Category Archives: History of Healing

The History of Burdock

This article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine.  If you haven’t taken the time to check out that publication, you should.  Each issue is dedicated to the study of one plant and written by practicing herbal clinicians.  It is a great resource.  

History of Burdock

The first recorded name of Arctium lappa is thought to be Arcion, as used by the Greeks, which Dioscorides proposed was called personacea or lappa by the Romans. In the past some questioned whether Dioscorides was referring to greater burdock in this entry, but historians have come to believe that the other entry Arction is that of lesser burdock or A. minus.

Burdock’s alternate name shows up frequently enough as some sort of variation of personacea, that it is convincing evidence. For example, in the 1st century C.E., the Roman physician Celsus called the herb Personina planta and recommended that the root of the plant be smashed and taken in wine and applied to venomous bites. Another clue to the puzzle was that 17th century apothecarist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper writes of greater burdock and shares a similar recommendation saying, “A dram of the Roots taken with Pine Kernels, helpeth them that spit foul, •••tery, and bloudy Flegm.”[1]

Clate was the name that historians believe Anglo Saxons used specifically refer to A. lappa. (Again they used A. minus as well, possibly referring to that as clive, or clife, although those names have also been associated with Galium aparine.)

There were many Gaelic names for the plant. Leadan liosda meaning, “a head of stiff hair,” being perhaps the most “official.” Carmichael mentions meac-an-dogh and searcan. “Mar cheosan air sgiathan fior-eun,” is an old Irish adage by Ossian meaning, “Like bur clinging to the eagle’s wing.”[2]

John Uri Lloyd cites examples of many early US publications which mention the herb by its Spanish name of bardana.[3] Some older herbals refer to the herb as Bardana major.[4] Scudder refers  to burdock as Lappa officinalis.

Burdock in Legend and Lore

Burdock being a somewhat ungainly plant with little to speak of in the department of blooms and fragrance, hasn’t gained a lot of fame in lore or folk traditions. It is mentioned in an ancient land-remedy ritual said to improve the crops from the field and remove any sorcery cast upon the land.

“At night, before daybreak, take four sods from four sides of the land, and note how they previously stood. Then take oil and honey and barm, and milk of all cattle on the land, and part of every kind of tree growing on the land, except hard trees, and part of every known herb except burdock alone; and put holy water thereon, and then sprinkle [holy water] thrice on the bottom of the sods, and then say these words: ‘Crescite, et multiplicamini, et replete terram.’” (Grow, and multiply, and replenish, the earth.)[5]

Anglo Saxon historians believe that perhaps that burdock had an association with evil spirits and was consequently excluded from the ritual.[6]

The only other traditional use that has been shared seems to be that during a harvest festival in eastern Berwickshire: Young people would pelt everyone with bundles of burrs until they were covered in “sediments of white hairs, which gave the appearance of having been wrapt in a woolen blanket.”[7]

Burdock for Fevers

The 12th Century medical compendium, The Trotula, mentions burdock root as an ingredient in a preparation called populeon, an unguent useful “against the heat of an acute fever,” and for provoking sweating.[8]  Gabrielle Hatfield also mentions the herb as being a diaphoretic used by Scottish women in the eighteenth century.[9]

This is a story I found when studying the popular use of healing herbs in the Mormon culture that is probably the most detailed description I have ever found of this particular historical use of burdock:

When she would have a fever, my mother used to take burdock leaves and put them around her feet to reduce the fever. She would peel back the outer layer over some of the veins. Every here and there, there would be a hard vein, something like the stem of the leaf. Mother was gentle. She didn’t want the leaves to hurt my sister. But she would take the green leaves, and after peeling them back, would wrap them around her feet, and tie them with a string, up toward the ankle.[10]

While this is not necessarily in keeping with the traditional western application of the herb, these uses are very much in keeping with the TCM uses in formulas meant to expel the poisons of flus and colds.

 Unique Uses of the Root

The historical use of burdock root is quite different from how we think of it today. For example, 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for consumption and coughs, saying:

The root is large, white within, but black on the outside. One teaspoon of a decoction (taken as a drink with pine kernels) helps spitters of blood and corrupt matter.[11]

As mentioned above, this recommendation was repeated by Culpeper centuries later; consequently, it has shown up frequently in British folk remedies for colds. In the US, in the 19th century, Dr. John Milton Scudder agreed, saying “it is also a remedy of corrective power in bronchial irritation, and in coughs it exerts a checking influence.” Reference?

