yellow forest mushrooms

Medicinal Mushrooms

An Ancient Medicine

The use of mushrooms as food and medicine stretches back thousands of years, and can be observed in every culture of the world. Recently, a growing body of scientific and clinical evidence has amassed which supports many facets of the traditional use of mushrooms as medicine. Mycotherapy – the science of healing with mushrooms – is fully incorporated into traditional Western herbalism, as well as Traditional Chinese and Japanese medical systems, where mushrooms have always been highly revered as powerful healing agents for a wide variety of ailments and illnesses ranging from acute to chronic. Dr. Walter Ardigò, physician and researcher specializing in mycotherapy, suggests that mushrooms have such a strong affinity for so many diverse disease conditions in the human organism because of their biological similarities to human beings:

“Medicinal mushrooms are more similar to human beings than to plants. Like human beings, they need oxygen to live, eliminate carbondioxide and have no absolute need for light. The two also have similar biological mechanisms, such as immunity, cleansing and elimination of excess fluids” (Ardigò: 2017, 20).

Fungi play innumerable essential roles in maintaining the health and functionality of the world’s diverse ecosystems. It may surprise you, but the largest living being on earth has been declared to be a 2,384 acre large mycelial network (of the species Armillaria ostoyae, also known as honey mushrooms) located in the Blue Mountains of the state of Oregon. Fungi are responsible for processes involving the transmission of information amongst living organisms; they do this by way of electrical impulses that are sent underground through long, thread-like structures called hyphae, which expand to form mycelial networks. Many plants rely on mycorrhizal networks, which facilitate symbiotic associations between plants and fungi. Mycorrhizal networks serve to connect plants together and transfer essentials such as water, carbon, nitrogen, and a host of other nutrients and minerals.

Fungi also play an absolutely pivotal role when it comes to natural processes involving breakdown, decay and regeneration (e.g. by way of returning nutrients to the air and soil). Fungi do no simply decompose, but more accurately work to recompose elements of the environment. Fungi thereby make possible many of the processes of natural evolution. Fungi can be said to occupy a middle ground between the living and the dead; they are what allow for the continuum of coming into being and passing away to exist in the first place. As mycologist Peter McCoy expresses:

“Along the border of living and dying, mycelia sense and digest, interpret and destroy. More visibly than the bacteria with which they work, the fungi walk between worlds, acting as custodians of the darkness. Some species are so intimately tied to decay that they primarily live and fruit from dead animal parts” (McCoy: 2016, 76).

Pink woodland mushrooms

The Power of Mushrooms

That fungi are “custodians of the darkness” is suggestive of the fact that, when used as medicine, mushrooms can be helpful in a wide variety of psycho-emotional disorders, including many varieties of anxiety and depression, trauma and grief. As we will see, mushrooms such as Reishi can help to bring our unconscious defense patterns to light, making the darkness conscious through the metabolization of emotional experience. Additionally, when we understand the role that fungi play in decomposition and regeneration, we can also begin to understand how and why medicinal mushrooms prove so useful in diseases such as cancer and opportunistic infections such as might be associated with HIV. Both of these conditions involve uncontrolled, proliferative growth that the body is unable to keep in check. Medicinal mushrooms act in such a way as to regulate the functioning of the immune system, keeping such pathological conditions in check or preventing their onset in the first place.

Many of our medicinal mushrooms act as adaptogens. In general, adaptogens serve to strengthen the natural defenses of the body, and help the body adapt to non-specific stressors (including physical performance and endurance, as well as psychological and emotional stress). Adaptogens have a normalizing or balancing effect on the whole organism, helping to promote equilibrium amongst different body systems and processes. Many adaptogens have a direct strengthening and rehabilitative effect on the adrenal glands, are known to help to regulate blood sugar levels, and to balance and stabilize hormone levels. Used in moderation, adaptogens are generally very well tolerated by most people and help to promote an overall harmonizing and tonifying effect on the body and mind.


Shiitake

Lentinula edodes

Shiitake is a well-known culinary and medicinal mushroom that has been used in Asian cuisine for at least 2000 years, with cultivation techniques originating in Japan about 700 years ago. The name “shiitake” is derived from the Japanese words “shii” meaning oak, and “take” meaning mushroom: suggesting that shiitake is the mushroom that grows on oak trees. Shiitake is the second most consumed mushroom worldwide, second only to agaricus mushrooms. In Japanese culture, shiitake is considered to be a tonic food substance which serves to increase energy, foster the resilience of the body, reduce the susceptibility to chronic degenerative diseases, aid in convalescence, and slow the aging and deterioration process.

Many clinical studies on Shiitake focus on its production of the beta-glucan lentinan. Beta-glucans are a type of fiber that has an affinity for promoting the health of the heart, regulating the function of the immune system, and balancing cholesterol and blood sugar levels (shiitake is known to be an excellent food for diabetic patients). Lentinan is a unique beta-glucan that is found in shiitake mushrooms, which has been given increasing attention in recent years due to its utility in assisting in the treatment of cancer and HIV infection. Many of the medicinal properties of lentinan relate to its ability to stimulate macrophages (a type of white blood cell in the immune system that engulfs and digests pathogens including cancer cells, foreign substances and harmful microbes), T-cells (which target specific foreign particles in the body), B-cells (an important component of the adaptive immune system), and NK cells (essential to the functioning of the innate immune system). Researchers have also focused on shiitake’s production of the polysaccharides LEM and LAP, which possess significant antitumor activity. LEM has been shown to stimulate the proliferation of a specific type of T-cell which can help to neutralize hepatitis and slow and prevent the rapid development of HIV infection. Shiitake possesses anti-viral and antioxidant properties, in part due to the presence of the essential trace mineral selenium. Selenium plays a role in many bodily functions, especially maintaining thyroid hormone metabolism and DNA synthesis, safeguarding the body against oxidative damage and infection. Shiitake is also useful in diseases of the intestine, respiratory tract, liver, bones and teeth. It has been called on for centuries as a household remedy to help treat flu and fever, coughs and colds and allergies.

There is a growing body of research on shiitake mushroom, which was the first mushroom to receive in depth research by modern scientists. As Ardigò explains:

shiitake “became renowned in 1964, after the Japanese health authorities decided to promote a series of epidemiological studies on the prevalence and distribution of the main chronic diseases throughout the country. The results revealed a very peculiar situation: in two areas of the country, disease was almost entirely absent, and the population was very long-lived” (Ardigò: 2017, 287)

The homeopath Massimo Mangialavori relates that:

“there are many myths and customs associated with shiitake. One belief is that this mushroom grows best in the company of other nurse logs, rather than by itself. Some say the mushroom is sensitive to the attitude of those who tend the mushroom: positive people allow it to flourish; disagreeable people discourage its growth” (Mangialavori: 2017, 263).


Maitake

Grifola frondosa

The general uses of maitake mushroom include the treatment of obesity (the alpha-glucosidase inhibitor contained in maitake decreases the amount of starch that is digested into sugar), diabetes type 1 and 2 (maitake lowers blood glucose levels and enhances insulin sensitivity), a wide variety of tumors but especially those of the stomach and lungs (maitake enhances macrophage activity in the body), leukemia, allergies, and HIV. Maitake has an affinity for conditions of the heart, including hypertension and high VLDL and HDL cholesterol levels. It is also known as a hepatoprotective mushroom, serving to enhance the overall health and functionality of the liver while simultaneously protecting it from damage. It is widely used in hepatocellular cancer and other pathological and chronic conditions that affect the liver, such as hepatitis.

Herbalist Richard Bray comments on the geography and preferred growing conditions of maitake and on the origin of one of its common names, hen of the woods:

“Maitake grows primarily at the base of oak trees in eastern North America, China, and Japan. This polypore mushroom starts as a small fruiting body, about the size of a potato, and when mature reaches up to 2-7 cm across. They grow especially big in Japan, often reaching 45kg. It is known as the “king of mushrooms” there with good reason! Maitake mushrooms grow multitudes of overlapping grayish-brown fronds, which give it the appearance of a hen sitting in the woods, hence the common name” (Bray: 2020, 48).


Lion’s Mane

Hericium erinaceus

Lion’s mane is most well known for its ability to induce brain tissue regeneration and to enhance perceptual capacities. If you look at either fresh or dried lion’s mane, you’ll observe that it appears structurally similar to the human brain and its nerve fibers – a clear example of the doctrine of signatures. Lion’s mane is used in the treatment of such issues as dementia, Parkinson’s, and diabetic neuropathy. The polysaccharides and polypeptides in Lion’s mane help to enhance immune function and have proven useful in stomach, esophageal, and skin cancers. Lion’s mane can pass through the blood-brain barrier and as such is quite valuable for targeting lyme disease spirochetes that have invaded the brain. Lion’s mane directs the spirochetes into the bloodstream where there’s a chance of them being eradicated. There are a growing number of studies that suggest the utility of lion’s mane in treating a variety of types of depression and mood disorders, including hormonally related anxiety disorders.

Indications from Traditional Chinese Medicine include memory disorders, difficulty concentrating, and a general picture of deficient cognitive function and abilities. Traditional Chinese Medicine also recognizes the use of lion’s mane in promoting and maintaining the health of the kidneys, heart, liver, lungs and spleen. It is thought to enhance overall strength and vitality, and facilitate ease of digestion. Ardigò comments:

“in traditional Chinese medicine it has long been used to treat diseases of the stomach, nervous system and nerves, to improve the immune system and to restore the natural strength of the body, because it has an important action in improving energy and cognitive functions. To highlight its many benefits for physical and cognitive activities, the ancient sages have even coined the saying “Hericium nerves of steel and the memory of a lion”” (Ardigò: 2017, 280).


Reishi

Ganoderma spp.

Lingzhi, the name given to ganoderma species in Traditional Chinese Medicine, literally translates as “Supernatural Fungus.” Reishi is also known as “The Mushroom of Immortality.” The physician and scholar Li Shi Zhen (1518 – 1599) wrote that reishi is:

“biter in taste, warm in nature, not poisonous, and replenishes the life energy, or qi of the heart. It increases intellectual capacity while nurturing the body, and banishes forgetfulness; taken over a long period of time, agility of the body will not cease; it keeps the body light and youthful like a celestial being” (quoted in Mangialavori: 2017, 284).

Reishi acts as a cardiovascular, lung, immune and nervous system tonic and restorative, improves circulation and oxygen utilization, promotes deep sleep and undisturbed thought patterns, generates a heightened sense of peacefulness, helps to process stagnant emotions held in the body, and deepens one’s trust in one’s own innate capacities and potentials. As Ron Teeguarden expresses it:

Reishi “calms the mind, eases tension, strengthens the nerves, improves memory, sharpens concentration and focus, [and] and builds willpower”, thus earning it the title “the Mushroom of Spiritual Potency” (Teeguarden: 2000, 88).

Reishi is a medicine that typically is best worked with over a longer period of time, having cumulative effects that gradually build the resilience of our nervous system and transforming the ways in which we relate to and perceive life itself. Reishi is highly esteemed as a medicine in virtually all of the cultures that have access to it, as Ardigò writes:

“Ganoderma, in fact, is known more or less everywhere, not only in Asian countries. For example, research shows that the indigenous peoples of Mexico used it in a number of diseases and in particular for heart disease, both for prevention and treatment” (Ardigò: 2017, 258).

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, reishi is considered to be a supreme Shen tonic, which is to say that it has a special affinity for the spirit, mind, and emotional body. Shen is considered to be the spirit that resides in the heart, or the heart-mind connection. Hence reishi’s reputation as an adaptogen involves its ability to teach us how to develop the inner resources with which we can navigate emotional and spiritual conflicts, and to confront and effectively work through a variety of psychological blockages and obstacles. Reishi has a long reputation in Daoist spiritual traditions as a medicine that promotes wisdom, longevity, groundedness and calmness. As a long living mushroom known to grown in old and mature forests, reishi carries with it the ability to connect us to the nature’s cycles of life, death and rebirth.

Reishi is not only useful for the emotional and spiritual levels of the mind, but also for sharpening cognitive and intellectual abilities and improving concentration and focus. Ardigò comments:

“Ganoderma has also been used at a mental and psychological level, to reduce lapses in concentration, to sharpen intelligence, to improve memory, to strengthen will-power, to relax a distressed and restless mind” (Ardigò: 2017, 258)

Other uses of reishi include: coronary heart disease, heart arrhythmias, feelings of tightness and constriction in the chest, chronic asthma and bronchitis, altitude sickness, vertigo, hypertension, high cholesterol, insomnia, diabetes, hepatitis, cancer, allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome and a variety of conditions involving chronic pain (Mangialavori: 2017, 284 – 285).

Looking into the Future

The future is bright when it comes to medicinal mushrooms. Every year, a greater number of people are becoming involved with the powerful medicine from the kingdom of fungi. From mushroom cultivation to mycoremediation (the use of fungi to help repair and restore damaged and polluted ecosystems), from the treatment of cancer and diabetes to complex emotional and psychological conditions, mushroom medicine can no longer be ignored. More than a passing trend, mushroom medicine is being shown, both by practitioners of natural healing and research scientists from around the world, to offer sustainable and lasting solutions to a wide variety of personal and social health problems. A great deal more will be revealed to us in the years to come as clinical and scientific exploration moves forward and continues to expand in novel and exciting directions.

yellow forest mushrooms


References and Recommended Titles:

  • Ardigò, Walter. Healing With Medicinal Mushrooms: A Practical Handbook. Self published: 2017.
  • Bray, Richard. Medicinal Mushrooms: A Practical Guide to Healing Mushrooms. Hamburg: Monkey Publishing, 2020.
  • Mangialavori, Massimo. Materia Medica Clinica vol. 2: Fungi. South Carolina: CreateSpace, 2017.
  • McCoy, Peter. Radical Mycology: A Treatise On Seeing And Working With Fungi. Portland: ‎ Chthaeus Press, 2016.
  • Rogers, Robert. The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2011.
  • Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. New York: Random House, 2021.
  • Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
  • Teeguarden, Ron. The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.

Photos Provided by Serena Mor


Illuminated text 1500s

Magic, Healing & Ritual: Herbal Tradition in the Italian Renaissance

Angels, Demons, Herbs and Magic

The ancient, and now largely lost and forgotten, tradition of illuminated herbal manuscripts can tell us much about the practice of herbal medicine throughout antiquity. It was not uncommon for such manuscripts to contain drawings of angels and demons, mythological figures and beings of the celestial hierarchies. Witchcraft and magic were taken to be very serious matters, not only when it came to cultural and religious belief systems, but also when considering the proper training of a physician. As one author writing on traditional Italian healing systems in antiquity has commented:

“Physicians were educated with the notion that drugs had occult powers to affect the body in special ways. It was common belief that demons invaded the soul, and that certain herbs had the property of chasing away devils and demons” (Silberman: 1996).

