The History of Plants and Herbs in Medicine and Spirituality

August 02, 2018 0 Comments

The History of Plants and Herbs in Medicine and Spirituality

By Mallory Ditchey


Most, if not all world cultures, both historical and modern, have performed rituals using plants and herbs for religious, spiritual, or medicinal purposes. While many may think of “ritual” in terms of religion and spirituality, rituals can come in many forms. In fact, the line between religion, spirituality, and medicine is much more vague than many realize. Physical disorders often arise as a result of psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which can be deeply spiritual. While still relatively obscure, Ayahuasca, or yage, which is a traditional spiritual medicine used in ceremonies by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin, is becoming an alternative treatment for addiction or overcoming psychological trauma. To write about every form of herbal rituals practiced throughout the ages across the world would be a monumental task, so here are just a few examples of the plants and herbs that humans have used to treat their physical and spiritual ailments.


Ancient Egyptian Ritual and Healing:

The Ancient Egyptians used a combination of magical rituals and plant-based healing to cure ailments, some of which are still in use today. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is one of the most complete texts that details Egyptian medicine. The Egyptians used remedies like castor oil, honey, palm, onion, cannabis, and incense. We know of over 160 different plants and herbs used by the Egyptians as part of their medical repertoire. 


Ancient European Plant Rituals:

The Ancient Europeans relied heavily on plant-based healing and spirituality as part of their medicine and religious practice, which were deeply interconnected. Punishments for disrespecting or harming sacred plants were severe, and offenders could even be put to death. The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), which grows around the Mediterranean, was used as an anesthetic. By the Middle Ages, the mandrake was also considered a magical plant. Soldiers would wear mandrake as amulets to gain an edge in war, while.civilians used it to bring wealth. German soldiers wore mandrake amulets even up through the Second World War.


Indian Herbal Medicine:

Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Indian or South Asian medicine, is one of the world’s oldest medical systems, and it is still one of the foundational aspects of medicine in India, supported both by local practitioners and by government-funded research. Ayurvedic medicine has been studied and practiced for over 3,000 years, and has a rich history full of ancient and modern wisdom. Among hundreds of Ayurvedic herbs, some popularly used plants are camphor, mint, turmeric, lemongrass, white lotus, rose, henna, chia, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, saffron, and castor. Turmeric, for instance, is found in many Indian foods, and is well known for its anti-bacterial properties.


Use of Natural Remedies in Modern Western Medicine:

Modern Western medicine relies heavily on the use of treatments derived from herbs, plants, and other natural sources. For instance, aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, which is used as a mild pain reliever, fever reducer, and heart medication, is derived from willow bark, and its use goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. Additionally, Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician who lived in the 5th century BCE, wrote extensively about the drug we now know as aspirin. Lithium, which has been used to treat depression, mania, and bipolar disorder since the 19th century, is derived from igneous rocks and chloride salts. (Fun fact: Lithium used to be an ingredient in 7 Up, just like cocaine was a component of Coca-Cola.)

The medicinal properties of cannabis have gradually begun gaining acceptance throughout the medical community in the United States as more and more states are decriminalizing, or altogether legalizing the use of marijuana


Ritual Use of Sage:

salvia apiana white sage

Salvia Apiana, commonly known as white sage

Sage, which refers to any plant under the umbrella of the Salvia genus, has been used ritually by many world cultures. Its ritual use is most commonly known in the context of the practices of indigenous peoples in the Americas, both in the Southwest of North America and in the Amazon region, which involves burning sacred herbs, such as white sage, for spiritual cleansing and blessing. Smudging ceremonies may also incorporate the burning of cedar or sweetgrass in addition to or in lieu of white sage.

Though white sage is the herb most commonly used for Native American smudging ceremonies, Salvia officinalis, otherwise known as “common sage” or “garden sage,” originated in the Mediterranean region and was known even in Classical antiquity as a means of warding off evil and illness. At varying times, sage was used as a panacea for a whole range of illnesses. In fact, the Latin word for sage is “salvia,” which comes from the verb salvere, “to heal,” in acknowledgement of its cleansing and healing properties. Sage was considered a necessary component of any medicinal practice in the European Middle Ages. Chinese herbal medicine also uses the deep roots of the Chinese sage plant, or Salvia miltiorrhiza.

Smudging is also a popular component of many Wiccan and traditional Northern European pagan ceremonies. Celtic Druids both in ancient and modern times ritually burn sage to consecrate ritual spaces and absorb and expel bad energy, and as a means of protection.  Its ubiquity as a healing plant across many regions of the world over thousands of years speaks to our common world heritage and the knowledge we’ve long had of sage’s medicinal and apotropaic power.