 The Anglo Saxons included clate as one of the many ingredients in “the green salve” of the Lacnunga, known for its healing properties. It was also said that clate was useful “against a sudden sickness,” boiled in ale with wenwort, bishopwort, fennel, and radish.

Culpeper also wrote that “the Root beaten with a little Salt and laid on the place, suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit with a mad-Dog.” K’Eogh repeated this advice in the early Irish herbal Botanologia Universalis,[12] which was said to be his account of the herbs he encountered being used in Ireland at the time the book was written.

What is intriguing about this statement that herbs that were said to address rabies often did so because of their anti-spasmodic properties. Skullcap being the classic example. So, I went digging for other indications that the herb had some sort of action in the nervous system. British ethnobotanist Gabrielle Hatfield shares that the root was used in the Isle of Man for “allaying nervousness.”[13]

The Anglo Saxons were quite specific about how it was to be harvested and prepared, as is illustrated by their cure for hemorrhoids:

If the fig [hemorrhoids] become established on a man’s backside, then take the roots of Clate…three or four and smoke them in hot embers and then pull one out from the hearth and pound it and make a sort of little cake and lay on the backside as hot as it can be borne; when the cake cools then make more and lay on and let him be quiet for a day or two. When you do this (it is an approved remedy) let no one dig up the roots with iron, and do not wash with water, but wipe them clean with a cloth, and put a very thin cloth between the backside and the cake’… Lacnunga 44[14]

There is also an Anglo Saxon remedy against “a pock of the eye” (assumed to be a sty) which recommends boiling the root with ale and drinking this decoction.

By the early 19th century, British medical botanists, Barton and Castle, wrote that use of A. lappa had gone out of style in that country, but offered a very thorough history of its use, including an interesting story of how King Henry III of France was cured of lues venerea (syphilis) by root decoctions given to him by a healer named Petrus Pena.[15]

It is unclear if burdock’s use was actually in decline amongst the common folk. In the 1923 translation of Rosa Anglica, the introduction states that a decoction of burdock root and bogbean was still used in common use as a blood purifier.[16] It has also been reported that drinking the root decoction was effective against baldness.

At some point, physicians started interchanging the part of the plant they recommended or using both the seeds and the root in a preparation. In 1833, Wooster Beach recommended the root or seed of the herb made into a decoction for “ulcers, rheumatism and in all disease of the skin.” He also used the roots in a “medical beer” beverage aimed at purifying the blood, which is a use that held on for a long time in Southern folk medicine.[17] Homeopathic physician Edwin Hale suggested that the official preparation was a tincture of the root and seeds.[18]

 The Neglected Uses of Burdock Leaves

The leaves are one part of the plant that herbal practitioners really have all but forgotten about, which is odd, given their long history of use. Dioscorides only mentioned that the leaves of the plant could be applied to old ulcers to heal them, which is the use repeated most frequently in later literature.[19] But, Culpeper wrote of that and many other uses.The following use as a poultice for burns still turns up in modern folk medicine.:

The Leavs bruised with the White of an Egg and applied to any place burnt with Fire, taketh out the Fire, gives sudden ease, and heals it up afterwards.[20]

Culpeper also recommended the leaves as a diuretic, which isn’t really in keeping with the modern thought that inulin from the roots is responsible for that action.

The Juyce of the Leavs taken with Honey provoketh Urin, and remedieth the pain of the Bladder.[21]

At some point around the beginning of the 19th century, the use of the leaves seemed to be phased out in “professional” practice, but it continued in the common folks’ self-care practices.

 In Maine, at the turn of the 20th century, the leaves were used for relieving fevers and headache.[22] The Mormons also used poultices made of burdock leaves for rheumatism and arthritis for generations after settling in Utah.[23]

An interesting folk use of the herb in Ireland and Britain was to make a poultice of the bruised leaves and apply them to the soles of the feet to treat hysteria, convulsions, and epileptic seizures.[24]

 Burdock Seed Posset

The idea that decoctions of the seeds are useful for removing stones goes back a long way, also Hildegard wrote of making a wine decoction of burdock root to “wear down stones”. [25] This use has been recommended by many practitioners over the years.

