Today’s herbalist’s draw on a variety of healing traditions, from shamanic ritual to remedies proven by scientific trials. Many of the world’s traditional systems of healing share a common thesis: that everything in the universe, including plants and human beings, is composed of energy and matter manifested as five elements, and keeping them in balance helps ensure health and wellbeing. This is the basis of the humoral medicine of ancient Greek physicians, Indian Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan healing and Islamic Unani Tibb. Herbs play a central role in all these systems, preventing and treating instances of ill health.
Our medical roots
The use of herbs as medicines on both physical and more subtle levels is common to all cultures as far back as we know. We can trace the link between human life and healing herbs back to Neanderthal man 60,000 years ago, when herbs including Horsetail, Yarrow and Ephedra were used.
Ancient and modern medicine
With the vast network of communication that has developed in recent decades has come a wealth of information and wisdom from far and wide that has engendered a considerable merging of herbal traditions. This means that herbalists today have the advantage of drawing on a number of therapeutic systems and philosophies, as well as access to the herbs themselves from most corners of the globe.
Some therapeutic traditions – such as Chinese, Ayervedic, Unani Tibba and Tibetan medicine – are based on systems of healing that have remained almost intact through thousands of years and still form the primary healthcare system for a significant proportion of the population in those countries. Many Western herbalists now study those traditions and incorporate their ancient practices into their own diagnoses and treatments.
Other age-old systems of herbal healing, particularly in the Western world, have been largely broken and replaced by modern drugs and allopathy, that is, conventional medicine. Currently, the popularity of herbal medicine has inspired a re-evaluation of global medical roots, with their rich sources of effective medicines that certainly have a place in modern medical practice. Herbs such as Garlic, Gingko, Ginseng, Echinacea and St John’s wort have proved themselves to the world, almost becoming household names in the process, and are even reconmmended by some doctors.
In recent decades the scientific world has identified specific constituents of herbs and their properties and interactions. Modern studies into the efficacy of herbs and randomized controlled trials have proven that herb can be effective medicines, and this research vindicates the ancient use of such plants that goes back thousands of years.
The earliest known herbalists of every culture were shamans – important men or women whose instincts were raised to a highly intuitive level through years of training to develop their inner eye. This deeper perception enabled them to communicate directly with the plant and spirit world, and to visit other realities through their spirit allies.
Shamanistic practices are said to predate all organized religions, dating back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Many shamanic traditions, including European, Tibetan, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese and Native American in both North and South America, originally came from Siberia and metamorphosed as they travelled to other parts of the world. African slaves took their shamanic traditions to America, where they merged divination and other rituals with Christian practices to produce, for example, Haitian voodoo, Cuban Santeria and Brazillian Candomble. Elsewhere, shamanism became absorbed into the religion of the area, as it clearly did in Tibetan Buddhism. In some cultures the early shamans were known as priest physicians. They were also sorcerers, magicians, diviners and intermediaries between the mortal and the spirit worlds.
Today, shamanism is still alive and well in a variety of forms, mainly among indigenous peoples in rural areas, especially in Siberia, where it is the main form of medical treatment available. Even in cities, shanty towns and areas with access to more modern medicine, shamanism forms an important part of the culture, particularly in Africa and Central and South America, where it is used alongside, or as an alternative to, modern medicine.
The belief in witchcraft and sorcery, known as brujeria in South America, is still prevalent in many shamanic cultures. Some societies, including several from Africa, distinguish shamans who cure from sorcerers who harm, while others believe that all shamans have the power both to cure and kill. Shamanism is also still practised in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Inuit and Eskimo cultures, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Tibet, and in each region the shaman will communicate with the local flora in order to be guided towards cures.
The shaman’s journey
In some cultures the shaman’s powers are believed to be inherited, while in others a shaman follows a ‘calling’, sometimes from his or her dreams, and endures rigorous training. Initiation occurs often through a transformational experience, which could be a serious illness or being struck by lightning. In North America, Native Americans may seek communion with the world through a ‘vision quest’, while aspiring shamans in South America might apprentice themselves to a respected shaman.
Shamans enter altered states of consciousness, often ecstatic or trance states, journeying to the beat of a drum or rattle, or using singing, music, sweat lodges, vision quests and fasting to communicate with other realms of reality – a teacher, a spirit guide from the animal or plant world or a totem – asking for wisdom and guidance. It is in this way that they gain their knowledge and power. The shaman’s journey is intended to help the patient or community to rediscover their connection to nature and spirit. In the Ecuadorian and Peruvian rainforests shamans and known as curanderos. Some base their healing work on the use of Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant that can induce divine revelation and invoke mental and emotional as well as physical healing. Visiting an ayahuasquero has become popular among Western spiritual seekers, who can now go on tours into the jungle for just this purpose.
Other Native American shamans modify consciousness through the use of mind-altering plants, such as psychedelic mushrooms, cannabis, San Pedro cactus, Peyote, Datura, Fly agaric and Saliva divinorum. In so doing, shamans can put themselves at risk and therefore use rituals to protect them from enemies and rivals in the spirit of the human world. Many of the plants employed are poisonous in large doses, and failing to return from out-of-body experiences can be fatal. These are best used under the guidance of an authentic shaman.
There has been a surge of interest in shamanic healing in the past few years and many contemporary therapists are incorporating these traditional practices into their work. Some are attracted to healing practices from the East of Native American traditions, while others are accessing the roots of European shamanism and its mystical beliefs and practices that were suppressed by the Christian Church.
Illness in shamanism is generally attributed to spiritual causes, which could be the bad will of another towards the patient, the work of evil spirits, witchcraft or divine intervention. Both spiritual and physical methods are used to heal, depending on what is recommended in the spirit world. In the healing rituals the shaman will ‘enter the body’ of the patient to confron and banish the spirit responsible. Incense and aromatic plants are often burned as tools of transformation to help transport the minds of the participants to another dimension – the origins of modern aromatherapy.
Spells, incantations, amulets and ritual dances are used or performed to dispel or placate the spirits
thought to responsible for the patient’s ill health.
In his or her healing work a shaman can bring about transformation of the energy and experience of thepatient. Loss of vital energy from stress, trauma, illness or accidents can cause what is known as ‘soul loss’, and this is remedied by ‘soul retrieval’, where the energy and part of the patient’s life that has been traumatised is returned and healed. Loss of power caused by stress, pressure, abusive relationships and lack of love and support leading to low self-esteem can be remedied via the shaman’s connection to the patient’s power animal, and re-empowering the patient’s power through their own relationship to their power animal to make changes in their lives. Plant spirit medicine, in which the shaman calls on the healing spirit of a plant to help the patient, often forms part of the healing approach. Plant spirits can be summoned by songs. Totem items such as rocks with special powers are also used.