent pain of the parched and dried tendons of the sacral extremity (these are very thick, sustaining the spine, and giving rise to very great ligaments, which terminate in the feet,) in such a case, unless fever and sleep come on, followed by concocted urine and critical sweats, give to drink a strong Cretan wine, and boiled barley-meal for food; anoint and rub with ointments containing wax; bathe the legs and feet in hot water, and then cover them up; and so in like manner the arms, as far as the hands, and the spine, from the neck to the sacrum, are to be wrapped in a skin smeared with wax; this must extend to the parts beyond, and intervals are to be left for applying fomentations, by means of leather bottles filled with hot water, then, wrapping him up in a linen cloth, lay him down in bed. Do not open the bowels, unless by means of a suppository, when they have been long of being moved. If there be any remission of the disease, so far well, but otherwise, pound of the root of bryonia in fragrant wine, and that of the carrot, and give to the patient fasting early in the morning, before using the affusion, and immediately afterwards let him eat boiled barley-meal in a tepid state, and as much as he can take, and in addition let him drink, if he will, wine well diluted. If the disease yield to these means, so much the better, but, if otherwise, you must prognosticate accordingly.
Those who have the inferior intestines hot, and who pass acrid and irregular stools of a colliquative nature, if they can bear it, should procure revulsion by vomiting with hellebore;
If you think it necessary to give medicines, you may safely purge upwards by hellebore, but none of those should be purged downwards.
A styptic. Apply the juice of the fig inwardly to the vein; or having moulded biestings into a tent, introduce up the nostril, or push up some chalcitis with the finger, and press the cartilages of the nostrils together
For dysentery. A fourth part of a pound of cleaned beans, and twelve shoots of madder having been triturated, are to be mixed together and boiled, and given as a linctus with some fatty substance.
For violent pains of the eyes. Take of chalcitis, and of raisin, of each 1 dr., when digested for two days, strain; and pounding myrrh and saffron, and having mixed must, with these things, digest in the sun; and with this anoint the eyes when in a state of severe pain. Let it be kept in a copper vessel.
It is said that the first herbal was written by Diocles of Carystus, who lived from 460 to 370 BC, but this work is believed to be lost. Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, who lived between 350 and 287 BC, wrote Inquiry Into Plants. This collection of works established his reputation as the Father of Botany. Among the more than 500 plants he described were many medicinal herbs. He gathered his information on herbs and their uses from the pharmacists of the era, and their apothecaries. Theophrastus describes the use of the opium poppy, wild lettuce, Hemlock (the deadly poison used to kill Socrates) and mandrake, among others. He describes tapping certain trees such as pine to collect the resin, and the use of gums such as frankincense and myrrh.
By far, the greatest Herbal of Ancient Greece was de Materia Medica by Pedanios Dioscorides. This book may be the most influential work on medicinal herbs ever written and is still used by many herbalists (myself included) today. Dioscorides lived from 40 to 90 AD. The modern, English translation of de Materia Medica that is on my shelf is 960 pages, including more than 500 medicinal herbs and their uses! Dioscorides provides formulas for the herbal wines that were a primary means of treatment in the time before distillation and tinctures.
Pliny the Elder, a contemporary of Dioscorides, living 23 to 79 AD, wrote A Natural History. This work, comprising 37 books, described over 1,000 plants and their uses, but was not primarily focused on herbal medicine. Seven books of his massive work are devoted to medicinal herbs. Pliny and Dioscorides are the primary references for ancient Greek herbalism.
Galen, however, would be even more influential than Hippocrates in modern medicine. Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus, lived from 129 to 216 AD. Galen was a physician with a keen interest in anatomy and the physical actions of the human body. Galen conducted autopsies before his students and greatly furthered the understanding of physiology. He pioneered surgery and was physician to several emperors. Galen and his legacy would influence western medicine for more than 1,500 years. It is believed that Galen wrote (or dictated) more than 1,500 works, making him one of the most prolific authors of all time. Unfortunately, most of his works on medicinal herbs have been lost. However, these works greatly influenced the Arab herbalists. Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi, an Arab Christian, having translated his medical works between 830 and 870 AD.
The Galenic school of medicine brings us up to the early Christian era in Rome. While Rome was a very advanced civilization in terms of architecture and early sciences, it was not a very humane place. Rome was a nation that embraced violence and excess and had very little respect for human life. Romans filled the Colosseum for the sport of watching people and animals being tortured and executed. Roman slaves could be maimed, tortured and killed for any misconduct. Romans discarded their own unwanted babies on garbage heaps, leaving them to die or to be taken as slaves. Having no love, sympathy or empathy even for one's own child is the greatest sign of lacking morality and humanity. Roman physicians were highly trained and skilled. However, their skills were used to maintain the health of the wealthy, the powerful and soldiers. This was a professional or military medical class. These very characteristics gave rise not only to Christian medical practitioners, but to the very Church itself that would emphasize the dignity and worth of all humanity and the practice of charity.
This article is an excerpt from Christian Medicine, History and Practice by Judson Carroll. To learn more about this book, please visit: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice - a new book by Judson Carroll
Christian Medicine, History and Practice is available for purchase on Amazon: Christian Herbal Medicine, the History and Practice: Carroll, Judson: 9798791509611: Amazon.com: Books
Judson is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack at judsoncarroll.com
Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Missio Dei is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.