My favorite recommendation comes from an Irish herbal: “The seed is celebrated for breaking the stone in a Poſſet drink.”[26]  This intrigued me, but unfortunately there are no directions for preparing a posset in the herbal as they were so common in the day.

The name posset is now incorrectly assigned to a pudding that resembles what was once called syllabub. In the past, though, it was actually a fairly potent alcoholic drink. Making a posset involved pouring a mixture of curdled cream over a sweetened mixture of sack (sherry) and ale:

Put a pint of good [by “good,” they likely mean milk that has already thickened a bit after sitting out as whole non-homogenized milk does] Milk to boil; as soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little; for doing so, the curd will be the tenderer, and the whole of a more uniform consistence. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonfuls of Sack, and about four of Ale, with sufficient Sugar dissolved in them. So let it stand a while near the fire, till you eat it.[27]

Image of an English posset cup  from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Fancy posset cups had a spout for drinking the alcohol from the bottom. Given that older recipes recommend wine decoctions of the seed, it seems likely that the sherry in a recipe like the one above may have been a decoction. But as more complex posset recipes recommended adding spices to the milk, it is possible the seeds were simply ground finely and added to the drink.

[1] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[2] Cameron, John. Gaelic Names of Plants, Scottish, Irish and Manx. New Revised. Glasgow, Scotland: John Mackay “Celtic Monthly” Office, 1900.

[3] Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, OH: Caxton Press, 1921.

[4] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum. Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell, 1726.

[5] Grendon, Felix. “The Anglo-Saxon Charms.” The Journal of American Folklore 22, no. 84 (1909): 105–237.

[6] Cameron, M. L. “Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic.” Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988): 191–215.

[7] Johnston, George. The Natural History of the Eastern Borders. Vol. I  The Botany. Vol. 1. London, England: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1853.

[8] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

[9] Hatfield, Gabrielle. “Domestic Medicine in Eighteenth Century Scotland.” Ph.D., University of Edinburgh, 1980.

[10] Noall, Claire. “Superstitions, Customs, and Prescriptions of Mormon Midwives.” California Folklore Quarterly 3, no. 2 (April 1944): 102-114.

[11] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60AD.

[12] K’Eogh, John. Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica: Cork, Ireland: George Harrison, 1735. pp. 20.

[13] Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

[14] Storm, Gerhard. Anglo-Saxon Magic. Gravenhage, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948. pp. 77.

[15] Barton, Benjamin, and Castle, Thomas. The British Flora Medica, Or, a History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain: Illustrated by a Coloured Figure of Each Plant. Vol. 1. London, England: E. Cox, 1837.

[16] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[17] Wooster. The American Practice of Medicine. Vol. III. 3 vols. New York, NY: Reformed Medical School Society, 1833.

[18] Hale, Edwin Moses, and Whitman, F.S. The Characteristics of the New Remedies. 3rd ed. Detroit, Michigan: Lodges Homeopathic Pharmacy, 1874.

[19] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Morrell, Jennie MH. “Some Maine Plants and Their Uses ‘Wise and Otherwise.’” Rhodora 3, no. 29 (1901): 129–132.

[23] Fife, Austin E. “Pioneer Mormon Remedies.” Western Folklore 16, no. 3 (July 1957): 153-162.

[24] Allen, David Elliston, and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.

[25] Bingen, Hildegard Von. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

[26] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. 1726.

[27] Digby, Kenelm. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Edited by Anne Macdonell. London: H. Brome, 1669.

Cacao Herbal Monograph

I’ve decided to be really cliché and do a Valentine’s kind of theme for my herbal post this week.  I will share this short monograph on Cacao that I wrote for Natural Herbal Living Magazine in February of 2015.  Because chocolate! ~ Stephany 

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming indoors on a cold winter day and waiting impatiently while Mom whipped up a batch of homemade hot cocoa. Our modern love affair with cocoa and chocolate go back to the days when the early Spanish and British explorers first brought it back from the New World. Although preparations and uses for the plant have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that cacao holds a special place in our culture. Few people stop to consider that what is now considered a confection was once widely used as a medicinal preparation.