Expert Italian Renaissance physicians were required to be competent in astronomy and astrology “since the position of the celestial bodies contributed to the occult qualities of a medicinal herb” (Silberman: 1996). The Renaissance, as reflected in the writings of prominent philosophers of the time such as Giordano Bruno and Marsilio Ficino, saw a resurgence of pagan sensibilities. Renaissance thought and imagination embraced an animistic worldview that threatened the established, conservative branches of Christianity and their associated medieval superstitions. As the archetypal psychologist James Hillman writes:

“Renaissance animism led to pluralism, which threatened Christian universal harmony. For when inner soul and outer world reflect each other as enlivened souls and substances, and when the images of these souls and substances are pagan, then the familiar figures of Christianity diminish to only one relative set among many alternatives.”

This co-reflection or mirroring of the inner soul and the outer world are the life-stream of the ancient pagan and Renaissance herbal medical traditions of Italy and surrounding regions. This conception of a pluralistic world and of the enlivened human soul seen as a microcosmic reflection of the greater soul of nature helps us to understand the associations and correspondences that were made between particular herbs, supernatural, celestial, and divine beings, and the actions of the planetary bodies in the medicine of the time.

Medicina Antiqua Illustration

Medicina Antiqua Illustration depicting mandrake harvesting

Christianity and Paganism

In the Middle Ages there was much scorn for the Pagan worship of Goddess nature (who is synonymous with Venus or Aphrodite). This too is reflected in the medical manuscripts of the day. Consider, for example, the “editing” or erasure of an invocation to Gaia found in an early 13th century Viennese manuscript, Medicina Antiqua, by an unknown monk living sometime later in the Medieval period. The erasure in question was found on the back of an image depicting the invocation of the divine mother.

“She stands in classical clothing on the banks of a river in which the river god Neptune can be seen sitting with his trident on a snake. Mother Earth holds a cornucopia in her arms and is surrounded by stylized palms and fantasy plants.” (Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 184).

The fifty-one line invocation on the back of the image originally began “Sacred Goddess Earth, bringer of natural things…” but was changed to “To the Sacred God…” by the monk in question. In the 15th century, much of Northern Europe “fought hard for a reformation of the religious and moral foundations of spiritual life” but in sunny Renaissance Italy there was to be found an opening and renewal of the senses, a “rediscovery of classical sculptures of the gods as well as to texts that were bought from the cloisters by…Cosimo de’Medici” (Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 180).

Italian philosophers and artists of the time were concerned with understanding and exploring nature’s beauty and “the congenial side of the human character [was given much greater attention than was] the sinful” (ibid). A comparison of Germanic and Italian art of this period can be quite revealing; the former tradition is full of images of infernal hells (e.g. Hieronymus Bosch), the latter dedicated to an exploration of anatomy and perspective rooted in a renewed pagan grace (e.g. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo). For confirmation of this claim, one can for example study the encoded pagan symbolism present in Michelangelo’s anatomical drawings.

17th Century Bible

Pictured: 17th Century Bible

Given the church’s disdain for nature worship and resurgent pagan sensibilities, it is no wonder that Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance magi who considered medicine to be a branch of natural magic, was eventually burned at the stake for heresy (in particular, he was put to death for his belief in an infinite number of worlds). In his treatise De Magia Bruno provides a list of ten definitions of the words magic and magician. The one that especially interests us reads as follows: “Magician: someone who does wondrous things merely by manipulating active and passive powers, as occurs in chemistry, medicine and such fields; this is commonly called ‘natural magic’” (Bruno: 1998). For Bruno, the natural world and the divine world reflected and interpenetrated each other. To use and to understand herbs was to know, in the sense of gnosis, the action of divinity in nature; it was also to realize that through the work of learning to read the book of nature that one in turn serves to illuminate the divine:

“… for as the divinity descends in a certain manner inasmuch as it communicates itself to nature, so there is an ascent made to the divinity by nature, and so through the light which shines in natural things one mounts upward to the life which presides over them” (Bruno quoted in Yates: 1940, 183).

Bruno also gives us an insight into the common practice of using incantations and physical traces left behind by or belonging to a person to affect a cure or to set a curse in motion:

“Wicked or poisonous magic: incantations are associated with a person’s physical parts in any sense; garments, excrement, remnants, footprints and anything which is believed to have made some contact with the person. In that case, and if they are used to untie, fasten, or weaken, then this constitutes the type of magic called ‘wicked’, if it leads to evil. If it leads to good, it is to be counted among the medicines belonging to a certain method and type of medical practice. If it leads to final destruction and death, then it is called ‘poisonous magic’ (Bruno: 1998).”

Hellebore and Mandrake

Not all figures of the Italian renaissance shared the magical and animistic views of Bruno, and the more “rational” voices of the time thought that Bruno and his ilk were quite mad. But even among the more conservative authors, herbal medicine was still widely referenced and bound up with mythological associations. The famous poet Torquato Tasso took issue with Bruno’s worldview and in discussing his work quoted Erasmus’ phrase “Anticyram navigat”, literally ‘set sail for Anticyra’. Anticyra was a place that was known to contain an abundance of the herb hellebore (Veratrum album), then used as a cure for madness (Yates: 1940, 191)). Let us turn to consider this herb, and the related mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), both of which can serve to give us some insights into the practices and belief systems that existed in the Italian herbal tradition, especially the tradition maintained by the rhizotomes, or root diggers, the magician-herbalists of the ancient world.

Veratrum Album

Hellebore (Veratrum album, white hellebore, veratro bianco in Italian); Helleborus niger, black hellebore) was a very important herb not only in ancient and renaissance Italy but also in Greece, France, and Egypt, among other places. Theophrastus maintained that the two types of hellebore were the most important medicinal plants that were used in ancient Greece and Rome. Contemporary ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch says of the hellebores: “they were the central medicines of the rhizotomes, diggers who nourished the magical plants with shamanic rituals. Hellebore was a sacred plant of the gods” (Rätsch: 2005, 525). Rätsch speculates that name helleboros is derived from hella-bora, which means “food of Helle.” The Hellespont is named after Helle who fell into this body of water after narrowly escaping death. Helle’s stepmother Ino resentfully roasted all of the seeds in the region of Boeotia so that a massive famine would result; this famine she blamed on Helle and her brother Phrixus, the stepchildren she so hated, in a ploy to have them killed. However, a flying golden ram sent by their birth mother Nephele saved these two. Helle fell from the ram into the Hellespont, where she was saved by Poseidon and metamorphosed into a goddess of the sea (in some less interesting accounts of the myth Helle simply drowned).

Rätsch argues that the most important documented use of this herb involved turning the root into a snuff. This is because “the artificially induced sneezing (the German name nieswurz means “sneezing root”) was believed to cause the demons of sickness to leave the body” (ibid). The Greeks and the Romans used the white hellebore1, which was ritually harvested in a way similar to the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). Pliny gives a detailed account of the uses of white hellebore, which also gives us insight into the nature of medical treatment in the Rome of his time:

The body must be prepared beforehand for seven days by spiced food and abstention from wine, on the fourth and third day through vomiting, on the day preceding through fasting. White hellebore is also given in something sweet but is best in lentils or in a mush… The emptying begins after about four hours; the entire treatment is over in seven hours. In this manner, white hellebore heals epilepsy, …dizziness, melancholy, insanity, possession, white elephantiasis, leprosy, tetanus, tremors, foot gout, dropsy, incipient tympanic water, stomach weakness, charley horse, hip pains, four-day fever, if this will not disappear in any other way, persistent coughing, flatulence, and recurrent stomachaches (Pliny quoted in Rätsch: 2005, 527).

Consideration of the harvesting rituals common to hellebore and mandrake can give us interesting insights into the practices and beliefs of the rhizotomes as they engaged their art in Greek and Italian herbal traditions. The harvesting of these two plants involved many preliminaries and precautions. “Naturally a weird story of perils incurred in obtaining a plant strengthened belief in its magic powers and added to its commercial value” (Randolph, 489). Theophrastus describes the practices of the root diggers in his History of Plants, with specific reference to the mandrake: “Around the mandragora one must make three circles with a sword, and dig looking toward the west. Another person must dance about in a circle and pronounce a great many aphrodisiac formulas” (Theophrastus quoted in Randolph: 1905, 489). He also mentions the necessity of standing with one’s back to the wind so as not to be exposed to strong odours that some plants may emit, and anointing any skin not covered by clothing as a means of protection and defense. Other practices involved the “digging of certain plants only by night, [and] avoiding the sight of certain birds” (Randolph: 1905, 489). There were variations on these practices that depended on the plant being harvested and the uses for which it was intended. While the mandrake was to be dug up with one’s back facing west, hellebore was to be dug with one’s back facing east. Theophrastus notes that the practice of repeating aphrodisiac formulas as part of the harvesting of mandragora shows great similarities to the practice of repeating curses when sowing cumin seeds (Randolph: 1905, 490).

Mandrake Harvesting illustrated in the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscript 1390

Mandrake Harvesting Illustrated in the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscript, 1390

Pliny borrowed a great deal from Theophrastus and the account found in his Natural History of the practices of the root diggers and the harvesting of the mandrake in particular is one indication of this: “Those who are about to dig mandragora avoid a wind blowing in their faces; first they make three circles with a sword, and then dig looking toward the west” (Pliny quoted in Randolph: 1905, 490). We can notice however that Pliny says nothing of the “great many aphrodisiac formulas” that Theophrastus mentions in his account of the practices of the rhizotomes. Randolph suggests that “the omission by Pliny of any reference to aphrodisiac formulas is easily explained by his declaration that he will say nothing in his work about aphrodisiacs or magic spells except what may be necessary to refute belief in their efficacy” (Randolph: 1905, 490). This stance again speaks to the differences that existed in the ancient world between those who subscribed to the views and practices of natural magic and those who saw such a worldview as a breed of madness that must be rejected and defeated.

Aphrodisiacs were highly valued in Mediterranean herbal traditions, and one of the greatest of all of the aphrodisiacs was the mandrake. Rätsch comments that “in ancient times, the primary ritual significance of the mandrake was in erotic cults” (Rätsch: 2005, 348). However, only poor quality source material describing this usage remains and so detailed information about these practices is not available to us. Apart from its uses as an aphrodisiac, the mandrake was also widely used in medicine. Dioscorides:

A juice is prepared from the cortex of the bark by crushing this while fresh and pressing this; it must then be placed in the sun and stored in an earthen vessel after it has thickened. The juice of the apples is prepared in a similar manner, but this yields a less potent juice. The cortex of the root that is pulled off all the way around is put on a string and hung up to store. Some boil the roots with wine until only a third part remains, clarify this and then put it away, so that they may use a cup of this for sleeplessness and immoderate pain, and also to induce lack of sensation in those who need to be cut or burned themselves. The juice, drunk in a weight of two obols with honey mead, brings up the mucus and the black bile like hellebore; the consumption of more will take life away (Dioscorides quoted in Rätsch: 2005, 348).

The root diggers would only dig up the mandrake on the “day of Venus”, Venus of course being the Goddess of Love, which further suggests that one of the greatest virtues attributed to the mandrake in the ancient world was as an aphrodisiac, an agent in love magic/erotic rites (Randolph: 1905, 494). The mandrake is well known for its anthropomorphic appearance, and it is common in herbal traditions from around the world to attribute special healing powers to plants that resemble the human form (one can also think of the enormous sums that are paid in China even today for ginseng roots which look like human beings). Dioscorides and Pliny both make reference to a “male” and a “female” species of the mandrake but as Randolph clarifies “these terms, which the ancients applied to many plants, have nothing to do with sex, but signify more robust species (i.e., those having larger leaves, roots, etc., and attaining a greater height) and their opposites” (ibid).

The Goddess Circe

As we can see, herbal medicine in ancient and renaissance Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean region as a whole, was indissociably bound up with the workings of the gods and nature spirits. The Goddess Circe possessed a tremendous knowledge of herbs and, in particular, was regarded as a master of poisons (pharmaka). Her most famous plant was called Moly. To this plant were attributed psychoactive and aphrodisiac properties. Dioscorides referred to the mandrake as circeon, Mandragora Circaea being the herb that Circe used to transform Odysseus’ boat crew into “pigs.” (Müller-Ebeling et al. interpret this scene not in a literal sense but as an erotic transformation. The authors quote Apollonius: on the island of Circe “beasts, not resembling the beasts of the wild, nor yet like men in body, but with a medley of limbs went in a throng…such creatures, compacted of various limbs, did earth herself produce from the primeval slime…in such wise these monsters shapeless of form followed Circe” (Apollonius quoted in Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 117)). 19th and 20th century interpreters of the ancient literature (such as Dierbach and Kreuter) also take the Moly of Circe to be the mandrake. Theophrastus claimed that Circe lived in Lazio, a region in west-central Italy, where “the special medicinal herbs” were produced (Theophrastus quoted in Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 116). The sacred mountain of Circe, Monte Cicero, can still be visited today, on the Italian coast above Sicily. The early poet Aeschylus, according to Pliny, “declared that Italy abounds with potent herbs, and may have said the same of Circeii where she [i.e. Circe] lived. Strong confirmatory evidence exists even today in the fact that the Marsi, a tribe descended from Circe’s sons, are well-known snake-charmers” (Pliny quoted in Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 116).

Circe, goddess of death and guide of souls, was worshipped in groves. Apollonius notes that Circe’s groves, where executions were carried out, were lined with willows (Salix alba) and osiers/tamarisks (Tamarix spp.). Tamarisks and willows are well known medicinal trees. “The willow, or, more precisely, the white willow, was used for birth control; thus it was a typical witches’ plant” (Müller-Ebeling, 117). Two other plants sacred to Circe are the alder (most probably Alnus glutinosa) and juniper (Juniperus communis or Odorata cedrus, as it is recorded in Virgil’s Aeneid). Concerning the alder tree, it was said to surround Circe’s island (Aeaea or Eëa), located just south of Rome. Müller-Ebeling et al. comment:

“We can assume that there had been an archaic alder cult that by the Hellenic times had already been suppressed. Alders were considered transformed sisters of Phaeton, the son of Helios and brother of Circe” (Müller-Ebeling: 2003, 117). Juniper was Circe’s sacred incense and “therewith it is in the vicinity of archaic shamanism. Juniper is one of the oldest incense materials of the Eurasian shamans” (ibid).

