“Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination.” -Irish triad (9th century)
The Roman, Pliny speaks of “Druids and this race of prophets and doctors.” The use of practical as well as magical herbal healing abilities is commonly mentioned in historical reference to the ancient Druids and even the subsequent witches that followed in the Indo-European community. Fulfilling all the roles today that are given to a multitude of people, of doctor, psychologist, judge, teacher, artist, it nearly goes with saying that they must have had a rich knowledge in herbs and their capacity to heal.
The use of healing herbal skills are mentioned in mythology as well. When the Irish King Nuada lost his arm in battle, his healer Dian Cecht fashioned a new one for him out of silver. However, his son Miach was more skilled and made Nuada one of real flesh allowing him to reclaim his thrown as king. Dian was jealous with rage and struck Miach three times but each time he healed himself. Finally, he killed him striking his head a fourth time. On Miach’s grave, 365 herbs grew that could heal every part of the body. These herbs were gathered by his sister Airmid and she classified them according to their function. Unfortunately, her father saw this and still enraged, snatched her cloak and scattered them to the wind so that their function and properties would be unknown to man. In the Welsh tale of Blodeuwedd “flower face”, the Druid Gwydion creates a woman out of flowers and she becomes the wife of Lleu.
Aside from cultivating indigenous medicine, the Celts were skilled at using herbs to make colors to dye their clothing as well. The British Isles and Ireland became renowned for their apt skills in dying clothing, the large array of colors, the quality as well as the great length of time the color lasted. There is scant a person who hasn’t heard of the use of an herbal woad mixture that warriors would use to paint swirls and animals across their body.
“Caithbaid, an Irish historian, speaks of the Druid Trosdan who discovered an antidote for poisoned arrows, and there are many instances on record of the medicinal triumphs of the Druids. They were more anxious, however, to prevent diseases than to cure them, and issues many maxims relating to the care of the body, as wise as those which appertained to the soul were divine. Of these I will give you one which should be written in letters of Gold. Bi gu sumach geanmnaidh moocher’ each. Cheerfulness, temperance and early rising.” -William Winwood Reade (British, 18th century)
“A last the day came to its core. “Let us cease now”, said Ferdia. CuChulainn agreed. Each then threw his arms to his charioteer, and the friends embraced and kissed each other three times, and went to their rest… the heroes sent each other food and drink and healing herbs for their wounds.” -The Tale of CuChulainn (12th century)
“Similar to savin is the plant called selago. It is gathered without using iron and by passing the right and through the left sleeve of the tunic as though in the act of committing a theft. The clothing must be white, the feet washed and bare, and an offering of wine and bread made before the gathering. The Druids of Gaul say that the plant should be carried as a charm against every kind of evil, and that the smoke of it is good for diseases of the eye. (104) The Druids, also, use a certain marsh-plant that they call samolus, this must be gathered with the left hand, when fasting, and is a charm against the diseases of cattle. But the gatherer must not look behind him, nor lay the plant anywhere except in the drinking-troughs.” -Pliny the Elder (Roman, 23 – 79 CE)
As modern Druids, we strive to maintain a close relationship to nature, especially in regards to the healing process. We stay close to nature to be soothed, not just mentally but physically and chemically by way of the food, nutrients and supplements we take. Herbalism is medicine, plain and simple. All present day medicine is a derivative of some herb or chemical found somewhere in nature or a mix thereof. I whole heartedly believe in modern day medicine and our increased life expectancies are proof of all that our incredible scientists, doctors and medical professionals have accomplished to the benefit of humanity. Within that appreciation is an imbedded equal reverence for the natural stripped down healing powers of nature and the very unique and specific chemicals that are capable of healing our bodies and certain ailments using a safer and preventative methodology. Regulated medications are very powerful tools but can sometimes lead to a cascade of unwanted side effects. Careful legal studies regarding medication need to exhibit that the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Basic herbs are not regulated, mostly because they are considered food but also they are generally thought to be safe when taken in appropriate servings and do not have many serious life threatening side effects. The key phrases here are, when taken in appropriate servings and not exhibiting many serious effects. However, like any food or chemical, the threat of some negative reaction is still absolutely there. We should be incredibly careful, research using the advice and knowledge of experienced practitioners and make sure whatever we’re taking is not going to cause an adverse reaction with regular medication or current health diagnosis. Even then, we should err on the side of caution. For example, carrot seed oil should not be taken when trying to get pregnant and can cause pregnant women to bleed. Lavender and tea tree oil can mimic female hormones and disrupt the development in young boys, even to the extent of causing some to develop breasts. Researchers have studied many herbs, but others still need to be studied more.
The notion that “snake oil” is prevalent in the holistic lifestyle industry should be a genuine concern for all and many studies have come forth proving this to be true. With herbs and many other products being unregulated, many times, herb manufacturers are known to put fillers in their products. They may be mostly harmless fillers, but they’re fillers nonetheless. Overall, I view herbs as something in addition to or as a compliment to the advice of our doctors. Modern medicine too often has a one size fits all solution which undoubtedly can lead to needless interventions. As Druids we often aim to find the root of our problems, heal the body naturally and safely over time with preventative measures, as well as treat the symptoms as they arise. Natural herbs are used to treat everything from a head ache to heart issues and everything in between. They usually come in whole leaf, chopped leaf, drops, pill form or as an essential oil. At worst, if an herb is completely inefficient chemically but safe, the simple act of using something natural to aid in our healing gives mental comfort and arguably a placebo effect to many, albeit possibly an expensive one. The mind is again, arguably our most powerful tool in the healing process. You will find that many Druids are gardeners or herbalists.
Listed in order from beginner to advanced…
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health- Information on herbs and current ongoing and relevant studies regarding herbs and their efficiency.
The Natural Ingredient Resource Center- Information regarding the importance and quality and genuine natural ingredients and what exactly constitutes something being deemed “natural”.
American Herbalists Guild, An Association of Herbal Practitioners- A non-profit, educational organization to represent the goals and voices of herbalists specializing in the medicinal use of plants.
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.