 Scientific NameTheobroma cacao
Family: Malvaceae
Other Names: cacao tree, cocoa tree

Origin of Cacao
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin, but its range spread north to Central America when more cultures began cultivating it. The cacao tree will only flourish in very specific climatic
conditions. It’s a tropical undergrowth plant, and it depends upon high temperatures and humidity only found near the Equator. The trees also require the presence of the Forcipomyia midge, which inhabit these ecosystems, for pollination.

Each of the roughly 12- inch (30 cm) pods growing from the trunk and main branches produce anywhere from 25 to 40 bitter-tasting seeds, or beans, which are surrounded by a white pulp. Cocoa powder and chocolate are both products that come from processing the cacao bean. The beans are processed into powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate; the pulp is harvested for other uses.

You can see how these would be hard to break.

The pods will not open without some sort of mechanical assistance from animals or humans. Spider monkeys,who use the pods as a food source, earned the reputation as the “bringers of cacao” due to their efficient dispersal of the seeds.[1]

The Science

There are a lot of claims about cacao’s superfood status, and even more traditional and modern
suggested uses. I’ve included below a brief summary of what has been investigated through scientific methods.

Cacao contains the xanthines theobromine and caffeine. It also contains the fatty acids stearic
acid and oleic acid. Recent scientific research into the phenol content of chocolate has identified thousands of various polyphenols in chocolate including the flavonoid quercetin and the flavonols epicatechin and catechin.[2]

The theobromine in cacao acts as a central nervous system stimulant, working on both the cardiac and respiratory systems. Theobromine is also a diuretic, a vasodilator, and a smooth- muscle relaxant.[3] Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and diuretic too. Unlike theobromine, it is a vasoconstrictor.[4]

It seems worth noting that these opposing actions of vasodilation and vasoconstriction could have a toning effect on the vasculature, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. The various phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory actions, which contribute to cacao’s positive “metabolic, antihypertensive,anti-inflammatory, and anti- thrombotic effects.”[5]

In addition to these actions, chocolate has been termed a euphoric, as it has been theorized to impact serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.[6]

Cacaos Many Uses
There is an incredibly rich history of ethnobotanical use that continues up to the present day. While today cacao is thought of as food, historically cacao has been considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive.

History and Tradition
Cacao’s long history of both medicinal and ritual use began in Mesoamerica. The similarity between Aztec and Mayan use of the plant, point towards its use by a common ancestor.[7] According to both cultures, cacao was gifted to humans by the divine and was an integral part of religious rituals.







The most common preparation was a drink made from cacao powder or paste cakes mixed with water. Depending on the area, the drinks contained additional ingredients such as chili powder, vanilla, or ground maize. The drink was typically frothed by making it in a special cacao pot with a spout for blowing into it, or by quickly transferring the drink between two vessels.[8] Traditional cocoa powder preparations were considered to have antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic (stimulating uterine contractions), emmenagogue, and parasiticidal actions.

Early Spanish explorers reported that indigenous peoples used cacao to treat angina, constipation, dental problems, dysentery, asthenia, gout, and many other diseases [9] including alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds.[10]

The use of cacao as a medicinal plant spread to Spain and Great Britain as these empires settled the Americas. In 1624, Spanish physician Santiago de Valverde Turices was the first to assign energetic qualities to both cacao powder and chocolate. He claimed that while the powder was cold, chocolate drinks were hot, dry, and suitable for cold, damp conditions.[11] Henry Stubbe was one of the first Europeans to write extensively on cacao. His text, titled The Indian Nectar; or A discourse concerning chocolate wherein the nature of the cacao-nut is examined…, was published in 1682. Axtextli, a beverage he mentioned as an aphrodisiac, was a mixture of cacao paste, maize, mecaxochitl (black pepper),and tlilxochitl (vanilla).