Let us conclude our discussion of Circe by noting that though she has been described as compassionless and called the mother of darkness and horror, this noble sorceress was originally worshiped as a healing Goddess. As Giordano Bruno writes:

Ah, if only it pleased the sky, that for us today, like once long ago in happier centuries, this ever magical Circe would appear, who would be able to put an end to things with plants, minerals, poisons, and the magic of nature. I am certain, that despite her pride she was merciful with regards to our misery (Bruno: 1998).

Engraving of Artemis and Pan

Diana (Artemis) and Pan. Engraving after Annibale Carracci

What We Can Learn From This Symbiosis

To conclude, let us illustrate with another example just how bound up the practices of the healing arts were with the pagan pantheon of Gods and Goddesses – and consider how we can still learn from these sources of inspiration from the mythological imagination of the Renaissance. Consider Artemis/Diana, a woodland Goddess who served as the archetypal herbal healer throughout antiquity. She has very close ties to the animals of the forest, and oversees the wild hunt. Artemis is the goddess of the moon, the fierce protectress of the wild and of all of the life which courses through it, and it is she who governs the cycles of fertility and birth. Artemis’ garden is wild nature. Her role as a great shamanic healer is further brought to light through her representation as the “great she-bear, Ursa major, ruler of the stars and protector of the axis mundi (pole of the world) marked by the pole star at the centre of the constellation of Ursa Major” (Brooke: 1992). Artemis is closely associated with the artemisia plants, such as mugwort and wormwood (plants that help to enhance the clarity of consciousness, promote emotional resilience, and foster a refined sensitivity to and deepened awareness of our place in the world and our interactions with human and other-than-human nature). As explained in the Medicina Antiqua:

“There are three types of Artemisia. All three and their healing effects were discovered by the Goddess Diana. She transmitted this medicine chest to the centaur Chiron, who was the first to transform it into medicine. This is why these plants carry the name of Diana, or rather Artemisia” (Medicina Antiqua 13, fol. 32r).

When we read this and related sentiments, it becomes clear that without Artemis the tradition and practices of the Renaissance magi-herbalists would be inconceivable.

Healing was, in the Renaissance traditions here under discussions, associated with the qualities of grace and beauty. Artemis/Diana was said to be exceptionally beautiful, her beauty being comparable even to that of Aphrodite. Psychologist Ginette Paris suggests that Artemis sanctifies “solitude, natural and primitive living to which we may all return whenever we find it necessary to belong only to ourselves” (Paris: 1986, 124). In her capacity as a huntress and archer, she can bestow upon us the wild, atavistic power that can be utilized to resist the forces of domestication and domination. Artemis is the great protectress of flora and fauna, and thus she has a special bearing on the ecological issues that face living beings on the Earth today. It would be wise to look to her when making choices that will affect the future of the natural world.

There are obviously many ways of entering into therapeutic contact with nature, but solitude and identification with nature through falling water, trees, or animals are cues that our contact is with Artemis rather than Dionysus, Demeter, or Aphrodite” (ibid, 127). The waters of the mountains and streams are also under the care of Diana, and if we are to re-enliven our sacred relationship to this elemental force then “perhaps, afterward, the nymphs, naiads, and nereids would return to inhabit our imagination and teach us the necessary respect for the waters of Artemis” (ibid). Let us not forget the mythological traditions of healing and the great bearing they can have on contemporary consciousness, let us take heed not to neglect the great Pagan wisdom of the wild imagination.

Illuminated text 1500s

Bible page depicting the prophet Ezekiel’s Vision, 1648

Footnotes:

1 Daniel Schulke claims that black hellebore is “a poison of decided infamy; all parts of the plant render up potent venoms” (Schulke: 2017, 132). An extract of the rhizome was used in antiquity and into the medieval era as a “utensil of murder, most notably by King Attalus III of Pergamos” (ibid). Black hellebore contains the glycosides heleborin and hellebrin, which are chemically related to telo-cinobufagin (venom found in some species of toad skin). These glycosides slow the heart rate and affect cardiac muscle in a similar way to foxglove. The Key of Solomon the King contains a recipe for an incense to be used as part of a “spell for vivifying a talisman with the genius of Saturn” containing the stalks of black hellebore along with alum, assafoetida, scammony, sulphur, and cyprus ash (ibid).


Works Cited:

  • Brooke, Elisabeth. A Woman’s Book of Herbs. London: Aeon Books, 1992.
  • Bruno, Giordano. Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1976.
  • Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Rätsch, Christian, and Storl, Wolf. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003.
  • Paris, Ginette. Pagan Meditations. Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1986.
  • Randolph, Charles Brewster. ‘The Mandragora of the Ancients in Folk-Lore and Medicine.’ Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 40, No. 12 (Jan., 1905), pp. 487-537.
  • Rätsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. Maine: Park Street Press, 2005.
  • Schulke, Daniel. Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Poison Path. San Francisco: Three Hands Press, 2017.
  • Silberman, Henri. ‘Superstition and Medical Knowledge in an Italian Herbal.’ Pharmacy in History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1996), pp. 87-94
  • Yates, Frances. ‘The Religious Policy of Giordano Bruno.’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 3, No. 3/4 (Apr. – Jul., 1940), pp. 181-207.

Illustrations/Images:


cannabis plant

Cannabis: Medicine or Poison?

An Exploration from the Perspectives of Traditional Systems of Healing

With the legalization of cannabis in Canada, we are seeing a growing public acceptance of this herb, an enormously expanding “cannabis industry”, and a variety of claims being made about its medical efficacy and utility. There are many well-documented traditional medical uses of cannabis, going back many hundreds of years, along with a growing body of contemporary scientific evidence supporting its various medicinal virtues. Yet many of the contemporary claims made about cannabis – branded as a miracle drug – are driven by the desire to sell products or simply as means of justifying one’s indulgences and addictions. In what follows, we will explore cannabis from the perspective of traditional systems of healing and consider some of the less acknowledged and discussed adverse reactions and disturbances that result particularly from its chronic use.

cannabis plant

Sola dosis facit venenum; “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” All medical practitioners, irrespective of their methodology or tradition, should carefully consider this phrase, attributed to the alchemist Paracelsus (1493 – 1541). In our era of one-size fits all medicine, Paracelsus’ insight into the difference between a medicinal and poisonous action of a substance being in the dose is not so widely understood. It is however quite germane to our discussion of cannabis, and rife with implications for understanding the nature of the substance. Paracelsus’ dictum leads us to the primary realization that the benefits or dangers of any substance – be it a food, herbal supplement, pharmaceutical drug, etc. – are entirely dependent upon the level and degree of an individual’s susceptibility to that substance. This phrase also asks us to question the range of effects that a particular substance can have, leading us to explore the nature and definition of a poison effect. Poisoning is not equivalent to a lethal dose, though it can lead there. Poisoning, we can say, is when an individual’s capacity for feeling and function has been disturbed.

Every Day Use

It is with chronic, daily cannabis use that we can often observe a very clear disturbance of an individual’s capacity for feeling and function, though the user may not always be able to perceive such an alteration. Many cannabis users have become convinced that their daily habit is what allows them to function, to be more creative, more emotionally balanced, more spiritual, less anxious, better able to relax and to sleep, etc. More often than not, those who make these emphatic claims have fallen under the spell of cannabis, and are no longer able to see beyond its alluring veil.1 As homeopath Colin Griffith explains: “what these users fail to see is that whatever effects their bodies manifest do not belong to them but to the drug. They are instruments on which the chemical drug is playing tunes. The effects are no more theirs than they would be if they took antibiotics for a tooth abscess.”2

In response to a patient’s inability to live her life without the use of cannabis, the natural medicine practitioner should ask: why is it that you are not able to function optimally in the first place? What are the underlying maintaining causes of your emotional imbalances and disturbances? Why do you have such difficulty relaxing and falling asleep? In such cases cannabis use may only be serving to suppress or cover over an underlying constitutional issue that needs to be properly addressed. And when we suppress a problem, rather than working to resolve or cure it, this may result in its temporary disappearance, but it certainly has not gone away. Suppression takes a surface manifestation of a disease and drives it to a deeper, more vital region of the organism, where it can create more chronic, intractable and debilitating illness.

An Ancient Medicine

Cannabis has a long history of use as a medicine. The Persian physician Avicenna (980 – 1037), who no doubt was familiar with cannabis strains much different than those that are available today, wrote of the use of cannabis for the alleviation of severe headache as well as treatment for degenerative bone and joint diseases, inflammation of the eyes, general edema, infectious wounds, gout, and uterine pain. However, he also pointed out that cannabis produces dryness that is “desiccating” (disrupting and deranging the vital fluids/fluid metabolism of the body). There are many clear signs that cannabis is warming, including increased appetite, red eyes, dry mouth and tongue, rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure. As cannabis is excessively warming, it can result in a disturbance of the warmth activity of the organism, especially with regards to the metabolism. Chilly, sluggish and deficient digestive processes can often be observed in chronic cannabis users. The above mentioned symptoms are especially pronounced when it comes to the intensely psychoactive strains of cannabis that are grown today.

From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it can be said that chronic use of cannabis can result in injuries to the Yin, damage to the Jing, and disturbance of the Shen. The primary constituent that causes such disturbances is THC. This is because, as herbalist Paul Bergner has remarked, “THC binds to the encocannabinoid receptors (CBD does not), and because it is many times more powerful than the endocannibinoids, the receptors drop in number and also become less responsive to maintain homeostasis.”3 Daily cannabis consumption often leads to gradually increasing dosage and frequency of use, clearly suggesting that tolerance and adaptation can develop quickly and easily.

Herbalist Todd Caldecott provides us with a useful explanation of cannabis from the perspective of the Ayurvedic tradition:

Cannabis displays some of the properties of a poison, in that it spreads very quickly (vyavahi) and loosens (vikashi) the tissues. Through its subtle (sukhma) and penetrating (tikshna) qualities, it actually expands the space between all the cells of the body, opening up the channels (srotamasi). This is the reason for feeling high, and why it is consumed by sadhus and babas [who, unlike the average person, have been trained to focus their mind through contemplative practices]. It creates a subtle feeling experience that connects our experience to akasha (ether), the element of pervasiveness. So it opens and elevates consciousness, but not in an evolutionary way – just as a transient and limited experience of infinite space.”4

It is because cannabis serves to create space and allows for movement in the body that it can exhibit pain-relieving properties. It is for the same reason that cannabis can be utilized in some cancer treatment protocols (cancer is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, when the tissue of our body can no longer maintain or identify its own boundaries. Hence, cancer is a disease that is very much related to ‘space’).

Recreational Use

While the chronic use of cannabis presents more pronounced dangers than occasional use does, infrequent or recreational consumption can still cause deep-seated disturbances on the level of body, mind and spirit – again, if that degree of individual susceptibility is there in a person. The use of cannabis “to relax”, for example, can easily become an addiction in the same way that others become addicted to drugs like diazepam to go to sleep at night or to “manage” (suppress) their anxiety symptoms. Such addiction is an often unconsciously motivated attempt to circumvent having to develop strategies and lifestyle changes that can lead to true understanding of the root causes of one’s issues. Without such an understanding, true resolution or cure is not possible.

The Physical Effects

Cannabis regularly results in a disturbance of the bladder, prostate, and sexual functioning in men. Cannabis can act as a potent aphrodisiac in the short term, but will usually lead to a lessening of erotic desire and even to impotence in some. Habitual use of cannabis results in a lowered white blood cell count, suggesting its negative affects on immune function. The homeopathic materia medica and provings of cannabis reveal that the adverse immune response that cannabis precipitates increases an individual’s susceptibility to bacterial respiratory infections as well as non-specific urethral infections, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia (homeopathic cannabis is an especially well known remedy in the treatment of gonorrhoea, and is indicated for genital discharges with burning pains and discomfort more generally).

The homeopathic materia medica of cannabis also reveals a strong affinity for disturbances of the thinking processes, with pronounced disorientation and a sense of disconnection accompanied by a free floating anxiety. The patient requiring homeopathic cannabis may often make mistakes in reading and writing and may generally have poor comprehension, tend to be forgetful and can become easily confused. While there can be difficulty concentrating, there can also be rapid thoughts and a pronounced tendency to theorize and draw far-fetched connections. Patients requiring homoeopathically potentized cannabis may report a sensation of the head being separated from the rest of the body (a symptom that says much about the state of being too much in one’s head, which cannabis in its crude form easily leads to. When this state progresses to severe pathology we can see, for example, paranoia and depersonalization. While cannabis users may give the appearance of being mellow and laid back, this appearance is often a symptom, as Colin Griffith notes, “of the distance that the cannabis has fostered between the smoker and reality”5). Other notable cannabis symptoms from the homeopathic literature include: sensations of being ungrounded, spaced out, unable to physically support oneself, of the limbs or the whole body feeling so light that it could float away; panic attacks, many fears including the fear of being alone in the dark, of entities, and of insanity. Rajan Sankaran notes that cannabis patients tend to exhibit oversensitivity and the need to “cover up for a feeling of inadequacy…The perceived weakness is actually an inadequacy in facing the threats, dangers and risks of the outside world. The Cannabis person feels unequipped to face them directly and hence observes the world from within the safe confines of a “glass cage.””6

Many of the above mentioned symptoms of chronic cannabis use are further understood when we consider the effects that cannabis has on our neurology. With prolonged use, cannabis disrupts the balance between the thalamus and hypothalamus and the pineal and pituitary glands. The anterior pituitary gland is responsible for the secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone, adrenocorticotrophic hormone, growth hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, luteinising hormone, and prolactin. We have a growing body of evidence suggesting that cannabis use results in significantly lowered levels of thyroid stimulating hormone. The hormones released by the thalamus and hypothalamus serve to regulate our flight and fight response, our appetite, thirst, and eliminatory processes. Negative modifications to these bodily functions are typically present after long-term use – at which point cannabis addiction tends to have already set in.

Ongoing pharmacological research on THC strongly suggests that it has marked affects on neuronal signaling and development, and researchers are beginning to explore how THC exposures during pregnancy could lead to adverse long-term changes in the neuronal development of babies and infants.7 Other research has drawn links between mother’s who smoke cannabis during pregnancy and an increase in the risk of their children developing leukemia and a variety of other serious birth defects. There have been further studies suggesting an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus and stomach with chronic cannabis use.