 Incense burning in a censer

Incense is used both spirituality, or simply to create a more peaceful, pleasant environment to facilitate prayer. Using incense for spiritual purposes is common to many cultures throughout the world. For example, several sects of Christianity and Catholicism use incense during their prayer services. These incenses, which are often resins from plants, are typically burned in a vessel called a censer, and the use of incense is mentioned through the Hebrew and Christian Bibles over a hundred times. In Judaism, aromatic herbs are burned during the havdala ritual, which occurs at the end of Shabbat. Use of incense in ritual is central to Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Hindu ceremonies.


Common plants and herbs that you may find in new age or occult shops:



Lavender: Lavandula (commonly known as lavender) is a plant used for many purposes, primarily as an essential oil. Lavender is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, giving it many medical uses, and is used for aromatherapy to soothe the mind and relieve headaches and migraines. The Ancient Greeks, who called the plant nardos, used lavender as a holy herb, and the Romans used it as medicine. 




Sweetgrass: Hierochloe odorota, or sweetgrass, is an aromatic grass that has been considered holy in many world religions. “Hierochloe” is a portmanteau of a Greek and a Latin word, meaning “holy grass.” Indigenous peoples from many nations in the Americas consider it to be a sacred medicine. In Northern Europe, sweetgrass was strewn in front of church doors on saints’ days to create a pleasant odor in the church.



Cedar: Cedar is an important Indigenous American ceremonial plant, used as incense and for purification. Species of cedar grow in many places in the world, and have been part of religious and spiritual traditions in many cultures, often considered holy. For example, in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu earn the ire of the demon Humbaba for cutting down trees in his sacred cedar forest. 



Juniper: Juniper has had countless uses in medicine and ritual across the world, both in ancient and modern times. The Navajo have used juniper to treat diabetes. In Renaissance-era Northern Europe, ripened juniper berries were used as treatments for asthma, sciatica, and during childbirth. Polytheistic Gaelic and Scottish rites often involved the burning of juniper, a practice called saining, to cleanse and protect the household. Juniper is an antioxidant with antimicrobial and antiseptic properties.



Rose: Over time, roses have been used as perfume, medicine, and decoration. They have at times been extremely valuable and expensive. Most modern roses are descended from Chinese breeds that were brought to Europe in the late 18th century. In the modern Western world, roses are strongly associated with love, sex, and romance. 




Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus is indigenous to Australia, and has been used for centuries medicinally to heal lung ailments. It is a vital component of aromatic ritual, because it has powerful stress-relieving effects which can calm the mind, ward off interpersonal conflicts, and encourage restful sleep.  




Clover: In traditional Irish Catholic folklore, the clover is a holy symbol associated with the Trinity. The rare four-leaf clover brings luck. According to Irish legend, in Ancient Celtic religion, druids used clovers to escape evil spirits and heal the sick.


Mugwort: Mugwort is used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditional medicine, as well as South Asian Ayurvedic medicine. It has been thought to alleviate feelings of unease and fatigue for many centuries all over the world, both emotionally and physically. In ancient Rome, soldiers would place mugwort in their sandals to prevent their feet from getting tired. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, mugwort was used to ward against evil spirits. Mugwort is known today for its anti-parasitic and antiviral properties.
yerba santa
Yerba Santa: Yerba santa has historically been used by Indigenous Californian tribes as a remedy for respiratory illnesses like asthma, or for allergies that affect the sinuses. In the late 19th and early 20th century, yerba santa was used as a natural remedy for consumptives suffering from tuberculosis. It also has a vital role to play as medicine for our natural environment; yerba santa has adapted to survive California's seasonal wildfires, and is used to revegetate land that has been harmed either by natural forces, or by man-made ecological problems, like the over-cultivation of farmland.
palo santo
Palo Santo: Bursera graveolens, known commonly as palo santo, is a tree native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. In Spanish, “palo santo” means “holy wood,” in recognition of its powerful mystical properties. Palo Santo was used for ritual purposes by the Inca, and by the Manta tribe in Ecuador. For millennia, palo santo has been used to ward off bad energy, negative thoughts, and evil spirits. 
Mallory Ditchey is a Yale and Columbia educated scholar, a college prep and at-risk-youth tutor in the Los Angeles area, and a total punk rocker.


Read more on astrology, horoscopes, occultism, magick & ritual on our blog, Esoteric Insights!


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