InThe English American published in 1648, Thomas Gage mentioned that black pepper mixed with cacao was a remedy for a “cold liver.”[12] King’s American Dispensatory recommends a mixture of cacao and milk as a restorative drink for “persons convalescing from acute diseases.” M. Grieves mentions in A Modern Herbal that in her time, cacao was given as a diuretic along with digitalis to relieve “accumulation of blood in the body resulting from cardiac failure” and as a remedy for hypertension due to the vasodilative action.

Modern Day
Although human studies of theobromine have confirmed its potential usefulness in inhibiting
coughs,[13] for the most part, the use of cacao as a medicinal has faded out of practice. It is,
however, still widely considered a dietary supplement with health- promoting qualities. There is a great deal of research available on the health benefits of adding cacao to our diets.

The phenolic compounds seem to protect against chronic diseases related to oxidative stress, one study concluding, “Several in vivo studies have provided strong support for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich foods, such as certain cocoas and chocolates, may be associated with reduced risk for vascular disease.”[14] A study released last year has addressed the potential of cacao polyphenols in preventing “metabolic diseases and chronic inflammation associated with obesity.”[15]

Since “milk proteins inhibit absorption of flavonoids” dark chocolate may be the best way to
consume chocolate for the dietary benefits.15 Cacao may also have mental health benefits.

Ask many people, and they will tell you that they self-medicate on down days with chocolate. This practice seems to be supported by research on how eating chocolate impacts mood. Cocoa butter, which is another by-product of processing the beans, is used extensively in modern cosmetic preparations, due to its rich emollient properties, as well as in the chocolate-making process.

Using Cacao Safely
As with any food plant that is also a medicinal herb, there are some precautions to keep in mind
as you incorporate it into your daily regimen.

Side Effects
Cacao can cause allergic reactions in some people, although that is rare, and it may trigger migraines in some individuals.[16] Many of its side effects are related to the caffeine content.
As with all caffeinated beverages, moderation is key.

Contraindications and Drug Interactions
Avoid cacao if you have an allergy to any member of the Sterculiaceae family. People who suffer from kidney stones or gout may also want to avoid cacao as it increases urinary oxalate levels.[17]

There are a number of pharmaceutical drugs that interact with caffeine including clozapine, beta-adrenergic antagonists, lithium, and drugs used for testing for heart conditions. Be sure to discuss your caffeine intake with your physician before starting a new prescription. The flavanols in cacao may also interact with blood- thinning medications. (Sorry you all…gotta include the CYA disclaimers. The main thing here is to communicate with your providers about excessive consumption.  I am looking at you people who drink a pot a day!)

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation
Follow your physician’s recommendation regarding daily caffeine intake during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In some studies, excessive caffeine in the maternal diet has resulted in colic in infants.[18]

 Dosage and Administration
There are no established dosages for cacao powder. Administration is generally in the form of a beverage or confection. Half of a 3-ounce chocolate bar contains 86 – 240 mg of theobromine and 9 – 31 mg of caffeine.[19]

[1] 1 Nisao Ogata, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube, “The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics,” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao ed. Cameron L. McNeil (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2006), 87.

[2] 2 Chiaki Sanbongi, Naomi Osakabe, et al., “Antioxidative Polyphenols Isolated from Theobroma cacao,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46, (1998).

[3] Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents, (Herbalchem Press, 2009), 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G. Lippi, M. Franchini, et al., “Dark chocolate: consumption for pleasure or therapy?” Journal of Thrombosis Thrombolysis 28, (2013).

[6] Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, and Heather Brotchie, “Mood state effects of chocolate,” Journal of Affective Disorders 92 (2006).

[7] “Caroline Seawright. Life Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica,”(archaeological essay, 2012). Full text:, pp. 13.

[8] Hillary Christopher, “Cacao’s Relationship with MesoamericanSociety.” Spectrum 3, (2012).

[9] Donatella Lippi, “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?”Nutrition 25, (2009).

[10] 10 “Chocolate,” National Standard Food, Herbs and Supplements Database (2014).

[11] Lippi, “Dangerous liasons.”

[12] Gage, Thomas. The English American. London, England: Printed by A. Clark, and are to be sold by J. Martyn, Robert Horn and Walter Kettilby, (1677). pp. 241.

[13] OS Usmani, MG Belvisi, et al., “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough.” The Journal of the Federation of American Studies for Experimental Biology 19 (2005).