In Conclusion…

Cannabis is a complex herb, and one that should be carefully understood by those who use it. While public perception presents us with a marketable (and hugely profitable) image of cannabis, the reality of cannabis is more nuanced, multifaceted and complex than we are led to believe.

cannabis plant


Footnotes:

1 From the perspective of the doctrine of signatures, the usually 5-leaved cannabis plant closely resembles a hand. This hand, it can be said, reaches for and makes an effort to grab hold of the cannabis user, who is rendered incapable of extricating herself from cannabis’ intoxicating embrace.

2 Colin Griffith, ‘The Companion to Homeopathy’ pg. 169.

3 Paul Bergner, unpublished writing.

4 Todd Caldecott, unpublished writing.

5 Griffith, ibid, pg. 168.

6 Rajan Sankaran, ‘The Soul of Remedies’, pg. 39.

7 See, for example, Kimberly S. Grant et al. ‘Cannabis Use during Pregnancy: Pharmacokinetics and Effects on Child Development.’


Photos provided by Serena Mor


St John's wort

Talking About St. John’s Wort

A Herb of Meaning

As the days grow shorter and colder and the embrace of the night deepens, some of us may find that our inner sun is also waning. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), which Matthew Wood has held up as perhaps the “archetypal healing herb” and Father Sebastian Kneipp has called the “perfume of God” and the “flower of the Fairies”, can help some of us navigate the states of all pervading darkness which take hold as we approach the Winter Solstice and the rebirth of the light.

In the symbolic language of Alchemy, the metamorphosis of a black bird into a white bird stands for the albedo, or whitening, process – a transformational movement of the psyche out of “its dark and depressive leadened state into a reflective sublimation that lightens the soul and is thought to bring a greater sense of consciousness and freedom. It is a kind of purification process and catalyzes psychic development” (Stanton Marlan, ‘The Black Sun’).

The Rhythmic System

While holistic herbal medicine does not simply prescribe St. John’s Wort for unspecified “depression” but always rather searches for the root causes underlying such a state of body and soul, I do see the “primary yellow flowers” of St. John’s Wort, as Rudolf Steiner described them, as a potential catalyst for this “whitening” process. For Steiner, Hypericum works to combat the malnutrition that stems from an overburdening of the organs of the rhythmic system – “There is the rhythm of the breath, the rhythm of the circulation, the rhythm manifested in sleeping and waking, and countless other rhythmic processes.” St. John’s Wort helps to carry the anabolic processes into the sphere of the nerves and senses and to aid the astral body’s inner mobility. The astral body is linked to the Manipura or solar plexus chakra, and Hypericum is an important remedy for treating conditions of the enteric brain or neural gut.

The Star and Sun

In the words of Julia Graves: “Flowers that shape tufts such as St. John’s Wort (a star with a tuft) point to nerve endings and sensitivity. St. John’s Wort is one of the finest nervines available. All of its starry, sun-yellow flowers look up; they facilitate the prana flowing in through the crown” (Julia Graves, ‘The Language of Plants’).

One may do well to imbibe in the herbal sunshine that St. John’s Wort offers when, as Hölderlin has it in his novel Hyperíōn, it is necessary to “call on Fate to give me back my soul.” Hypericum is a herb of spiritual and emotional protection, as is attested by a traditional use of the oil noted by Deborah Frances: “Recognizing that women are more sensitive and open during menses, women in traditional cultures in Europe painted their labia’s with an oil of Hypericum for protection during moontime.” One need only look at the flowers of St. John’s Wort, with their “golden five-petalled blooms radiating like small sun-wheels around a shower of bobbing stamens” (Susanne Fischer-Rizzi, ‘Medicine of the Earth’), to realize the magnanimous beneficence of this remedy. Fischer-Rizzi continues: “our forbearers saw in these flowers the captured power of the sun, each five-pointed star a sign of the benevolent powers. Ancient druids saw a resemblance to their sacred pentagram while Christians felt it symbolized the five stigmata of Christ.”

Lastly, let us note that the first part of the Latin binomial Hypericum perforatum is a derivation of the name of pre-Olympia God of the Sun; Hyperíōn, which literally means “The High-One.” That the yellow flowers of St. John’s Wort turn blood red when placed into menstruum and processed as a tincture or oil reminds us of the life giving power of the Sun, the Sun which gives without receiving.

St John's wort


Photo provided by Nick Faunus


Herbal Tooth and Gum Powder: Oral Hygiene & Herbal Medicine

The Importance of Oral Health

It is said in many holistic healing traditions that all disease begins in the gut. But it’s important not to forget that the entire digestive process, and the beginning of our GI tract, starts in the mouth. A healthy mouth is essential for maintaining optimal immune system function, which becomes quite clear when we consider that a very significant part of the immune system resides in the digestive tract. Just as is the case with the gut microbiome, the microbiome of the mouth needs to be well cared for – the healthy bacteria need to be allowed to flourish. The condition of the mouth, gums, tongue, and teeth reflect many things about the health of the whole body. Rudolf Steiner went so far as to say that, “the teeth are the sum of the world mysteries.” Herbal tooth and gum powders are an excellent way to help care for the mouth. This particular blend can do wonders when it comes to weak tooth enamel, preventing (and, as per my own clinical experience, even reversing) cavities, tooth and gum sensitivity, soreness and pain.

The herbs in this formula have a long and continued history of use in herbal medicine, though since the advent of modern dentistry, are no longer quite as esteemed as they once were for their ability to keep the mouth, teeth and gums in optimal shape. Perhaps most notably from a historical perspective is the bark of the White Oak tree (Quercus alba). The astringing inner bark of this mighty tree contains tannins, saponins, and minerals (including calcium) – all of which, when properly balanced (i.e. found in the form of a whole herb, as nature intended), are greatly beneficial not only for the teeth, but also for the tendons that attach the teeth to the jaw. Looking back at our herbal literature, one can find many references to the use of Oak bark for gum disease, cavities, loose and brittle teeth, sensitive, sore and bleeding gums, foul breath, canker sores and ulcerations of the mouth.

Tooth and Gum Powder Recipe

Combine equal parts of the following finely powdered herbs:

  • Horsetail
  • Peppermint
  • Licorice
  • White Oak Bark
  • Cloves
  • Prickly Ash Bark
  • Bayberry Bark
  • Slippery Elm Bark
  • Neem Bark

Tooth Powder in bowl

Application

Once finished, use this powder as you would any tooth paste (it can also be applied to any problematic spots in the mouth and let sit).

Cloves, Peppermint and Licorice, which can help to prevent the accumulation of biofilms – including plaque – on the teeth and gums, are strongly flavoured herbs and may be left out according to individual preferences. Many of the herbs in this formula exhibit broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, and leaving one or two of them out will not significantly affect the efficacy of the product.

Tongue Cleaning

In addition to the use of a herbal tooth and gum powder, one thing that I recommend to nearly all of my patients is tongue cleaning (preferably with a metal tongue scraper) – a practice which is considered to be of the utmost importance in the maintenance of one’s oral hygiene in the Ayurvedic tradition. As Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa and Michael Tierra explain in ‘The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs’: “Cleaning the tongue is a critical part of maintaining oral health. Ayurveda, in particular, emphasizes this daily practice. Brush your tongue while brushing your teeth, or use a tongue scraper. Tongue cleaning reduces bad breath, and helps to prevent plaque.”

Try incorporating herbal tooth powders into your daily routine. Please feel free to let us know about your experiences or if you have any recipes of your own.


dead ferns

From Biophilia to Biophobia

The Love and Distrust of Herbal Medicine

The process of modernization can be described as the transformation of biophilia (the love of and communion with nature) into biophobia (the fear and distrust of nature). Industrialization and the commoditization of everyday life are only some of the more recent forces that cemented this change, which in reality reaches much further back into Ancient Greece and Rome, as can be see in the hegemonic Christianization of Pagan culture, or the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism.

The transformation from biophilia into biophobia should be of interest and concern for herbalists and practitioners of natural medicine generally, as it is the underpinning of the ideological foundation of the ideas that many today harbor towards non-pharmaceutical based healing traditions and practices. These contemporary attitudes which espouse, for example, the notion that plant based healing is dangerous, untrustworthy, ineffective, unscientific, etc., are part of a much larger fear of the wild that stems from a generations long process of alienation from nature. Herbalist and ethnobotanist Wolf-Dieter Storl discusses how the forest, once held to be a magical and paradisiacal realm of great mystery and grace, gradually became a place of fear and trepidation. Wild plants that once provided sustenance in the form of food and medicine to one’s ancestors came to be regarded as potential poisons that should not even be touched, let alone ingested. This distrust and abhorrence of nature is the essence of biophobia. Biophobia is a treacherous trap for the body, mind, soul and spirit that has been laid down alongside and in lock step with the deployment of the global machinery of industrial society and the shifts in human perception and spiritual life that lead to it.

Speaking to the legacy of biophobia in the Western world, Dieter Storl writes:

Western people are scared of rabid foxes, and they are afraid to eat wild raspberries or blueberries – after all, they might be contaminated with fox tapeworm eggs. And there are ticks, which can cause Lyme disease and encephalitis if they bite you. The best solution is never to go into the forest! (Or you can do what many do when they go hiking, and march through the forest as if through enemy territory). When considered soberly, however, the fear of the forest reveals itself to be mere hysteria. The likelihood of catching rabies or tapeworm in the woods is less than the chance of being hit by a truck. The fear of the forest is the fear of one’s own soul, of the “evil witch,” of the shadows of one’s own personality.1

The fear of the soul is often tied up with the repression of bodily feeling and somatization (any unconscious and nonvolitional process where physical symptoms are produced as a consequence of one’s ill-founded psycho-emotional attitudes and disposition). It is through the soul that we are capable of producing bonds of intimacy between self and world. The last century in particular has seen massive increases in the technical proficiency of machine technologies, but this has come at the cost of understanding the importance of nurturing the capacity to sense, feel into, and thereby be transformed by the natural world. When this capacity is diminished or lost, nature then becomes something that exists outside the boundaries of the self, something that indeed is thought to threaten the stable foundation and identity of the self. The felt sense of immediate experience, the communion with other-than-human life, is substituted for an abstract realm of thought governed by the separation and division of subject and object, self and other, inner experience and outer nature… When the awareness of “external” nature is repressed, then so too is our own bodily awareness.

Of Repression

There are few places where the legacy of this repression is reflected more strongly than in the transformation of agricultural work and attitudes towards the land. The great Goddess guided early farmers and agriculturalists through her gifts of vision, inspiration and dreams.2 It was understood by our ancestors not only that the Goddess stands as our protectress, but also that she sees, hears, feels, and mourns, that she is part and parcel of every aspect of our experience as living, breathing beings on planet Earth. The benevolence of the Goddess is what makes the soil fertile, and her guidance is what allowed agricultural societies to emerge and prosper. As Dieter Storl continues:

“Agriculture progressed in a continuous dialogue with her [Goddess Nature]. Plowing and tilling the soil were considered an act of love; impregnating Mother Earth was the religion, and those who impregnated her were the worshippers. In fact, the word cultivate originally meant nothing more than service to the gods, honor, sacrifice, and nurturing.”3

A far cry from the Round Up drenched, monocropped fields of contemporary agricultural production.

dead ferns

Of Forgetting

The forgetting of the benevolence of the Goddess should be thought of in relation to the demonization of the Pagan Gods, Ancient Greece and Rome more generally. This was a development that, as noted above, was ushered into being through the proliferation and enforcement of domineering strains of Christianity. We can see this quite clearly in the gradually shifting attitudes and attributes bestowed upon Greek and Roman tutelary deities (i.e. guardian, patron, and protector spirits). Faunus, to take but one example, was the ancient Roman God of the forest, plains and fields, the guide and protector of shepherds, huntsmen and all inhabitants of the countryside. He was a great companion of the nymphs, the feminine nature deities who populated and cared for the myriad creatures of the Earth and presided over the diverse phenomena of nature, from springs and waterfalls to clouds, trees, caverns and meadows. Faunus played a great role in the fertility cults of the ancients, and was honored as an important overseer of both agricultural production and the health of the forest, as well as (in his form or aspect as the God Innus) the primal embodiment of human sexuality and procreative powers.

Faunus was depicted as a voluptuous and sensual being and, in some traditions where he was held to be synonymous with the Greek God Pan, as the inventor of the flute, whose music charmed wild animals and appeased the spirits of nature. Faunus was one of the favourite and most honored Gods of the Romans, as Pan was for the Greeks. Innumerable shrines and monuments in honour of Faunus/Pan were placed throughout the countryside and in wild places. And it was perhaps for this very reason, that of the immense popularity of Faunus and of Pan, that Christian theologians felt it incumbent upon themselves to cast these most beloved of Gods into disrepute, striking fear in the hearts of their worshipers and devotes with the threat of the eternal damnation of the soul.4

Of Demons and Angels

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, ‘good’ spirits are described as angels (ángelos, ἄγγελος “messenger”) and ‘evil’ spirits as demons (daimónia, δαιμόνια). This dichotomy of good and evil was foreign to the Greek notion of a daimon, which simply meant “godlike”, “power” or “fate”. Daimons were originally held to be benevolent and benign deities who oversaw the rightful and just fulfillment of fate and destiny, not as less than divine or malicious spirits who corrupted human nature and condemned souls to hell.

Faunus and Pan thus became nightmare demons. Where they were once the bestower of prophetic dreams, they became the harbinger of fearful illusions and malefic hallucinations. Where they once stood as one of the principal life-givers and protectors of the forest, they became the embodiment of the ‘dark’ side of nature, of that which needed to be kept at bay. The Greeks came to see those who suffered from epilepsy, for example, as being possessed by Pan (for the Greeks and Romans alike, epilepsy and madness were very closely related; epilepsy was thought to be the precursor to madness).5 The Romans ascribed a series of afflictions to an incubus by the name of Faunus ficarius, including “emaciation, violent unrest at night, and agonizing pains.”6

Of Written Word

Textual tradition, and the power and authority that came with it, also played a great role in the transformation of medicine from an ancestral, folk tradition of healing to something that was overseen and governed by the men of letters (the state licensed Doctors). In his book The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr describes the folk healing traditions of the early American settlers, that the Doctors were later to chastise and condemn, in the following way:

“The family, as the center of social and economic life in early American society, was the natural locus of most care of the sick. Women were expected to deal with illness in the home and to keep a stock of remedies on hand; in the fall, they put away medicinal herbs as they stored preserves. Care of the sick was part of the domestic economy for which the wife assumed responsibility. She would call on networks of kin and community for advice and assistance when illness struck, in worrisome cases perhaps bringing in an older woman who had a reputation for skill with the sick.7

Many of these women, who carried out the traditions of their ancestors in supporting and upholding the life and health of their communities, were to be persecuted as witches. The folk medicine that they worked to maintain came to be held up as heresy.

