Astrology and Health
herbs and symbolism
Herbs and Symbolism: part 1 | part 2 | The Vital Force
To the ancients there was far more to a plant than simply the tangible flowers, leaves and roots
that could be seen, smelt and used. The plant would carry a whole
series of associations with mythology and mysteries that would be immediately
understood by all. Today we have lost much of this understanding. There
is immense importance in rediscovering the symbolism behind plants...
The rational mind feels awkward about herbal lore, preferring to dismiss it as romantic nonsense and superstition.
Yet, the sheer volume of lore attached to many plants makes it hard to
discard with such an unquestioning attitude. The bulk of these ideas and
associations have evolved in earlier centuries, when the worldview was
radically different from today. If sense is to be made of herbal lore, each plant must be considered in the way it was formerly perceived.
Learned minds of earlier centuries were trained to see life symbolically; everything in the physical world was seen as an expression of a subtler immaterial realm. This immaterial realm was perceived using the imagination, thus when you see the word Sun, an image of the heavenly body is formed in the mind.
To the symbolic mind, this subtle mental image of the sun is just as important
as the heavenly body in the sky, the two being perceived in parallel relationship.
Herbs too, were thus perceived as embodying a subtle, immaterial life-force
called the virtue. By looking at the physical form of the plant and its
habitat, it is possible to visualize the nature of its inner virtue.
By understanding how this
was done, many of the customs, rituals, medicinal uses and mythological
associations of plants become obvious. The bay tree (Laurus nobilis)
is a particularly good example of a tree that has accumulated a rich variety
of customs and folklore through the centuries. It is customary to fête
great artists and heroes by placing a wreath of laurel on their heads –
a practice that has continued from Roman times to the present day. Why
is it important to use the laurel and not some other tree? Additionally,
it is also said in folklore that to plant a bay tree next to the house brings
good luck, while to cut one down brings misfortune. How have these ideas
become associated with the tree?
The English herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) provides a clue to understanding these enigmas when he describes the bay in his herbal, The English Physitian,
as ...a tree of the Sun, and under the
celestial sign Leo1
Since Egyptian times, planets
have been used to symbolize the inner virtues of plants. However, many
people today from reading Culpeper's herbal erroneously believe that he
was the person responsible for connecting planets to plants.
wrote his herbal in response to the contemporary herbals of Gerard and
Parkinson, which omitted the principles behind the practice of physic [the
art of making medicines from plants]. As Culpeper himself explains
in the Epistle to the Reader that prefaces his work:
What need have
I written on this Subject, seeing so many and famous men have written so
much in the English Tongue, much more than I have done? To this I answer
neither Gerard nor Parkinson, or any that ever wrote in a like nature,
ever gave one wise reason for what they wrote, and so did nothing else
but train up young novices in Physic in the School of Tradition, and teach
them just as a parrot is taught to speak;... But in mine if you view it
with the eye of reason, you shall see a reason for everything that is written,
whereby you may find the very ground and foundation of Physic.2
included the planetary rulers of herbs in his herbal because he saw the
astrological symbolism as explaining the medicinal uses of herbs.
It is fortunate for us that Culpeper did illustrate this knowledge in his
extensive writings, otherwise it might have become entirely lost.
Returning to the bay tree,
its connection to the Sun is traceable to classical times where the tree
was sacred to Apollo, the solar deity of the Roman pantheon.3
The solar nature of the tree is apparent from the leaves, for when a good
sunlight illuminates them, they shine with a golden lustre. Gold
is the colour and metal traditionally connected to the sun. Thus, the tree
was visualized as embodying this solar virtue.
Additionally the tree is
evergreen, so these golden-green leaves, which last the year round, symbolically
reflect the eternal light of the sun. It is known in the ancient
temple dedicated to Apollo in Delphi, that the high priestesses or pythia
started their ceremonies by burning bay leaves as incense.4
When the bay leaves were burnt, the released Solar virtue invoked the presence of the god Apollo. Once his presence was felt the pythia went into a trance, communicating inspired messages to all that had come to the temple to inquire of the oracle. Furthermore it was noted that the principal pythia actually ate the bay leaves and was specifically fumigated before officiating at the ceremony.5
The Sun also traditionally
symbolizes the soul. Just as the planets revolve around the Sun,
so too the soul can be visualized as the inner sun, the light at the centre
of one's being. The Sun therefore symbolizes the inner unfoldment and illumination
that distinguishes great men and women from the general populace.
This inner illumination gives depth of vision to an artist or poet, whose
work outshines their contemporaries. The same Inner Light dispels the darkness
of fear and allows the hero to act courageously achieving goals that lesser
mortals would shun. Indeed, the word courage is derived from the Latin
cor, cordis meaning heart, the part of the body in medieval physiology that was ruled by the sun.
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