[14] Carl Keen, Roberta Holt, “Cocoa Antioxidants and cardiovascular health,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81, (2005).

[15] Faisal Ali, Amin Ismail, and Sander Kersten. “Molecular mechanisms underlying the potention antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenols Molecular Nutrition Food Research 00 (2013).

[16] Leira, R. and Rodriguez, R. [Diet and migraine]. Rev Neurol. 1996;24(129):534-538.

[17] Massey, L. K., Roman-Smith, H., and Sutton, R. A. Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J Am.Diet.Assoc. 1993;93(8):901-906.

[18]Evans, R. W., Fergusson, D. M., Allardyce, R. A., and Taylor, B. Maternal diet and infantile colic in breast-fed infants. Lancet 6-20-1981;1(8234):1340-1342

[19] Mumford GK, Evans SM, Kaminski BJ, et al. Discriminative stimulus and subjective effects of theobromine and caffeine in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl) . 1994;115(1-2):1-8.

Discovering the Bean Feasa

This similar to an article  which originally ran in Plant Healer Magazine, but I’ve updated it a bit based on new things I’ve read and questions students have asked.”  <3 Stephany

Recreation of an Iron Age Irish roundhouse.  The early days of domestic medicine.

During my studies with Sean, he shared with me an article written by Kenneth Proefrock in which Kenneth states “the conclusions our ancestors were able to draw regarding the subtleties of health and healing must still be within us.”[1]    I loved it so much, I contacted Kenneth who kindly provided me with enough information that I could cite him in my thesis.

For some reason that single statement spoke to me deeply.  I know I’ve mentioned that before but my explanation didn’t make sense to some people. I guess I felt like it gave I me some direction at a time when I needed it. I had made it through  most of my biomedical training  for the most part unscathed and was studying Ayurveda.  I don’t even know why–probably because all the cool kids like to talk about Ayurveda or TCM and having learned my plants from an old Gaelic dude in the SCA, I didn’t know a lot about those modalities.

Ayurveda is a very rigid, prescriptive practice and  it just wasn’t speaking to me. It’s probably my genetic structure which causes me to rebel against the construct of professionalism. I have Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Dutch Jew, and Quaker heritage.  I am at the very core of myself, a village peasant.  The plants weren’t speaking to me, either.

More importantly my education had made me more aware of the moral gray area that we enter when appropriate the knowledge of other cultures. I decided that I just wanted to avoid the hassle.  Kenneth’s statements encouraged me to maintain the focus of  my anthropological studies on the healers and folkways of own heritage.

And I am on that.  I know my history. I know which translators are pretty solid and who was writing creative nonfiction. That’s part of being a responsible researcher.  I have facsimiles of Irish history books written in the 1600’s and every herbal published in the UK before 1600.  I am such a nerd that when I find a partially legible note scribbled in the front of a copy of Kuno Meyer’s Triads of Ireland about “Professor Binc….”  I know that whoever wrote the note was a student of Daniel Binchy’ s because Binchy used Meyer’s translations as texts.

For the purposes of brevity, this article will focus primarily on the Irish culture, but I contend anyone who has studied the folk healers of their own ancestry will recognize synchronicities as I did when I explored other branches of my heritage.

Scholars who study Irish history face several disadvantages.  The first problem is that the acidity of the soil in Ireland has yielded little in the way of organic remains.  The second is that being a people who were very fond of oral narrative, the Irish didn’t bother with writing much down.   When they finally took to writing, they did so with fervor. Irish scribes preserved the knowledge of ancient societies through the Dark Ages. Manuscripts such as the Rosa Anglica would have been lost to time were it not for these monks.[2]

Unfortunately, the failed attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Irish by the English included the destruction of the monasteries and churches where many of the early Gaelic manuscripts had been hidden.

Written documentation is sparse and generally pertains to professional healers.  There are two surviving Brehon Law tracts which pertained to medical practice: the Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-lying)[3] and the Bretha Déin Cécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht)[4] which were written between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 9th, by Irish monastic communities.  The tracts confirm the existence of both male and female physicians known as liaig and ban-liaig, respectively.   They also established norms regarding the responsibility of caring for the injured and ill called folog nothrusa (maintenance of sickness).  Brehon law texts also refer to bags carried by physicians known as línchor.[5]

Commentaries known as glosses, were added to these documents during the 11th- to 12th century which implied that women physicians functioned mostly as midwives. They were undoubtedly added due to the increasingly patriarchal conservatism of the church as there is ample documentation of female healers practicing in the early modern era.  This is how the phrase “gloss things over” got its start.

