Herbal mythology is a facet of nearly every ancient civilization. The lotus, a symbol of irrepressible fertility, is revered in both Egyptian and Oriental cultures. The onion was not only a favorite food and medicinal plant of the Egyptians, but also out pictured their belief in the universe’s multi-layered structure. The remarkable Egyptian pharmacy included some of today’s most renowned herbs: myrrh, aloe, peppermint, garlic and castor oil.
In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, the twelve primary gods each had favorite plants. These plants, living connections to the realms above, were used as symbols of the gods in literature and art. Less elevated herbs such as parsley, thyme and fennel were nevertheless employed for increased health and longevity.
Ancient Arabian doctors are credited as the founders of medieval alchemy–one of the most famous ancient mystical traditions. Their attempt to penetrate the inner workings of nature through experimentation with both plants and minerals has captured the imaginations of poets and playwrights for centuries.
Healing plants are also featured extensively in the Bible. The aphrodisiacal mandrake is mentioned in both Genesis (used by Rachel to gain the affections of Jacob) and in the allegorical poetry of the Song of Solomon. Of course, the most famous of all Biblical herbs are two of the Magi’s gifts to the baby Jesus: frankincense and myrrh. In addition, a treasure trove of herbal mythology with both pagan and Christian roots exists in connection with the legendary Celts.
In the melting pot of the early Americas, exotic herbal traditions included the herbal remedies of the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations, the herbs of the African black slaves and the many American Indian herbal rituals.
The journey from the supernatural to the scientific is recorded in the earliest written texts of the Chinese, Indian and European peoples. The ancient herbal mythologies live on in the beliefs of the majority of the world’s populations who still rely on healing herbs. With modern science’s confirmation of these ancient beliefs, herbs are now emerging as exciting potential cures for today’s deadly diseases.