Classical herbal traditions

Classical herbal traditions

Hippocrates (460 – 377BCE), the Greek “father of medicine”, considered illness to be a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon, and he felt that medicine should be given without ritual ceremonies or magic. In the earliest Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine written in the 1st century BCE, the emphasis on rational medicine is equally clear: “In treating illness, it is necessary to examine the entire context, scrutinize the symptoms, observe the emotions and attitudes. If one insists on the presence of ghosts and spirits one cannot speak of therapeutics”. This approach to therapeutics seems to have developed in parallel in each major herbal tradition between 100BCE and 100CE.

With the growth of trade between China, south-east Asia, India and the Roman empire, the availability and exchange of exotic herbs and spices challenged the reliance on locally grown medicinal plants. Herbs had ‘travelled’ between continents long before the spice trade (garlic is thought to have originated in central Asia and was being cultivated in Egypt at least 5,000 years ago) but by the 1st century CE spices such as black pepper had become familiar ingredients in food and medicine in much of the Roman empire.

In the ancient Western world, two figures stand out as influencing the course of medicine and herbal medicine over the next 1,500 years or more. Dioscorides (c.40 – c.90 CE), was a Greek physician who wrote the first European herbal pharmacopeia, De Materia Medica. His aim was to produce an authoritative and comprehensive text on medicinal plants and their uses. Listing over 600 herbs in all, this work was to have an astonishing influence on Western medicine, being the primary reference on medicinal plants until the 17th century.

[Perhaps we could have a pic from the first illustrated herbal Version of De Materia Medica -Constantinople 512CE]

Galen (131 – 200CE), a prolific medical author and physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, had an equally profound influence on the development of medicine in the West. Galen drew inspiration from Hippocrates and based his theories on “the four humours” – a theory that the body is made up of earth, air, fire and water, which in turn are linked to circulating fluids known as humours – blood, choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile) and phlegm. Health was maintained by keeping these humours in balance, and herbs were classified as having hot, cold, moist or dry properties. These ideas underpinned medical practice of all kinds well into the 18th century.

Ayurveda, Indian traditional medicine - meaning literally ‘the science of longevity’, is probably the oldest continuous herbal tradition, having started sometime around 3,000 BCE. The earliest writings are from 1,500 BCE, the first medical school being set up c.400 BCE. Two key works were produced around 100 CE: the Charaka Samhita, describes 341 plant medicines as well as medicines of animal and mineral origin; the Susruta Samhita is a medical text that displays detailed knowledge of surgery, especially plastic surgery, and is still consulted today. Ayurvedic theory has similarities to the theory of the four humours, but has five elements, rather than four, ether being included along with earth, air, fire and water. These 5 five elements combine to form three tridoshas known as vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water). Our unique features, (our DNA if you like), result from the balance of these doshas in our constitution – our body, mind and spirit – and Ayurvedic practitioners work by diagnosing and correcting imbalances in this unique pattern.

In China, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic (c.100 BCE) quoted above, became the key text of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), including fundamental concepts such as yin and yang; the theory of the five elements – fire, earth, metal, water and wood; and the theory of the effect of the environment on health. In The Chinese thought everything is composed of yin and yang, and illness arises from a deficiency or excess of either one of them. A high temperature denotes too much yang and shivering is a result of excess of yin. The Divine Husbandman’s Classic (1st century CE) is another materia medicia, listing 252 medicinal herbs, with details of their taste, ‘temperature’ and therapeutic application. As with Ayurveda, these two classical texts laid the groundwork for the continuing development of traditional theories over 100’s of years, a process which happened to a much lesser extent in the wWest.