One recension of the Irish mythological cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland)[6] was included as part of the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) written in 1150 CE by another monastic community.  It includes a narrative called the Tain bo Cuailgne which mentions of a group of liaig said to accompany certain armies, wearing bags known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

When researcher Audrey Meaney catalogued early burial sites in the UK, it was mostly women whose graves contained artifacts, the placement of which left the impression that they had originally been contained in some sort of bag.[7] This seems to back up folk narratives which assert that females were once responsible for healing in their communities. More to the point though it was many women who had these bags at various sites.

This was one of the first times that I saw (truthfully… it was an advisor who pointed it out to me) that what I thought was only a problem amongst creative nonfiction writers, was a very real problem in anthropological research.   In their quest for compelling discoveries, they read much into what in what was probably just an everyday practice.  It seems likely that moms just carried a first aid kit than a village had 27 shamans.

Setting that question aside until some remarkable new archaeological find sheds light on the issue, folklore specialists, such as Richard Jenkins, do agree that indigenous healing beliefs informed various “ritual specialists…from the early modern period to the twentieth century.”[8]  The study of these healers is mostly informed by written folklore and ethnographic compilation of oral narratives. Discovering more about these healers provides a glimpse of what their healing culture might look like.

Childbirth: Woodcut from Der Swangern Frawen und he bammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513.

Women gave birth with the help of midwives called cnáimhseach or bean ghlúine[9] (kneeling woman) who was responsible for knowing many methods of protecting the health of the newborn child. It was the bean ghlúine who would lay the iron bar across a cradle or bathe a newborn in saltwater to prevent abduction by the aes sídhe.

These women were also known for having tricks to be able to help relieve the pain of childbirth.  Some claimed to be able to do this by means of transferring the pain of childbirth to a man. A Munster midwife told Lady Gregory, “Did I know the pain could be put on a man?  Sure, I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it.”

Gregory goes on to tell a story of a man, whose wife was in labor, falling amongst his friends gathered outside the home, as if experiencing the pain of childbirth.  What stands out to me about this story is that the men had gathered together outside to support their friend as he waited for his child to be born.  That experience seemed to be the norm, leading one to believe that the birth of a child was a community affair.

The bean feasa (woman of knowing) was an intriguing character, and likely the ritual specialist in Irish society.  While most accounts mention females in this role, there is a male term, fear feasa, which may speak to the fact that the role was likely less gendered than feminist folklorists maintain. There was the “lucht pisreóg” and while many people translate that to enchanter, the literal translation is simply “community charmer”.   In Scotland, she was called the hen-wife or the cailleach-chearc.[10]

The idea that the bean feasa inhabited liminal spaces was probably first put forth in academic circles by folklorist Nancy Schmitz, who published a paper that ended with a brief comparison of the bean feasa and Native American shamans.[11] Folklorist Gearoid Ó Crualaoich depicts the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.”[12]

Working within the framework of beliefs held by many ancient society that illness was caused by malevolent spirits and the like, it was she who was responsible for mediating between the human world and the Otherworld.  Sometimes she did this by use of charms and spells, sometimes by means of divination or prophecy.  While on occasion she would work with herbs or strange potions, she often was called upon when the cause of an illness or misfortune was mysterious in nature.

It is important to note that these healers were not considered witches in the sense of a human who had some sort of pact with the devil, though some of them had power struggles with local priests.   In fact, there is no Gaelic word for that sort of witch.  As Nancy Schmitz explains Irish people all had “access to supernatural power in the form of spells and charms and entrance to the fairy world (for good or evil), was available to anyone who wished to make use of it. No contract with a particular figure of evil was necessary.”[13] This seems to be supported by the fact that Irish Christian literature was still denigrating  fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies)” well into the late seventeenth century. [14]

Biddy Early is possibly the most widely lauded bean feasa in Ireland.  Immortalized by Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Biddy Early is notorious for consulting her infamous “black bottle” for her otherworldly knowledge.  It may say something about “scholars” that I have never once read it suggested that the bottle might contain an entheogen. 

