Ancient Knowledge – How Our Foremothers Practiced Medicine with Herbs
From the earliest times, and in all cultures, women have played the role of healer in their communities.1 Often underappreciated, and universally underrecognized in modern times, women have quietly altered the course of human history as they faithfully tended to the health needs of their tribes and villages. This blog post is dedicated to our talented, hardworking foremothers who explored their environments for medicinal plants, tested and created recipes for medicines, and who freely shared their life-giving knowledge with the world.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Thy Food – Hippocrates
It’s a controversial idea, but we can perhaps attribute this famous Hippocratic belief to the women who founded and developed the medical culture into which Hippocrates and his peers stepped. While Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine, he really came in pretty late in the game. The practice of herbal medicine, the primary type of medicine practiced in every society until very recently, dates as far back as 60,000 years.2 Even with its decline in popularity, herbal medicine is still widely practiced, with approximately 40% of adults in the U.S. using complementary and alternative medicines such as herbal therapies, 70% of the Indian population still relying on Ayurveda as their primary health care.2
The most widely recognized herbal practices rise from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda of the Indian subcontinent, and Persian or Greco-Arabic medicinal practice, which eventually gave way to modernized Western healthcare.2 Each of these traditions champions the work of men, but today we’ll discuss how these men built medicinal empires on the hearths of women healers the world over.
Before Women Were Called Evil
Believe it or not, but there was a time in the ancient past of some cultures, that women were not reviled by their male counterparts. They were permitted to explore, develop and practice medicine, usually herbal medicine, unhindered by societal constraints. In fact, the oldest reports of female physicians date back to over 5000 years ago in Egypt and Greece.3 The female pharaoh Hatshepsut is a shining example of aristocracy championing women in medicine; she founded three medical institutions and several botanical gardens during her reign from 1503-1482 BCE. Plolydamna, a queen-physician of ancient Egypt, is thought to have trained Helen of Troy, who brought the healing arts of Egypt back home with her to ancient Greece.3 We know from archeological discoveries that in this time, even poor women with no formal education often acted as important healers in their communities.
The Rise of the Witch
Fast forward a few hundred years and women have come to be thought of as the seat of evil in the human race. By Medieval times, the profession of medicine lay in the hands of men and women were kept away from formal training, almost without exception. And, from the time of ancient Greece and even into the 19th century in Europe, classical, Greek philosophies about humors and biles dominated formal medical education, while women quietly worked with herbal medicines to treat their families and households.4 It was in this atmosphere of formally educated male physicians vs. informally educated female healers, that the hysteria of witchcraft swept across European culture.3
One may ask why, with the threat of witchcraft accusations, women continued to practice medicine at all. But, modern hospitals with doctors and trained support staff didn’t begin to appear in Europe until well into the 18th century, and women were culturally responsible for the health and wellbeing of their communities.4 The women of Medieval, or pre-industrial Europe were responsible for not only being good cooks, but also for being able to treat common ailments and injuries by producing and prescribing home-made medicines to the members of their households.4 Since it was a longstanding cultural expectation, and most women were not tried for witchcraft, the risks were probably relatively low for most women, though they existed nonetheless.
Tell Me More About Some Incredible Women Healers
Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of many of humanity’s greatest medical minds because they were women, many of them illiterate and with no formal education. Those who could write though, often kept precious, handwritten books of their recipes which they passed down from one generation to the next.4 These recipe collections don’t just include medicines, but also foods/meals, cleaning products, and cosmetics, with no particular order to differentiate them. This is because the ingredients were almost all viewed as medicinal in some way. Poultice recipes were written alongside lotions, soups alongside tonics, and cleaning products alongside laxatives.
Contrary to what we may think today, prominent, wealthy women of Europe were seen as important pharmacists and healers in the communities of Medieval Europe; they were responsible for caring for their villages by creating and prescribing herbal medicines. These women were largely responsible for the recipe collections that remain with us today. One such person of note was Lady Grace Mildmay, who left behind extensive writings detailing many complicated recipes for herbal medicines.4 Another incredible woman herbalist, and one of the most famous female healers/cooks/pharmacists in Europe, was Hannah Wooley, who published her now-famous cookbook/apothecary to great acclaim.4
Perhaps some of what these early apothecaries/surgeons/pharmacists prescribed was not always effective, such as Hanna Wooley’s prescription of a goose dung poultice to treat breast cancer, but most of their treatments were quite effective.4 In fact, many people preferred the care women healers to that of male physicians. The English philosophers Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes of the 16th century both preferred female healers, whom they believed to be more cheerful, effective, and gentle than formally trained male physicians who had a tendency to employ harsh treatments with such as bloodletting and toxic metals.4
Enough About White People Already
There seems to be more information about European female healers of the Medieval era through the Enlightenment because there’s more written documentation of what their role in society was and we have some of their recipe books. We do know though, that women were important healers in practically every culture around the world from the Amazon to the Great Plains, from China to India, and from Africa to Australia.1
In the Arabic world, a well-known physician named Rhazes is reputed to have learned much about his practice from women, and even to have admitted he was jealous of women healers. He apparently said they were often able to cure patients whom he had been unable to treat successfully.3 We don’t know the names of these healers who taught the famous Rhazes so much, but their legacy lives on in his words.
We know too, that in Native American tribes, women often had important roles in society, including that of healer/shaman. While these societies did not have written languages, much of their rich, oral history which has been painstakingly preserved by their descendants, gives us some idea of just how talented and dedicated they were and are.5 They were fortunate in that they were sheltered from much of the patriarchal/sexist fervor that swept through Europe and Asia in recent millennia.
Getting Your Healer On
While it may seem commonplace to add extra ginger and garlic to your soup for dinner when your family has a cold, or to give your child peppermint tea sweetened with honey to soothe an upset stomach, know that these actions are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. You, mother-partner-sister-daughter-friend, are standing on the shoulders of innumerable women who came before. You are using the power of herbal medicine to care for your tribe just as your foremothers did. We at Wholesome Story champion these acts as traditional, effective, and wholesome. We want to encourage every person, man or woman, to take part in the beautiful, age-old practice of herbal medicine.
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plants foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopath, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- R; S. The lived experience of Ojibwa and Cree Women Healers. Journal of holistic nursing : official journal of the American Holistic Nurses' Association. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11847813/. Published 2000. Accessed December 17, 2021.
- Pan S-Y, Litscher G, Gao S-H, et al. Historical perspective of traditional indigenous medical practices: The current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4020364/. Published 2014. Accessed December 17, 2021.
- Romm A, Winston D. Chapter 2 – history of herbal medicines for women: Semantic scholar. Clinical Gate. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/CHAPTER-2-%E2%80%93-History-of-Herbal-Medicines-for-Women-Romm-Winston/1a6b36a07a1caa93b5718ef2622641480fd5978d. Published January 1, 1970. Accessed December 17, 2021.
- Magazine S. Part of being a domestic goddess in 17th-century Europe was making medicines. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/part-being-domestic-goddess-17th-century-europe-was-making-medicines-180977080/. Published March 1, 2021. Accessed December 17, 2021.
- Alexander K. Native American Medicine. Legends of america. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-medicine/. Published 2021. Accessed December 17, 2021.