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Since the beginning in ancient times of India, China, Egypt, and Assyria dating as far back as the year 2700 B.C. , and in the struggle to achieve mastery over the forces of nature, people have always turned to plants for help - for food - shelter - clothing - weapons - and healing. Plants provide all these and something more: an astounding display of energy in their growth and seasonal rebirth. No wonder then, that plants have been invested with magical powers. No wonder that many myths attribute to plants an intimate relationship with our daily lives and with our destinies.

Hippocrates may be known today as the father of medicine, but for centuries pride of place in medieval Europe was given to Galen, a 2nd century physician, who wrote extensively about the four "humours" - blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile - and classified herbs by their essential qualities: as hot or cold, dry or damp.

These theories were later expanded by 7th century Arab physicians such as Avicenna, and today Gelenical theories continue to dominate Unani medicine, practiced by the Muslim world and India. Galen's descriptions of herbs as, for example, "hot in the the third degree" or "cold in the second" were still being used well into the 18th century.

Ancient Civilisations

Herbs in Papyri:

Surviving Egyptian papyri dating back to around 1700 BC record that many common herbs, such as garlic and juniper, have been used medicinally for aroun 4,000 years. In the days of Ramesses III, hemp was used for eye problems just as it may be prescribed for glaucoma today, while poppy extracts were used to quieten crying children.

The Greek Contribution:

By the time of Hippocrates (468-377 BC), European herbal tradition had already absorbed ideas from Assyria and India, with Eastern herbs such as basil and ginger among the most highly prized, and the complex theory of humours and essential body fluids had begun to be formulated.

Hippocrates categorised all foods and herbs by fundamental quality - hot, cold, dry or damp - and good health was maintained by keeping them in balance, as well as taking plenty of exercise and fresh air.


Pedanius Dioscorides wrote his classic text De Materia Medica in around 60 AD, and this remained the standard textbook for 1,500 years. Dioscorides was reputed to have been either the physician to Antony and Cleopatra or, more prosaically, an army surgeon during the reign of the Emperor Nero.

Many of the actions of Dioscorides describes are familiar today: parsley as a diuretic; fennel to promote milk flow; white horehound mixed with honey as an expectorant.

Roman Remedies:

The Greek theories of medicine reached Rome around 100 BC. As time passed, they bacame more mechanistic, presenting a view of the body as a machine to be actively repaired, rather than following the Hippocratic dictum of allowing most diseases to cure themselves. Medicine became a lucrative business with complex, highly priced herbal remedies.

Opposing this practice was Claudius Galenus (131-199 AD) , who was born in Pergamon in Asia Minor and was a court physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen reworked many of the old Hippocratic ideas and formalised the theories of humours. His books soon became the standard medical texts not only of Rome, but also of later Arab and medieval physicians, and his theories still survive in Unani medicine today.

Islamic Influences:

The Arab World: With the fall of Tome in the 5th century, the centre of Classical learning shifted East and the study of Galenical medicine was focused in Constantinople and Persia. Galenism was adopted with enthusiasm by the Arabs, and merged with both folk beliefs and surviving Egyptian learning. It was this mixture of herbal ideas, practice and traditions that was re-imported into Europe with the invading Arab armies.

Probably the most important work of the time was the Kitab al Qanun, or Canon of Medicine, by Avicenna. This was based firmly on Galenical principles and by the 12th century had been translated into Latin and imported back into the West to become on of the leading textbooks in Western medical schools.

The Galenical Table:


People in Herbal History

Herbs And Spices

Herbal Myths