In the years after the Gaelic language faded from common use, these healers were called fairy doctors –described here by Irish folklorist Lady Francesca Wilde:

“The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations.”[15]

There also seem to have been healers who dealt with the everyday illnesses and injuries in a village by means of herbs, charms and other remedies.  In Ireland, she was called the bean leighis (probably some sort of corruption of ban-liaig).  The more I study this the more I think that this term was used to describe older women who helped in the community after their children had grown and gone.

The bean leighis were responsible for passing along the use of cures to the younger members of the community, but it did not seem that their knowledge was exclusive and it could also be that the term was used to describe an action rather than a role.  As James Mangen told Lady Gregory, “my mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures.”  It seems that many of the women of the peasantry had some passing knowledge of these practices leading Lady Gregory to state “An old woman without learning, it is she who will be doing charms.” [16]

The plants  were commonly used is supported by the folk narrative.  Lady Gregory mentions conversations with healers such as Bridget Ruane who assured her that “Dub-cosac (lichen) was “food for the heart, very good for a sore heart” and that “slanlus (plantain) and garblus (dandelion) were both used for curing wounds and bringing people back from the dead.[17]

Most women seemed to have a grasp on enough basic knowledge to care for their families and only turned to outside help when they were in over their head. Irish medical historian James Mooney concurs saying that “every housekeeper is well acquainted with all the virtues of the common herbs” and that she only turns for help when “she has exhausted her resources or is convinced that the illness is of supernatural origin.”[18]

In Irish society, the torramh (wake) was a community event which often lasted days and included plays, sharing of pipes, dancing, singing, and the ancient practice known as caoineadh, or keening. It is during the torramh that we meet another wise woman the bean chaointe (keening woman) who:

“Inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament.”[19]

These funeral rituals support the idea that the Gaels understood the importance of social affiliation in helping people rebound from trauma.[20]  This is a particularly powerful message for me as it is my firm belief that we do a dismal job of mourning these days, which leaves those who have suffered a loss in a state of lingering trauma.

This very brief description of the Gaelic healing culture speaks to their understanding that the wellness of the whole community is crucial to survival.  At every turn, you read community members stepping up to take part in the process.
That may be the one bit of commonality that I have found in all resilient communities- a strong sense of social cohesion which their healers were partially responsible for nurturing.  There is so much to be learned from those who have gone before us in the ways of self-care and community wellness.

[1] Proefrock, Kenneth. 2010. "Otzi and the Judgments of Dian Cecht." Aontacht. December.

[2] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[3] Binchy, Daniel A. “Bretha Crólige.” Ériu 12 (1938): 1–77

[4] Binchy, D. A. “Bretha Déin Chécht.” Ériu 20 (1966): 1–66.

[5] Kelly, F. (2001). “Medicine and Early Irish Law.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, 73-77.

[6] Macalister, D., ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn : The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Translated by Stewart, R.A. 5 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin: Published for the Irish texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938.

[7] Pollington, Leechcraft, p 48.

[8] Jenkins, R. (2007). “The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies.” Folklore, 162-182.

[9] Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, ... Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.  Regional distribution.

[10] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.

[11] Schmitz, N. (1977). “An Irish Wise Woman.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, 169-179.

[12] Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach. Dublin: Cork University Press.

[13] Nancy Schmitz, “Irish Wise Woman,” 173.

[14] Timothy C. Correll, "Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy

Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief," Folklore 116, 2. 

[15] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts:

[16]  Gregory, L. (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[17] Gregory, L. Visions and Beliefs

[18] Mooney, James. The Medical Mythology of Ireland. Philadelphia, PA: MacCalla & Company, 1887. p. 138.

[19] McCoy, N. P. (2009). “Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, Changing Performance Contexts and the Irish Wake Ritual.” In B. B. E. Mackinlay, Musical Islands: Exploring Connections Between Music, Place and Research (pp. 207-220). Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

[20] Donnelly, S. (1999). “Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland.” Palliative Medicine, 57-62.