The state licensed doctors were as ignorant of the virtues of traditional healing systems as were the Inquisitor’s of the marvelous virtues of the Pagan gods that they sought to demonize. The doctors were able to remove the popular healers with great urgency by falsely casting them as witches who perpetuated evil and misfortune, just as the Inquisitors were able to divorce the Pagans from their animistic immersion in the world through the introduction of the dichotomy of good and evil and the threat of eternal damnation.8

Ancient Latin Book

Of Understanding

To understand the state of traditional medicine and the folk healing arts today, and why such traditions have been cast in such a negative light, it is important to understand the conquest of nature that began far back in the ancient world. Such conquest served to gradually divorce humankind from the experience of the living world in its pure immediacy. But the repressed always returns, and the living memory of health and harmony is again today finding its rightful place in the hearts of many.


Footnotes:

1 Wolf-Dieter Storl. Witchcraft Medicine. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003. Pg. 2-3.

2 When one looks, for example, to one of the earliest known sculptural representations of the face, the approximately 25,000 year old figure of The Venus of Brassempouy, it becomes abundantly clear how deeply rooted in the ancient past is the worship and devotion to the Goddess as the bestower and protector of life.

3 Ibid, pg. 3.

4 Not all Christians, however, were opposed to Pagan ideals. There was in fact a tradition of associating Faunus/Pan with Christ himself. Both Faunus/Pan and Christ were shepherds. Neither were entirely divine, Jesus Christ being simultaneously divine and human and Faunus/Pan was likewise a God as well as an earthly being, in part due to his very close and intimate association with humankind. Given this fusion of human/divine characteristics in both the figures of Faunus/Pan and Jesus Christ, some later Christian poets, including most notably John Milton, described Faunus/Pan as a pagan prefiguration of Jesus Christ. Such prefigurations were generated by poets who lived mostly after the Reformation period, and not by priests, bishops, or popes, or those were behind the bloody conquests and inquisitions of the ancient world.

5 Marten Stol. Epilepsy in Babylonia. Groningen: STYX Publications, 1993. Pg. 49.

6 Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher. Pan and the Nightmare. New York: Spring Publications, 1990. Pg. 65.

7 Paul Starr. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. New York: Basic Books, 1982. Pg. 32.

8 For more on this, one can consult the work of the the American anarchist historian and activist Fredy Perlman, who describes the conquest of the doctors in the following vivid language: “The so-called witches, heiresses to the informally transmitted knowledge of herbs and illnesses, are known to be healers, whereas the Doctors, notoriously ignorant of all this lore, are intent on establishing a State-licensed monopoly over illness so as to police the sick. The Doctors will eventually appropriate some of the herbal knowledge of the exterminated witches, but the healing will always be incidental to the policing. They will persecute illnesses even if they have to turn human beings to vegetables or cut them to shreds… Leviathan’s licensed agents even move to expropriate radical visionaries of their memory of human freedom, kinship and community. State-licensed visionaries, Masters and Doctors of Letters, Philosophy and Metaphysics, send their tentacles probing among the last traces of memory’s remembered humanity. The lettered Doctors appropriate the witches’ healing arts.” Fredy Perlman. Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983. Pg. 238.


Photos by Serena Mor


Book Club: Discussion with Abrah Arneson

The Weaving: Plants, Planets, and People

A Conversation Between Abrah Arneson and Victor Cirone.

Welcome to an interview with Abrah Arneson! This interview was conducted by Victor Cirone alongside photos provided by Serena Mor.


📖 This interview was conducted for our bi-monthly book club, Featuring the book: “The Weaving: Plants, Planets, and People” by Abrah Arneson. We will be holding an open Zoom call discussion with Abrah on October 7th, 2021 at 7:00pm EST. If you would like to join us, please send us an email at hello@everythingherbal.ca and we will send you back the Zoom link! 📖

For more information and and links on where to purchase The Weaving, check out the book’s Goodreads page: [here]

Victor: I thought we’d start our discussion by exploring the title of the book, specifically the notion of weaving. It’s interesting to note that the Latin word for text – texere – actually means ‘to weave’. There is an intimate connection between writing and weaving. The question for the writer is: what is the material that you are weaving, of what are the threads that you are drawing upon to create a text composed? Tell us about the threads that you weaved to create this book.

 

Abrah: The original title of the book was Ancestor Medicine: Plants, Planets and People. The woman who midwifed the book didn’t like that title. I love the Fates and the idea that they are weaving us into life and that we are woven into life. What I’m trying to do with this book is to find the threads that weave us into life, to discover them again. Our connection with planets, with stories, with plants. Weaving ourselves into interdependent relationships where we are not separate and there is no hierarchy. When you understand interdependence and wholeness then you see that when you pull one thread, everything is going to unravel or everything is connected to everything else.

When I was writing this book I was playing a lot with time and how the future and the past is present here – in the here and now. I was playing with the reality of how time is woven.

 

Moon And Stars by Serena

 

V: I was reading the poet Robert Duncan and he says something very similar to what you’re exploring here: “The fabric of history, of memory, then, must be continually woven in order to exist because it is not the fabric of the past but the fabric of the present that we weave.”1 There is a certain responsibility that comes with the activity of weaving the fabric of reality. In the book you are taking these threads from many different directions and trying to create a kind of tapestry, an image of wholeness.

 

A: Again back to the theme of weaving. I experience the weaving as not only the visible threads that binds us to life, but also the invisible ones – the energy lines. I’m always exploring this idea. The body/mind is a weaving. And again, the notion of the Fates weaving the soul and body together in utero. The idea of a thread: the opening of the book engages the idea of a thread that emerges from the top of the newborn’s head, and is tied to a star.

I find that metaphor evokes an experience of a weaving of a much bigger experience of reality than “I wish this person would get out of my way because I want to make this left-hand turn” mode of reality.

 

V: This expression isn’t used so often today, but it’s still there in our language: “to weave a tale.” This shows us that there is a primal and innate connection between storytelling and weaving.

 

A: Yes, and then there is the magic. You can weave a spell. Weaving is an interesting word; it’s a big and evocative word.

 

Moon and Clouds by Serena

 

V: Let’s talk about the role of the storyteller and the central role of stories in the book. You’ve written: “I have always thought the best way to learn herbal medicine, with its subtleties and complexities is through story. Have you ever noticed the best herbalists are great storytellers? Good stories carry advice on living in harmony within of the complex web of life. Old stories tell us about the people and the places we come from, what they believed and how they saw the world. Stories that have been passed from one generation to the other offer medicine.”2

One of the things I really appreciated about the book is that it’s so full of stories; the book serves to show that there is a deep wisdom that can only come through the medium of storytelling. Stories are not about conveying information, but about the transmission of wisdom. A piece of information doesn’t survive the moment of its newness. You hear a piece of news and soon enough it fades away and loses its relevancy and significance. The wisdom that comes through story, in contrast, has a timeless and eternal dimension to it. A story doesn’t expend itself but preserves and concentrates its strength and essence. What you said about teaching herbal medicine through story gets us back to that originary tradition of healing. And what you are doing in terms of the narrative and structure of the book is getting away from the reign of information, the obsession with facts and lists. And later in the book you do even wage a critique against the list, against that whole mode of categorizing reality based on information and “facts”, which so often leads to a dissociated view of the world.

 

A: Well you know lists do have their value but they are not life. Life is far from linear. And – well, who doesn’t like a good story? Stories contain wisdom: the interesting thing about stories is that the more you work with them, the more you play with them, read different interpretations and think about them, and really embody them, stories begin to start teaching you and revealing different things to different people at different times. I think that’s what’s so interesting about really good stories, old or new, they are teachers. In any given moment, in moments of personal struggles, a good story will be the best medicine because they never provide an answer but they open up a space up for a different perspective to emerge.

The stories I picked for the book are, I feel, great stories. In the book I’m trying to weave the settler culture – because I’ve reframed the type of herbalist I am – I am a settler herbalist, I practice settler herbal medicine – and when the Europeans came to North America, not all of them but many, lost their stories. That is why North Americans are so into cultural appropriation. It’s because they’ve lost the roots of their stories, they’ve lost contact with that depth that the stories emerge from. The Weaving is trying to wake up those roots that we all have so we don’t have to rely on other people’s stories to give our lives meaning. We can of course enjoy and learn from other people’s stories, but we don’t have to use or rely on them when it comes to the formation of our own personal identities. At the same time, that exploration of how stories are changed to suit particular cultural and political epochs… I remember once when I shared the story of Sarah and Abraham, someone said, “Oh people will be upset by how you rewrote that story.” But we don’t know what that story really was to start off with.

 

V: There is a tendency to try and take a living thing, which a real story always is, and to deprive it of its life by turning it into something literal. When you make a concerted effort to pin down the meaning of a story, you end up killing it. That literalizing tendency violates and works against the very nature or essence of what a story really is.

 

A: Yes, to Disnefy it. Stories necessarily change with the storyteller. I tell a story one way, and then 6 months later I’m in a different relationship with that story. And then it’s like “Oh yeah! How did I miss that whole part of the story?” With Airmed’s story it wasn’t until I was reworking the final, final draft of the book that I realized it was a story about murder. I had opened the whole book up with a story about murder! Murder is a major theme throughout the entire book and it kind of made me think “Oh, where is the murder in my ancestry?” I didn’t see the murder at first.

 

Sunset Clouds by Serena

 

V: Another aspect of storytelling, and a big theme in the book, is remembrance and remembering. Remembering restores possibility to the past. When you are engaged in an act of remembrance it makes what happened incomplete and completes things that never were. Through remembrance you can take possibilities that were abandoned or destroyed and give them life again, you can make things possible again, but always in a new way, through the act of remembering. This is the dimension of living history.

 

A: There might be periods in one’s life where one doesn’t remember, and that is a safety mechanism in consciousness from complete annihilation by trauma. Big traumatic events we don’t remember clearly or at all. Yet, when we do not remember – so much of our goodness is lost as well. Eventually, a container needs to be created to hold the traumatic memory but also the gifts that become lost with it… Whether it is a story that is the container or a healing therapeutic relationship, or a song… we need a vehicle that allows us to hold those tragic memories within our wholeness. That is what we’re going through right now, a big remembering, and it’s painful. But who wants to walk around pretending there aren’t a bunch of bodies buried out behind residential schools? Back to murder…

 

V: You write: “When we forget our dreams something inside us dies. When we forget our path, our joy, the hunger for remembrance lies like a snake twisting in our roots gnawing at our sense of belonging. When we forget our medicine, we forget the hardships and wisdom initiation brings. When we forget who we are, we are lost.”3 There is a certain kind of violence in the active forgetting that has become so pervasive in our world and in our culture. The storytelling that takes place in the book serves to give people tools that they can use in their own way to engage in the activity of remembering.

 

A: I really hope I’ve conveyed something of that, the confidence to remember, that it is okay to remember.

 

V: With remembering there is also the theme of time. The book invites you to step into a different relationship with time. That was one of the revolutionary aspects of the book that came through for me, because in order to change the world you have to change time.

 

A: I don’t know if I’m that insightful (laughing). But we do have to change time, time wasn’t linear before factories, it was circular, hence the round face of the clock, like the moon. Before, when it was time, it was time, and now, all of a sudden we’re obsessively following and being ruled by a clock all of the time that reaches into so many aspects of our lives. I don’t know about you but the biggest bane of my existence is this whole time thing. I struggle not to have anxiety about time; it really is a constant source of anxiety for me. It kills any creativity I have, destroys it. Essentially I am a wanderer. Nothing nourishes me like timeless wandering. That’s an interesting point: that if we are going to change this world we have to change our relationship with time. Beautiful. Thank you for that.

 

V: It came through in reading your book; it’s in there.

 

A: That’s what’s so interesting about stories though. They are filtered through our different experiences and language and then you can have conversations like this. It’s not my story, it’s your story, and the meanings come in different ways.

 

V: And that itself is a kind of weaving.

 

A: It’s so beautiful, I love that. There is no right answer.

 

V: Related to that, there is a strong current in the book about reclaiming personal power and what it means to step into one’s power. I really appreciated the passage where you wrote: “Only you can make your medicine. I don’t mean tinctures, teas, salves, etc. I mean the medicine in your heart, the medicine of inspiration, medicine carrying wisdom. Only you can create medicine that weaves your awareness into Nature’s web, the medicine that allows you to rest in nature’s paradox: everything is in chaos and everything is okay.”4 Can you say something about the ways that you were hoping the book would impact people, how it would allow them to take a different perspective on their own lives? About their own possibility of being in the world, about the ways that people can embody themselves in the world. There is a call to do that in the book.

 

A: I am so tired of Gurus, and other people having all of the answers. Today I was talking to a woman who had this fairly profound experience and is looking for some kind of container, answer, for it on Google. I just said that you’re not going to find the answers outside of yourself. What you’re looking for is inside of you. We need to be able to hold space for that to happen. We don’t need to provide someone with preformed meanings from outside when the meaning comes from inside. Telling people the answers, robs them. It’s like a forgetting again. Mostly I’m just so tired of Gurus and experts and people who “know better.”

The other day I went into Ottawa and I had two things happen. First, I was going down the hill from my house and there was a car stopped in the middle of the road and this guy was waving his arms stopping traffic. And then 12 ducks waddled across the road. The guy stopping traffic is my neighbor. My neighbor drinks a lot. He listens to bad music, and his place is completely ramshackled. He’s the kind of guy that it is easy to make assumptions about. But he was out there stopping traffic for these ducks. I saw him down at the beach later and he said “Oh there she is, I’ve been looking for a woman to put a spell on me for a long time!” He was pretty drunk. And I said, “Okay, here you go” and he didn’t know I saw him earlier stopping traffic, “I put a spell on you that you must stop to save ducks whenever you see them on the road!” He just started laughing; even though everything is wrong with this guy, his heart is still there. And he starts to tell me about the ducks amazed that I had said that. In any case, I told I saw him do this. Now I call him Saint Duckling and he loves it.

