Learn myths and history about herbs.

Herbal Gardening- Herbs: History and Myths

For millenia, herbs have been the center of a wide range of myths concerning their healing and curative powers.

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Certain herbs and other plants have been known to have useful properties - as seasonings or preservatives for food, medicines or simply for having a pleasurable odor - for thousands of years. Ancient knowledge, however, is often intertwined with ancient myths.

Tombs uncovered in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as old as 60,000 years held the remains of medicinal herbs preserved with the humans buried there. Over 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians had acquired an extensive catalog of plants (many of them herbs) that could be used as laxatives, for relief from headaches and as medicines for other ailments.

For example, thyme was used as far back as 3,000 BC in Sumaria as an antiseptic.

Coriander (the leaves of which are used to produce cilantro) has been used for 3,000 years or more. Hebrews used it to flavor meals. Roman soldiers brought it on campaigns to the region to use as a meat preservative.

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC - 377 BC) systematized much of what was known about herbs in his era and extended that knowledge by his own research and application. He used many herbs in his treatments of illnesses, believing that disease had natural causes.  This line of thought, by the way, was contrary to that of many of his contemporaries who held that it illness was inflicted by gods. Hippocrates used parsley to treat rheumatism and relieve kidney pain. Tarragon was used to treat toothaches.

In both the Greek and Roman worlds, basil was a commonly used herb. Chives were used by ancient Romans to relieve sore throats. Oregano, however, was simply believed to be a favorite of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

Myth lay alongside science.

During the Middle Ages, after a nearly thousand year lull, knowledge of botanicals, including herbs and their uses, again began to accumulate and expand. Much of the base of the medieval age's valid knowledge had been preserved in, and was now imported from Arabic cultures.

Myths still persisted, however.

Dill was believed to have magical powers. Rosemary was thought to be able to ward off plague. Sage was used in an attempt to treat epilepsy.

Some of this has come down to us in the song, "Scarborough Fair".  Many believe the refrain, "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" refers to these beliefs and in some way relate to the plague, although research tends to indicate that it is simply the result of someone's attempt to create a rhyme and has nothing to do with the years of the plague at all.

All the while, while Europe was having its intellectual, and medical, ups and downs, Chinese and Indian herbalists in the east were busy all the while, accumulating their own storehouse of information about the helpful qualities of certain herbs. Ginseng is just one of the better known examples of their research.

The Renaissance (meaning "rebirth") was, in essence, the rebirth of a Greek style of science depending upon observation and validation by experimentation. Though, if truth be told, even the Greeks weren't entirely consistent in that approach. During the 16th and 17th centuries, knowledge of the beneficial effects of certain herbs grew by leaps and bounds in the western world. Nicholas Culpeper (1616 - 1664), an English botanist, herbalist, and physician, published an herbal compendium in 1652 that listed an extensive array of herbal remedies known in Great Britain at that time.

Though science began to depend increasingly more on artificial chemistry beginning in the 19th century, there is still today a thriving practice of attempting to analyze what is helpful in herbs. These compounds, found in their natural setting, often carry additional substances that are missing in purely synthesized products.  There are many practitioners of herbology who promote the curative and medicinal power of herbs, in addition to their many uses in cooking.

The mixture of valid knowledge and superstition concerning herbs remains with us to some degree today. The belief that herbal medicines can cure disease is in many cases a combination of verified observations and medieval hokum. Observation shows that some herbs do work on some conditions, while the causes for their efficacy are often based on invented myths and unfounded speculation.

This has not been improved by the totally unfounded claims of many seeking to sell their products to those in search of "natural" cures to many very real diseases and conditions.

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Page Updated 3:42 PM Saturday 6/28/2014