A Brief History of Herbal Usage Down the Ages

A Brief History of Herbal Usage Down the Ages

Herbs have been used by man since antiquity, and their uses, whether as medicine, food preservatives, or food seasoning, perfume, or even in religious rituals, have ensured their everlasting place in mankind’s civilization. With the vast knowledge we have accrued about herbs, it comes as no surprise that myths and traditions concerning herbs abound, alongside the venerable history that herbs have had, being in use by humans for so long.

The earliest evidence of herbal use so far, comes from excavation of burial sites in Mesopotamia, present day Iraq, 60,000 years old. Early man probably learned from watching animals eating herbs to cure their illnesses. Other finds in the Middle East from 5,000 BCE onwards also bear evidence of herbal usage in the early Sumerian, and Egyptian civilizations in the form of clay tablet writings, and later on, papyrus. In Asia, the early Indus civilization began using herbs extensively, resulting in the beginnings of the renowned Ayurvedic system.

herbal medicine

The ancient Greeks used herbs in treating many illnesses, and it was the father of medicine, Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC), who compiled most of that existing knowledge, into canon (the Corpus Hippocraticum), as well as building upon it. In the Corpus Hippocraticum, hundreds of herbs with their health benefits are described. He used ginger to “warm” the body, and conversely, mint to “cool” the body. Parsley was used to treat rheumatism and kidney problems, while tarragon was for toothaches. Thyme, cinnamon, clove, and coriander are among the many herbs he describes. Most of these already had a long tradition of usage, even in Hippocrates’ time. For example, coriander has long been used in the Middle East/Mediterranean, for flavoring food, and helping preserve meat.

dried herbs as teaGarlic is perhaps the most widely used “herb” of all, although it’s not strictly a conventional herb. Garlic was used by the ancient Egyptians to give energy, and Hippocrates also endorsed garlic for use against internal parasites like worms, and digestive problems. Basil is another herb with long historical usage; in India, it was considered sacred and often used in religious ceremonies and planted around temples. The Geeks and Romans regarded basil as a regal herb, and it’s named after the Greek word, basilicum, which means “kingly”.

Chives, which are related to onions, were used by the Romans to relieve a sore throat. Thyme was used as incense by the Greeks, and during the Middle Ages in Europe, thyme was placed under pillows to ward off nightmares. According to legend, rosemary was named after the Virgin Mary placed her cloak over the then white flowered rosemary bush, turning its blossoms blue.

The Dark Ages was a time when botanical knowledge of herbs was placed under a kind of freeze in Europe, although many of the common people of the countryside continued to forage for, and subsist on herbs; when the Middle Ages came around, the knowledge of herbs began increasing again. The Arab world at that time imparted much of the science and knowledge of herbalism to Europe. However, much folklore continued to persist.

alfalfa sprouts
Alfalfa herb sprouts

Alfalfa was believed to bring in money and good luck in gambling. Burdock root was still considered sacred by pagan Germanic tribes, and linked with the god, Thor. Cumin was believed to strengthen marriage and prevent infidelity. Sage was used extensively for colds, flu, and epilepsy, and thought o ward off evil. In the East, astragalus was used extensively by the Chinese, as was ginseng, well before the Middle Ages. Meanwhile in India, turmeric was highly revered and its uses ran the gamut from marriage to religious ceremonies to cloth dyeing, and as a general cure-all.

The scientific aspects of herb usage began to be stressed upon much more with the advent of the Renaissance. The Renaissance during the 16th and 17th centuries, which means “rebirth”, was basically a resurgence of Greek inspired approach to science, through experimentation, observation, and validation. A few publications during this period stand out: The English Physician, 1657, by Nicholas Culpeper, The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, 1655, republished by John Goodyear, and An Herbal, 1525, author unknown.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, signified the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, of which the emphasis was on analyzing and synthesizing chemical compounds, largely towards the production of drugs. However, the practice of herbalism has never died out, and in the last couple of decades, has even undergone a revival. Science also continues to corroborate the fact that many of the compounds found in herbs work best in their natural setting, in synergy with the other naturally occurring chemicals in the herb. Most of our drugs likewise, use chemical compounds derived from herbs. Truly, there can be no substitute for what the earth freely provides us all.

Why not try starting your own little medicinal herb garden at home?

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