Second, I bought some strawberries while I was in Ottawa. As I am leaving the city I’m waiting in traffic through a light to cross the bridge. There are guys that walk up and down with their hat out to the stopped cars. There was this one guy who had no teeth, shirt off, covered in tattoos, a really rough looking character. As he walked past my car I dropped two big juicy strawberries in his hat and he just started beaming. He was so happy. Then he starts talking to me in French about how beautiful the strawberries are, and all of the memories they brought up for him. it It was a great experience to be in his joy. These two people who look so “broken” are carrying so much wisdom and kindness in their hearts. If I was on the street panhandling could I express that kind of joy? I’m so tired of Gurus deciding what I should and shouldn’t listen to. Not that I’m going to go to my neighbor for advice, but I certainly am not going to dismiss him because of his pain. Everybody has a gift to offer if you’re willing to receive it.

 

V: The whole fetishizing of Gurus makes people forget that they have their own innate intelligence and wisdom. Instead people think, “Oh I just have to listen to this person, hold them up on a pedestal, I don’t know anything but they will show me the way.” It’s a hierarchy that is driven by a lust for power, profit and control.

 

A: Yes, I’m so tired of that. I’m much more interested in what gifts we all have. Our traumas do not heal us, it’s our gifts that are going to heal us so let’s talk about, explore, and embrace them. That guy who accepted those strawberries gave me a beautiful gift, and he didn’t even know it.

 

Orange Stars by Serena

 

V: Here’s another passage from the book that I’d like to discuss: “I had the feeling the relationship between plants and planets was pointing to a lost language, or a lost way of being in the world, or the thread that if I followed would lead me to a deeper understanding of who my ancestors were, the stories they had told and the events that had shaped their lives. And so The Weaving began to put down roots and seek the light of day.”5 This reminded me of one of the last things that Rudolf Steiner ever said: after a person passes through the gate of death, they enter the world of the stars. What we are accustomed to calling stars in the external, physical sense are really an outer sign and symbol of the spiritual world that looks down upon us, takes part in, and oversees the deeds and the evolution of our world. This connection between ancestors, which is a big theme in the book, and the stars…

 

A: That is Yggdrasil, the great starry tree. And the idea of the birds as the messengers flying between Earth and its starry branches. How can you not love that image. It is also the Cauldron of Annwn. The cauldron is described as midnight blue studded with pearls. The starry sky is the Cauldron. If you sit quietly and evoke the vibration of the different planets, you will feel them in your body. Humans used to talk about them like Gods, but that has been lost. I remember presenting some of this material to a group a few years ago, right before COVID, two days before the shutdown, and this one person said “Well why are you talking about planets as Gods? I thought this was about astrology?” And, well that’s it! People don’t see that connection anymore, they’ve forgotten.

 

V: What else about the connection between stars and ancestors? These two themes are so strong in the book, and in a sense they are one in the same thing.

 

A: Look at the idea that comes from the perspective of science, that rocks ricochet off of Jupiter’s force field and seeded this planet. That’s modern science saying that, it’s not mythology. And the star beings, all mythologies have this notion of star beings coming down and seeding this planet. I don’t want to sound too out there, but I do believe that we connect with some people in a big way, and others not at all because we come from different stars. Of course we are connected to the stars, and this takes us back to this idea of the thread woven by the Fates that would connect a person to a star. What’s that about? If you knew you were part of a star that you could wish upon… If you know that you came from a star and you were raised with that knowledge, think about how empowering that would be as opposed to someone telling you that you came from an egg and a sperm that formed your body and then you walk around, you acquire lots of stuff, and then you die. That’s our current mythology. How lacking in imagination is that? But with this idea that you are born and there’s a thread that connects you to a star… then anything is possible.

 

V: Can you talk about why you wrote about the particular plants that you did?

 

A: That was a hard process. There were some plants I wrote about that aren’t in the book. Their stories were too big! I really wanted to explore the European psychotropic plants: belladonna and mandrake. One of the things that’s so tedious as a herbalist, you go and Google mandrake and everyone writes about the black dog (the black maligned dog) and the Harry Potter jokes and that’s as far as it goes. Is that really all we want to talk about? I wanted to understand those plants, because they are part of my ancestry, part of my ancestors’ medicine. Today people say, “Oh no don’t touch belladonna!” Like something bad is going to happen if you do. (And my dog has never eaten Belladonna’s berries even though she picks all the raspberries) Belladonna is a lot of fun. Mandrake I haven’t played with it beyond growing it at this point, so I don’t know it as well but I will. And we are back to the stars because these are plants that evoke an alternative reality. The whole group of psychotropic plants, which is such a big piece in herbal medicine and healing today that so many people are talking about… but even here we can see the disconnection, we are going to things like ayahuasca, peyote. But I can actually grow belladonna and mandrake, and I wanted to wake up some of that forgotten tradition a little bit. Settler herbal medicine.

And then there are really common plants in the book, like Valerian, which is one of my plants, everyone knows Valerian, but it is a really hard plant to use well. And Mugwort. Again, everybody knows Mugwort, but when do I really want to use it? When is it really called for? Most of the plants in the book just popped up. But they had to have some juice to them for my creativity. I didn’t choose them really, they chose me. At times I waffled around with the writing when suddenly everything would connect and the weaving became easy. They are all European plants, that was the one requirement for the plants. Really, I didn’t curate the selection of plants that consciously.

 

V: Another theme that powerfully came through in my reading of the book was the multifaceted discussion around curses. You talk about addiction, poverty, health afflictions, and you write that the most stubborn of all the curses are belief systems, which tend to run in families.6 The whole idea of inter-generational trauma, of trans-generational trauma and how much that can have an impact on a person’s life without them necessarily being aware of it. You explore the different ways of needing to address that trauma and different approaches to understanding it. Can you say something about that theme in the book, inter-generational and trans-generational trauma and approaches that have come up for you in terms of working with patients that have had these issues?

 

A: In shamanistic traditions there is always the image where the shaman is torn apart and then put back together again. When they are put back together again, they have something special to give; they have access to their gifts. Before that they don’t have access to their gifts. As they are being torn apart or while they are torn apart, they are in a formation stage; it’s only after they are put back together and made whole again that they have that access to their gifts. That image or story can be found all over the world. We are born, we are attached to this star, all of our gifts are in play and then our ancestors tear us apart because they, themselves from some reason have lost themselves. Somewhere along the way they said yes when they should have said no. Or they let jealousy come into their heart. Or they sent their son to war and he never came back and they never forgave themselves or the government or whoever is to blame for their despair. Or they were raped. Or there was no food. Or they had to run for their lives while their village was being destroyed. We all have ancestors and their histories to bear. There are more horrible stories than there are Cleopatra stories or the Native princess who is a wise healer.

People are taught “no, you can’t touch that, don’t touch plants, that doesn’t belong to you don’t touch it, you shouldn’t ask questions, you have to eat this food, or the worse negation – that’s weird…” there’s just layer upon layer of stuff that we are told when we are growing up. And to be fair, children are kind of wild and need to be tamed, but in that taming process there is this tearing them apart. And then they go through the teenage years which is chaos for most people, and a lot more tearing apart. You hit your 20’s and that’s when you start rebuilding, and hopefully by the time you’re in your 40’s you’ve put yourself back together and have something to give. That’s a normal process of life. I don’t think there is anything unique in it, that’s just how life goes. By the time people are really old, either they come to terms with all the good and all the bad and they’ve embraced it and they have a genuine ability to love and accept or they haven’t developed this ability. Our job as human beings, or our role, or our medicine is to transcend our parents and ancestors, to take the pain that our ancestors have carried and embody it and transcend it, and turn it into our gifts. Discover the gifts, that star that we are attached to… I think every single human being is in that process. If one steps into that journey and says “okay I’m going to do this”, then all sorts of magic happens to create environments and circumstances, and brings people into one’s life, for the transformation to take place. We are the alchemical vessel, it’s not separate from our body. I love the whole gender conversation that’s going on right now – that’s a belief system. Look at how freeing it will be for men – my God, they might be allowed to feel! What kind of curse is that to put on a boy? Because you’ve got to get them ready to go to war, they’ll never survive if they are “cry babies”. That was a reality for men.

 

V: If these patterns aren’t addressed then they just become habitual responses. It was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for everyone else.

 

A: That’s right, and that’s where you really have to have that courage. Airmed’s courage, you’ve got to embody that solar energy because people don’t like change.

 

V: That’s one of the gifts of illness and disease; disease can rescue us from these energy wounds of unexpressed feelings. Feelings can get to the point where they cause a physical disturbance, and this is an invitation to actually see what is going on.

 

A: Yes. Or a heavy trauma comes down.

 

V: Is there anything in particular that you’d like to talk about?

 

A: They just found a whole pile of dead bodies of children behind a residential school today. We are almost at 1000 and counting. These bodies, these small bones that are being dug up, they belong to all of us. It’s one thing to talk about these children, but we need to take care of this as a society as a whole. We have to also find the bodies of the perpetrators. Their cruelty, where did it come from? We have to have the courage to call the cruelty and hatred into this moment and look at it, clearly, and give it the medicine it needs because otherwise there will just be more bodies. That is really the essence of the book, colonization and the horror of colonization. Colonization happens in murder. The book is really about colonization. At the end I write about that steely gaze of Saturn. People don’t like Saturn, they’re always on about Saturn, “oh it’s my Saturn return oh my God!” But do you want to live in fantasy all of your life? Saturn is about getting real. Mercury is the healer’s planet, but if you’re not carrying Saturn you don’t have the power to look at things clearly and go okay, there are those murdered, abused and neglected children that were hidden in the Earth. Who put them there? It’s not to punish, but to understand how that happened so no more children are starved, abused and murdered.

 

V: Yes, what was the impulse behind that kind of activity…

 

A: Without understanding that we are just destined to do it again, and again, and again… That is Saturn, Saturn has the power to look at that and not whitewash it.

 

V: We’ve existed for long enough now pretending that things are other than they actually are.

 

A: That last chapter was easy to write but it was hard to put into the book. I actually reached out to one of the Elders that I have profound respect for who is suffering so much right now and I asked for permission to put that last chapter in the book. I just feel like that’s the point of the book: don’t turn away anymore. Dian Cecht, he just murdered his son, threw the medicine everywhere and walked away… what kind of healer is that?

 

Moonlight at Dusk by Serena

 


1 Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pg. 443.

2 Abrah Arneson. The Weaving: Plants, Planets, and People. Hearttongue Press, 2021. Pg. X.

3 Arneson, The Weaving, Pg. 54

4 Arneson, The Weaving, Pg. 127.

5 Arneson, The Weaving, Pg. ix

6 Arneson, The Weaving, Pg. 14.


Tropical Leaves

The Story of the Haiti Naturopathic Clinic: An Interview with Julia Graves

Emergency Medicine and Disaster Relief in Haiti

Welcome to an interview with Julia Graves! This interview was conducted by Victor Cirone with photos used with permission from Julia.

This interview was conducted on May 27th, 2021, before the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, and before the recent, devastating earthquake of August 18th. Julia is currently coordinating fundraising efforts for the earthquake victims and to help support the vital work that is carried out by the disaster relief clinic that is the focus of this interview. To find out more about how you can help, and for updates on the current situation in Haiti, please see the clinic website and subscribe to their newsletter: haitinaturalclinic.org

Julia

Victor: What can you tell us about the trajectory of your life and work, and specifically how you got to where you are working in Haiti?

Julia: The moment of us starting the clinic in Haiti is, in a way, the culmination of my life up until that point. I was raised by an herbalist mother and an orthopedic surgeon father, so I’ve worked between the paradigms of conventional medicine and plant healing. Then I trained four years of medical school and as a psychotherapist, and I always continued to work with plants and natural healing. I had at that point, when the great earthquake struck Haiti, at least 30 years of experience of working with herbs, flower essences, aromatherapy, and homeopathy. Because it was my partner’s [Jacquelin Jinpa Guiteau] home, and his father got injured in the earthquake, it became very compelling to go and help. If you remember, it was an underwater earthquake, so the epicenter was off the coast, under the ocean, about 3km out – Jinpa’s parents’ home was exactly 3km on the shore. His father fell and injured his shoulder, but we couldn’t send him any help, and we couldn’t go there because all flights had been stopped. As soon as the first airplanes were allowed back into Haiti, he went to just see the situation and said, ‘if I go I would like to help people who are in need of medical care, could you put something together for me as a first aid kit?’ Which is what I did. 48 hours later he called me and asked if I could join him immediately (I was in France) and bring $10000 in donated cash and two suitcases more full of natural medical supplies. 24 hours later I was in New York to pick up the cash and more than 2 suitcases worth of donated supplies, and in 48 hours I was in Haiti, in the rubble. And that’s how it all started.

I do want to add one thing: all of my experience went into a precise concept of the clinic. I had a very clear idea that homeopathy would be great: it’s tiny, it’s light, you can give one pellet per person, and so with a tiny amount you can treat the masses. If need be, you can succuss more, you can dilute and potentize more. Similarly with essential oils, you can do a lot with very little. Although I’m very much an herbalist, I was very clear that trying to stuff dried herbs into your suitcase, or bottles and bottles of tinctures is just not ideal for an emergency situation. So, based on my background, I clearly favored homeopathics and essential oils and that was the bulk of what I brought initially.

Some of the people at the Haiti Naturopathic Clinic

 

V: Most of the audience who will be reading this interview will have more of a background in herbal medicine than they will in homeopathy. At least in North America, there is still a fairly strong divide between herbal medicine and homeopathy. There are some herbalists that I’ve encountered who have even expressed suspicion or outright disdain for homeopathy, claiming that there’s no way it has any real efficacy, that it lacks scientific legitimacy, etc. Can you tell us more about the protocols that are used in the clinic and why homeopathy is so important to the work you do there, beyond how easy it is to transport homeopathic remedies and how cost effective they are?

J: Let me first talk a little about why I brought essential oils. First of all, we as herbalists quite rightfully assume that we can use the essential oil of chamomile in a similar way to chamomile tea or tincture. It is very easy to make that transition when you are faced with an emergency situation where you can’t put a lot into your suitcase, and so, take a variety of essential oils. The other thing is that essential oils are highly antiseptic – they kill everything, as it were: antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiparasitic. Most essential oils are the first three, and some also end up being antiparasitic. When we reached Haiti, the streets were so cracked open, everything had fallen to pieces, and the stench in the air of the rotting bodies was just unfathomable. In such a situation, you want something that is very, very ‘anti-everything.’ On top of that, to purify the air from germs, you want to use essential oils. You can spritz them, you can leave them out, and you can literally disinfect the air around you in that way. It was very good for us as healers to be in a situation like that where we could handle substances that served to protect us from disease. We still got horrific diarrhea, but there wasn’t even anything close to clean water available at that point.

For me, I can understand that most herbalists cannot understand homeopathy. There’s an element of mystery to it. You can’t understand how it can possibly work. I trained very young in homeopathy, when I was 19. By the time I went to Haiti I had tons of experience using homeopathy in emergency situations. I had lived in India for 3 years where I trained at the Tibetan monastery that is next to the Dalai Lama’s palace in Dharamshala, and there is no medical care for the little boy monks there. So I was treating a lot of these boy monks and people in India who were in very desperate situations, including lots of animals and lots of babies, so I knew for sure that you don’t have to believe in homeopathy for it to work. I had treated people who can’t speak because they are babies, I treated animals, people who can’t speak the same language as me, who have no understanding of what I’m putting into their mouths, and I had seen incredible results in very poor hygiene type of environments. I had complete confidence, I had my baptism by fire, what the horse rider experiences when they fall off the horse for the first time – I had already been through that. At the point I came to Haiti nobody could have talked me into the idea that homeopathy is not effective. And I was already very experienced treating myself and others, so for me it was just a no brainer, especially when it comes to vulneraries, injury remedies, or things for acute and superficial issues such as disease from dirty water – diarrhea and vomiting – I had tons of experience treating that in India.

To take another common scenario we encountered in Haiti: being sick as a consequence of sleeping outside in the cold. When we got to Haiti it was March, the earthquake was in January, so everybody had been sleeping in the streets in February when it is quite cold, and we have this wonderful remedy in homeopathy called Aconite, which is also used in Chinese medicine to warm people up, for diseases from cold. There are wonderful homeopathic remedies from the Artemesia genus of plants, which are also used in herbalism, for the treatment of worms and parasites. In underdeveloped countries virtually all children have worms. We could discuss many other common scenarios and the relevance of homeopathic medicine in dealing with them. Based on my previous experience, I already knew what I was going to need and want. We had anticipated injuries, coughs and colds and the usual stuff such as malaria and yellow fever; but we hadn’t anticipated the mind-blowing amount of vaginal infections, which had nothing to do with the earthquake per se, but with poor hygiene and dirty water. And for that we then had to work out a treatment protocol.

Lastly, just to add one more reason explaining why the homeopathic approach was so great in this context, especially in the initial years, was to treat street children: You cannot give a homeless three year old who lives in the street anything herbal – a bottle will be lost almost immediately, they have zero access to potable water, let alone a fire or tea kettle so herbal teas are out, etc. I was incredibly grateful to have a reliable and powerful method where I could give the child one single dose right into their mouth and know it could cure whatever ill was at hand (worms, influenza, head trauma), with the higher potencies’ action lasting for weeks and months.1

 

V: I remember that in one of your previous newsletters, you talked about a traditional Haitian practitioner, a herbalist and bonesetter, and I remember that you said in that piece that the Haitian people were somewhat skeptical of working with him, that they didn’t believe that he had the healing abilities that he did. Can you talk about the attitude of the Haitian people when it comes to disease and healing generally, and about traditional Haitian healing practices in particular?

J: We literally had to start the clinic by putting a table and four chairs out. There was Jinpa on one side being one of the doctors, me on the other side being the other doctor, with a second chair for each of the patients. We immediately had 300 or more people a day, between 300 and 500. The most we could treat on a given day was 500. There was a lot of skepticism. People were desperate because there was no medical help at all available to them; you have to understand that the medical system in Haiti is such that when people can’t pay, there are zero medical services available to them. We were in the city of Port-au-Prince because the epicenter hit there. There are no wild plants there. In the Haitian countryside there is still traditional herbal medicine available. People were very skeptical of us because first of all they had very bad experiences with large organizations such as the Red Cross. There are two main things we heard over and over again: the first was that people didn’t want to stand in line and wait to be treated because, as they said very suspiciously, ‘are you going to force vaccinate us?’ and we explained that we don’t even have syringes here, everything is natural, we use plants. And the reaction then was ‘oh, then I’ll stay in line.’ So there was tremendous skepticism towards being forced vaccinated, which is part of the International Red Cross’ way of doing things, apparently.

Then they were very surprised that we actually spoke their language rather than them not being able to communicate with us at all. They liked that. The second thing that made them very gun shy, quite literally at first, was that the other organizations, even Doctors Without Boarders, usually have a building that is guarded by soldiers with machine guns. People are reluctant. They were literally looking around and scoping out the place, wondering ‘where are the soldiers with machine guns? Oh they don’t even have protection, now I feel safer waiting in line.’ The third thing that made them gun shy was that there was a practice, a very widespread practice, of dumping expired pharmaceuticals into Haiti which has been stopped since then. The government made this practice illegal and now checks expiration dates on pharmaceutical drugs coming into the country. There has also been a kind of undercover testing of non-licensed drugs in Haiti. People who were coming to the clinic kept saying ‘we get things that are expired, we go to the hospital, they give us an injection, and we get so sick.’ We heard that over and over again. So all of that was overcome the moment we said ‘no, no we only use plants and we don’t have injections’ and whatever we gave them also looked nothing like a pharmaceutical drug. That was one kind of very strong caution and mistrust we had to overcome.

And then there was the caution and mistrust that they harbored in regards to their own tradition. Of course because they have been brainwashed by modern media, education, and all of that, the herbs grandma uses are not good. We tried to role model to them that healing with plants is okay. We knew that the husband of one of the women known to Jinpa’s family was a traditional herbalist, midwife and bonesetter, all wrapped into one. We asked him to come in and do his work. We checked it out and he was really quite knowledgeable and had a lot of very helpful things that he was able to do that we couldn’t. For example, he knew exactly what kind of a poultice to use on children no older than 2 years old in order to heal inguinal hernias. We didn’t have anything like that, where you could just take a few drops of a medicine and the hernia is gone. And he was able to touch a pregnant woman’s belly and could check if she was carrying one or two babies, if they were in the right position, if everything was generally okay with the baby, the position of the placenta, if the woman needed pelvic adjustment – he could do those things that we weren’t trained for from within the traditional context and it helped people have confidence in their own traditions again. They really liked the treatment and we often overheard them when they were leaving saying ‘oh yeah I have a person like that in my neighborhood, maybe I could go see them.’ We tried to really not be like the Red Cross, which has come in from the outside totally detached from the local culture, from traditional Haitian medical thinking and understanding, from their language use and using products that come from elsewhere and were threatening. It was very important that we create an interface with the people, their culture, their language, their healing traditions. That was very much our aim.

Haiti Clinic Treatment

 

V: Do you have cases that stand out that you’d like to share?

J: One of our cases that I love to talk about is that of a 2-month-old baby boy who was brought in to us who had been declared to be dying of yellow fever. He had been born to a 15 year old teenage mother and the bonesetter explained to us that girls like that will not bond with their baby if they see that the baby is sick, as a protection mechanism they then drop the baby, they emotionally disengage, because they want to save themselves the heartbreak from having their firstborn die. The mother had literally wandered off doing other things and left the baby in the tent camp and the warden of the camp, Marie-Lucie who is now working for the clinic, brought in the baby for treatment. She explained that the baby is dying, that the family had scraped together their last bit of money to bring him to the hospital, that the doctor diagnosed yellow fever and explained that it would cost a million so to speak for medical treatment, which they didn’t have. What happens in Haiti in such a situation is that the doctors will say ‘go on, take the baby home it will die.’

The baby was brought to us at that point and he seemed to be in a very dire condition, hanging limbs, the eyeballs turned up, and I was there with this very difficult situation, in a screaming environment with hundreds of people standing in line, tasked with being given 5 minutes to diagnose and heal a dying newborn. One of the things we use very much in the clinic as a diagnostic tool is Chinese pulse diagnosis because then you don’t need language. One of our questions for people coming to work at the clinic is: what do you know to diagnose without needing language, because you won’t be able to speak Creole or French, most likely. So, anyone doing Chinese medicine will know how hard it is to take a good pulse with a newborn. I used a technique where I took his pulse – you take the pulse with the fingertip of just one finger and it was extremely wiry, a very typical high fever/heat pulse, and I had by that time noticed that I could get really good pulse readings on newborn babies, because there were so many, by just putting the vial with the homeopathic remedy in their other hand. Because they have this reflex of holding onto everything, they just grab the vial. When I put the Aconite in his hand the pulse went down, the heat pulse signs were seriously going down. I gave him one dose of Aconite 200C, which is a very, very classical high fever remedy and within a very short time, something like a minute or two, his flapping hands came back up, the whole tonus came back to his body and – bing! – he opened his eyes. I gave the lady who had brought him a tiny bottle containing a few drops of lemon essential oil and asked that she do some sponge baths to help open his pores and to help cool his body.

We had also asked the bonesetter to come and see what he would say and he had a completely different approach. He felt the baby’s skull bones and he diagnosed his skull bones of being stuck from hard labour and he did something that we would consider a craniosacral adjustment of the skull and then he said the baby needed a paste of castor oil and ground nutmeg applied to the central fontanella, which is what we did. Marie-Lucie brought him back the next day and he was well on his way to recovery. I like to give that story because it is a wonderful example when it comes to situations of extreme healing, how we use the modalities and co-treat with our Western way and the Haitian way.

 

V: What is it like to see so many patients in a day? In the context that most herbalists are familiar with and work in we have this idea that when you see someone you need 2 hours, that there must be detailed case taking and analysis, and so on. What is it like when you don’t have nearly close to that amount of time and may not even be able to communicate with your patients through language?

J: First of all I want to put this into context. We figured out very fast that anybody who was too intellectual couldn’t function in such an environment as a healer. If you ask yourself too many questions you won’t be able to function there and you have to make a lot of tough decisions before you even begin. Such as: there are things you are not going to treat, we didn’t do shortsightedness, diabetes, caries, and advanced chronic disease – which is not so prevalent in the first place because the population we were working with, the poor people in the ghettos, is what I like to consider a virgin population by and large. They had never had pharmaceutical drugs, vaccinations, operations, or anything else – they were just people who had never been medically treated, and they respond marvelously. They have what I would just call for now more superficial acute diseases and they respond very, very well. We are here to do emergency medicine. That was our focus going in; it was simply not possible for us to focus on treating chronic diseases.

That’s already the shift you have to decide on when you go into a disaster situation, to say we are doing emergency medicine. Since then the clinic has evolved because we have been there for a long time now and we do work on things such as very big difficulties in pregnancy, handicapped children, diabetes, breast cancer and other things like that. But at that time we were doing emergency medicine exclusively. We individualize, but you can’t individualize too much. There is something that I knew from Chinese medicine, which is the art of getting to the point in 3 questions. I told everybody you have to perfect that. You have to very quickly have the three questions that eliminate everything down to 2 or 3 remedies – then differentiate between them and you’re there so that you can on average treat a person in 5 to 10 minutes. I had to see 150 people a day, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t function anymore and we had not by any estimation seen everyone in line. The line looked to be the same length at 7AM as it did late in the afternoon when we finished, because we couldn’t go on. The other thing is the environmental context, with this brutal, damp, tropical heat and you’re being eaten by mosquitos top to bottom the entire time you’re sitting there. So for Jinpa and me, what we did was we just allowed ourselves to be in some kind of a trance or autopilot state using intuition. This is not the kind of intuition where I’m intuiting something that I have never heard about or have no experience with. I’m talking about intuition that comes out of a lot of knowledge and experience. For me, it was actually a really nice experience to be in a situation where I can’t intellectually think; I don’t have the time, everyone around me is screaming, I’m scratching so much I’m close to fainting, we were very hungry, we couldn’t eat, it was very dirty, it was extremely unsafe to eat, we couldn’t eat until the whole work day was over, there was no water… It was beautiful to see that when you have to, you can operate like that as a healer; I believe you have to be trained though. I don’t know if that could work if you had no prior knowledge of working in such an environment.

Marie on her way to help a person struggling to breathe(Robinson takes Marie Lucie to treat a person struggling to breathe)

 

V: What can you tell us about the COVID situation in Haiti? You mentioned in the last newsletter that it doesn’t seem to be affecting the population very much at all. (As of May 27th, 2021)

J: COVID has done very little in Haiti up to now; they’ve started a large clinical trial to find out why that is the case. There are a lot of ideas that have not been verified, such as that there are very few enclosed spaces – the vast majority of the population essentially lives outdoors, the houses don’t have glass enclosing the windows and the doors are always open and wind is always blowing through the houses. Also, it has been discussed that half of the population is younger than 18, as well as other factors relating to Haiti being an underdeveloped country. From my own point of view, it is very well worth considering that they are so unspoiled by civilization in many ways, that the population tends not to suffer from deep chronic diseases. The kind of conditions that we are always pointing to as making a person vulnerable to COVID, don’t exist for the vast majority of people living in Haiti. This is a sugar producing country, even the poor kids do eat sugar, but they are so hungry so often in between that they do not have diabetes. No chance.

In the pre-COVID era, it was established basic epidemiology that you do not start to vaccinate while an epidemic is ongoing, because you’re essentially going to create mutation pressure on the virus. In this case, it is remarkable and frightening to me that now that vaccination has started in Haiti, although most people don’t want to get vaccinated as they are very suspicious against vaccinations, that now suddenly COVID is becoming a problem. There are rumors that now that the Brazilian variant has arrived it mostly hits the gut, so people get diarrhea like symptoms for 2 or 3 days and then are dead. I think it’s way too early to say much about it, so we are also right now quickly looking at how to adapt our protocol. Up to now we’ve had really amazing results [treating symptoms] just using essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus, which are antiviral, antifebrile and bronchodilating, so I think peppermint is still a good idea for a virus affecting the gut, but we may have to rethink things. I’m just waiting to get past the rumor stage, so we can differentiate between what we are hearing about the symptom picture and what is actually going on. We need to get things substantiated, because the political situation is completely corrupt and malfunctioning at this point. People are not even sure that what is now being said about COVID in Haiti is not just a series of rumors that the government has put out in order to manipulate people in some way – the political situation has deteriorated to such an extent.

The rumor that suddenly there are COVID cases and people are dying from it, makes people not sure that this is not a way of scaring them into vaccination and whatnot… It is very hard to verify a lot of things in Haiti because there is no free press, there is no functioning government, it is a complete mess.

 

V: There seems to be a climate of distrust and suspicion that moves in many different directions.

J: Yes, and it is well justified and well founded distrust.

 

V: What can you tell us about traditional Haitian herbalism, and some traditional herbs that are commonly used?

J: Traditional Haitian herbalism is largely rooted in African herbal traditions. You find a lot of similar ways of thinking, similar medical understanding, as you would find in Africa. So for instance there’s the bonesetting aspect, which is very strong in African traditional healing systems, and it is practiced in a similar way with the patient just lying on a mat on the floor and the healer will use his or her feet to push the bones into place. Diagnosis very much has to do with looking at the state of the blood. There’s a strong emphasis on the evaluation of the state of the blood, and there’s some overlap with other traditional systems in this respect. They will think in terms of: is the blood good or bad, does the blood rise, is the blood curdling – when it is bad, the blood has a tendency to curdle. Is the blood curdling because of things the person ate and ingested or because the emotions are going overboard? You have this situation with a lot of heat and sweat and really explosive emotions. Many Haitians are very volatile emotionally and can get unbelievably angry, and in the those moments there is, for lack of a different word, a phenomena where the blood curdles and you can literally see it where there are stains under the light part of the skins on the palms of the hands. We might want to intellectualize and say there’s microscopic bleeding and thrombosis. That’s a big warning sign and they need to rush the patient to a clinic to have them treated immediately, otherwise they can die. We’ve needed to deal with that at the clinic also.

Our bonesetter and Jinpa grew up in the culture and gave us crash courses on this, because you would get patients who sit in front of you and they would say things like, ‘I have bad blood.’ Even when they say ‘I have anemia’ it means something different than what we understand by the word. We mean not enough red blood cells, whereas they basically mean not enough of whatever good thing there could be in the blood as a consequence of malnutrition. They may have enough red blood cells, but it really means I don’t have sufficient blood sugar, fats, proteins, and all the rest of what is essential to me – I’ve been hungry for a long time. It was very necessary for us to also understand the bases of Haitian herbal medicine to have a proper interface with the people who came to us speaking from that place of understanding.

 

V: Are there any particular herbs that you’d like to discuss which are widely used traditionally?

J: Haitian herbalism [and] Haitian culture is of course a mix which draws from the original native [Indigenous] people who lived on the island, then the African slaves who came from many different tribes and what would now be the modern countries of Africa, and the cultures of the Spanish and French conquistadores. It is very much a cultural melting pot, which is also reflected in the use of the most common herbs or medicinal plants in Haitian herbalism today. Many of them are plants that came with the conquistadores, or that were otherwise brought in; such as cacao (which would have been local), orange leaf, lemon, the citruses, peppermint, basil, cinnamon leaf – I even saw loosestrife – and chamomile flowers which are available in the stores. None of that we would expect when we ask the question about commonly used herbs in the Haitian tradition. I was frankly also surprised. There is, if you wish, a full integration of European style herbalism in popular culture and of course they also use the fruits and veggies that are around such as garlic, papaya, and things like that. Papaya for instance, because it is rich in digestive enzymes, is used as a poultice on wounds. The men also use papaya seeds – and this is really more traditional – because they have a jelly like cover; the papaya seeds, they look like sperm, and based on the doctrine of signatures/language of plants, the men eat the seeds in order to increase manliness. You also have Jamaican dogwood and you will find guys by the roadside with huge glass containers full of Jamaican dogwood soaked in local cheap rum. You can go to them to get your shot glass full for your virility, and things like that. Other examples that would really be more local is for instance the use of boiled guava leaf, which is astringing. The taste frankly reminds me a little bit of blackberry leaf tea, so they use it for diarrhea and also to astringe the guts. They have a kind of a plant which is a creeper with fleshy heart shaped leaves, a kind of liana – they call it in French, liane molle. The leaves are soft and can be cooked to a kind of spinach like consistency, and this is used as a blood builder, for anemia, but also as a demulcent.

Most notably for me is the use of nutmeg. We discussed the use of nutmeg in the clinic in our last newsletter, and I want to encourage people to sign up for the newsletter because we always include case histories and new aspects about healing plants. I try to make it an educational newsletter for people who are plant healers. Ground nutmeg is used very much in Haiti for paralysis type symptoms related to strokes. What is very interesting is that, as nutmeg is a strong remedy, those very types of symptoms will develop in someone if they overdose on it. We find ourselves back at the alchemical truth that a poison can, in a tiny amount, heal what it can produce as a symptom. That principal is the basis of homeopathy, of course [the homeopathic law of similars: Similia similibus curantur, “likes are cured by likes”]. Nutmeg under the Latin name Nux moschata is a homeopathic remedy that will cure all those very same symptoms so I thought it was very cool as a homeopath to see that the local herbalists use nutmeg powder, a pinch under the tongue, in exactly the same way we would use Nux moschata in the potentized fashion.

The Herb Garden Enclosure

(The Herb Garden Enclosure)

 

V: Is there anything else you’d like to address? Are there ways that people can help through donations in any other way?

J: Our clinic has really only survived because people have always taken a real interest in our work and donated basically all of the medicines. All of the herbs, dried herbs, tinctures, homeopathics, essential oils – it’s all donated and people can send us an email through the website if they have a question about what we would like to be sent in terms of clinic supplies and where to send it. We ship things mostly from New York, but sometimes also from Europe. That is a huge help because none of us are paid. We are all volunteers. We collect cash to pay for the costs of shipping and everything goes straight to Haiti. We are trying to be the slimmest organization possible, one where no cent is lost. We do pay the people on the Haitian side because they have no other means of income – unemployment is probably between 80% and 90% in Haiti and we pay them $40USD a week, we don’t even know how they can survive on so little, so do not think that they can go out and buy themselves a mansion, they cannot. In fact, Marie-Lucie, now that we can’t run the clinic out of the usual location because of the COVID curfew, is running it out of her home which is kind of a shack. Just a couple of concrete blocks put together with a little bit of corrugated tin on top. Any donation of cash, or natural remedies is very, very welcome. Use your connections, see if you know somebody who owns a health food store, a distiller, other such companies. We take things that have been expired, sometimes we rebottle them or we take things that have reached their sell by date. Just contact us if you have a question and we would be so thrilled. This is truly the herbalist’s and aromatherapist’s clinic, it has been fueled really by their efforts and donations.

 


1 Readers interested in further exploring the science of homeopathy can refer to the award winning homeopathic medical research undertaken by Professor George Vithoulkas [here]

If you would like to check out more information about the Clinic or learn more about how you can help, please visit www.haitinaturalclinic.org


herb camp tent 2

Herbal Education and the Medicine of Experience

Reflections on Herb Camp and the Meaning of Being “With It.”

After a long period of social isolation, we were finally able gather under the banner of ‘Herb Camp’ – the first event of its kind in Ontario, a herbal gathering with a strong focus on teaching clinical skills to budding herbalists and herbal enthusiasts from many different walks of life. Students who were at different stages in their herbal education attended the event, and there was a strong feeling of conviviality amongst the group along with a real eagerness and willingness to share and to learn.

Herb Camp Gathering

One of the things that Herb Camp really illuminated and affirmed for many of us was just how universally applicable and relevant herbal medicine is – it can be approached from wherever you are in your life, and applied in a variety of different ways, contexts, and circumstances. Some of the students were keen on learning basic skills and tips to practice herbal self and family care, while others were on the path to becoming clinicians, focused on learning how to treat serious pathology through the use of plant medicines. And it is not despite, but because of these differences in orientation, that Herb Camp was marked by a mutual enhancement of experience and insight. The teachings that are received from the plant world are simultaneously personal and universal in their scope and range of applicability. Arguably the most important quality of an herbal student and teacher alike is the ability to embrace the dimensions of experience that the plant world opens up for you, being willing to learn to follow the plants where they want to take you. Herbal medicine is a medicine of relationship and experience – of the profoundly personal and the timelessly universal.

Herb Camp Gathering Baby in Arms

Like all of the true healing arts and sciences, there is an element of transmission that must take place when it comes to herbal education. There is clearly an essential place for facts, for textbooks, for lists and data, for lab reports and clinical trials in the training and upbringing of an herbalist. But there is an element of direct, personal experience that must also be present if an herbalist is to really come into their own. This can only happen in the flesh, tête-à-tête. The experience of working directly with the plants cannot be underestimated. An herbalist must, of course, learn to deeply see the plants that they use, to experience their medicine (the plants are more than dried material that shows up on your doorstep in plastic bags!). When you get to know an herb in person, that herb transmits some of its medicine to you, medicine that you can then carry within yourself as a gift and as a responsibility. The shift may be subtle at first, but in time, if that gift is properly nurtured, there is no going back. Before your know it, you realize that your perception of the world has been indelibly marked by all that the plants have given of themselves. It then becomes incumbent upon you to learn how to give back. With every act of transmission there comes a new facet or dimension of knowing and of sharing.

Herb Camp Gathering Tamara

There is also the importance of direct and immediate participation when it comes to herbal education. This means in person, direct contact with a teacher and with fellow students. The same can be said of learning in general, as the great philosopher of education and social critic Ivan Illich once pointed out:

Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”

Our most lasting and significant memories of learning (and of teaching) are always tied to particular people and to specific places. Learning is embodied activity, and not a purely mechanical or cognitive exercise. After not having had any opportunities to gather in person for over a year, this fact really did hit home for the attendees at Herb Camp, teachers and students alike. It is shared participation and exchange in a meaningful setting that allows for deep-seated growth and development to take place. And when it comes to training in herbal medicine, this being “with it”, as Illich calls it, cannot be left out of the equation. We are, as herbalists, working with people after all, and we cannot learn to work with people who come to us in need if we do not learn how to be with others in the fullest and deepest sense of that word.

Herb Camp Gathering tents

There is something truly therapeutic about being with others, as every therapist and medical practitioner, irrespective of their training or orientation, will tell you. Healing is a process that often takes place in the depths of the self, but the self is always already being with. Part of the significance of multi-day educational gatherings is that they allow us the time and space to step outside of our habitual routines and to really be with others, to talk and share jokes and meals as well as to explore involved and complex insights and ideas. Intimacy and conviviality is a crucial part of what differentiates a true learning environment from an impersonal place of instruction. When we allow ourselves to be with others in this way, we are engaging in an act of self-care. Education should be healing, for in learning we are given the opportunity to tend to ourselves, and to come back to ourselves anew. And as Illich reminds us, if we do not learn how to take care of ourselves, and cherish the opportunity to do so, then we cannot hope to be effective when it comes to taking care of others:

Effective health care depends on self-care; this fact is currently heralded as if it were a discovery.”

Herbal medicine has known this all along. Herbal medicine is intimate. It is as much about the path that took you to the place where you are today as it is about the here and now. It is about the care of the self as much as it is about the care of others, and of the earth itself. Herbal medicine is not concerned with the production of medicine as a commodity, but with the propagation of medicine as relationship and experience. There is no better way to learn this medicine than being with others.

Herb Camp Gathering teachers


Class at BTYR

Honouring our Teachers

Honouring our Teachers: Experiencing Reality and the Art of Learning to See the World.

Judgment has its place in the arena of practical life. Without judgment, it would be near impossible to navigate many of the fine details of the world of average, everyday experience. Judgment comes from the head. There is a quickness to the world when we perceive and relate to it through our heads. Being oriented from the head may allow for a certain efficiency and expediency in the practicalities of daily life, but it can also lead us to rush and ignore nuances, complexities, and the implications of the unseen relationships and subtle dynamics that underlie the given.

A great deal of conventional education is oriented around the head. This leads to an abstract view of the world, which in the extreme gives one the impression that the world can best be understood through calculation. This, again, is a world that is oriented around following a designated set of rules and orders. Consensus reality, for short.

Where our head rushes, the rest of our body goes slowly. The body has its own natural rhythms and cycles that can’t so easily be coerced into rushing or speeding up. Nor would it be in the least advantageous to do so. The body operates on its own time, whereas the head can be influenced, directed, or even manipulated by the dictates, pressures and demands of consensus reality.

One of the primary causes of illness can be said to be a lack of integration between the head and the rest of the organism (the whole being made up of body, soul and spirit). When the head grasps things too quickly, or in an incomplete manner, the rest of our organism has a difficult time assimilating and absorbing what the head has become convinced of. When we only perceive the world and come to knowledge through our heads, this can create a state of disconnection that can lead to deep-seated feelings of dis-ease, sending waves of dissonance through the organism, eventually resulting in physical pathology. In so far as our teachers allow us to recognize this, helping us to balance and assimilate the head with the rest of our being, they can be said to be great healers.

When our organism is not able to assimilate what the head has been presented with, then there is no chance of that information engendering joyfulness. Our greatest teachers can also be said to be caretakers of the life of the soul, helping us to recognize and understand our feelings, and thereby laying the foundations for the adoption and embrace of empathy and compassion in our daily lives. This is why teachers have great ethical and moral responsibility.

Teaching in the true sense is an act of transmission. Transmission is what makes teaching an art: the teacher shares with their students what they have been able to experience and assimilate in their own lives, shares with their students all that they themselves have been shown by their teachers. This act of transmission can be traced back in an endless and unbroken succession of teachers, stretching all the way to the very beginnings of human culture. Teaching is an intergenerational activity that draws on the infinite repository of human wisdom, our living human heritage, and allows this to be received and developed by the younger generation in a good way. If there is a connection between teacher and student, a bond of sympathy is formed which allows the student to borrow and eventually integrate as their own the tools for navigating reality and shaping and refining experience that the teacher has been graced with.

Thinking in the true sense can only happen from out of the whole organism. Thinking from the head alone can often lead to dissociation, to feeling cut off and separated from the world. The words ‘thinking’ and ‘thanking’ are etymologically related. To think means to give thanks for what one has been given to see. The teacher is the one who is tasked with facilitating this ability of the student to learn to truly see. The teacher guides the student so that they can learn to teach themselves, and in time teach others as they have been taught (but always and forever in a new way, for each student and each teacher have a uniqueness that is only and truly their own). A significant part of the art of teaching consists in allowing the student to learn to see the world with reverence, humility, and even awe. Without our teachers we would be nowhere, for it is they who show us how and in what ways we are connected with the world. It is they who facilitate the development of our experience of reality.