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Herbal Healing for Womenby Rosemary Gladstar
An Introduction to Herbalism
If it is the greatest and highest that you seek, the plant can direct you. Strive to become through your will what, without will, it is.
Honoring the Widows of Our Ancestors
In every culture throughout the world you will find a great body of folklore concerning the indigenous plants of that region and the wise women who used them. For thousands of years women collected plants from meadows and woodlands and used them to create healing medicines. They gathered herbs by the waning and waxing of the moon, artfully created preparations, and developed herbal formulas. Through an intuitive communication with the plants, women learned the healing powers of these green allies. Their wisdom developed over countless years as remedies were tried, proven, and passed on. The best of these remedies were added to the lore, and the wisdom was transferred from mother to daughter, from wise woman to apprentice for countless generations. This is the legacy we have inherited. Healers, wise women, simplers — these women were the center and source of medicine and healing for their communities. They understood the cycles of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the universe, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the natural rhythms of their bodies.
Herbalism, rooted in the earth and honored as a woman's healing art, survived the natural catastrophes of time. It wasn't until the fourteenth century; when a wave of witch-hunts began in Europe, that herbalism encountered its first great obstacle. The quiet influence of the wise women — their inner power and their healing skills — began to be feared by the largely patriarchal Roman Catholic Church, and for the next three hundred years women were burned at the stake and tortured to death simply for being healers. Just being a woman during these times was dangerous; using herbs was a sure invitation to be persecuted. Thousands of women were killed in Europe during the height of the witch-hunts.
In spite of recurrent waves of repression, herbalism flourished right up until the dawning of the twentieth century, when it encountered its second great challenge. With the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of technology, a new tradition of medicine emerged, and herbalism's popularity began to wane. Through the influence of Newton and Descartes, Western culture entered a period wherein people believed they could understand and control nature by dissecting and quantifying it. The science of medicine was going to replace the art of healing. In the space of a century, allopathic or modern, Western technological medicine established itself as the number-one medical system in the Western world. Though it offered a remarkable technological and "heroic," or emergency-oriented, medicine, its monopoly on health care posed a serious problem: no one system of medicine could answer the needs of all people or every health situation. As a result, in spite of the technology and resources offered by allopathic medicine, we gradually became less healthy and — not unrelatedly — more disconnected from our feminine sources of healing.
For almost a century, the practice of herbalism, viewed as antiquated and outdated by the scientific community, became illegal in the United States. Women forgot the art of gathering plants and making their own medicines. Saddest of all, women lost both the knowledge and the initiative to heal themselves. We became totally dependent on doctors and doctors' "orders." No longer in touch with our own healing power, we came to rely on external sources for answers to our deeply personal health problems. A particularly insidious aspect of this situation was the way we began to downgrade and disregard our own intuitive powers. My grandmother used to tell me "tools not used are tools abused" — all too often, they also became "tools we lose." Out of neglect, we began to forget the inherent gifts of the Wise Woman, a tradition of healing that relies on the remarkable feminine powers of intuition, ancient wisdom, and herbal knowledge.
But the wheels of change are turning again. Dissatisfaction with Western medicine, coupled with a herbal renaissance in America, is reawakening the healing instincts that have lain dormant for so long. Women are rediscovering their relationship with medicinal plants and the satisfactions of healing.
Many women begin their herbal studies unsuspectingly in the safety of their gardens. They plant their herb gardens simply because gardens are enchanting and beautiful, full of life and spirit. Then something inexplicable begins to happen. As the women quietly weed, water, and work within the garden, the plants seem to instruct, teach, and guide them. Often, in spite of themselves, women develop a strong curiosity about the healing energies of the plants they're growing and, before they know it, they are reading medicinal herb books, signing up for classes, and treating their families with simple remedies when all they thought they wanted to do was grow some tasty culinaries.
For other women the path to discovering herbs is through their own illnesses. Though allopathic medicine offers an exceptional crisis- and emergency-oriented medicine, it does not offer women with recurring feminine health problems long-term solutions or remedies. Nor does Western medicine address the cause of these imbalances. Frequently problems treated with allopathic chemical drugs recur soon after the effects of the drugs wear off. Women are discovering that herbs offer a sane, safe, and effective alternative and/or complement to allopathic medication.
Some women simply seem to "remember" something deep within them — their age-old herbal legacy. They first remembered it as children, playing in the fields. For long periods, perhaps, they forgot what they knew, but it was there nonetheless, ready to be rekindled by a special memory or circumstance. Because the knowledge of plants is an old knowledge and easily accessible, some women simply "remember" how to find it buried in the fertile soil of their hearts.
Herbalism is definitely flourishing today. Women are once more growing, gathering, and making their medicines. They are again cultivating their ancient healing traditions. Going back into the closets of our grandmothers to see what jewels of wisdom rest there, we are unearthing our heritage. Working with herbs, digging in the earth, making herbal preparations, and using them for health and healing is the best way possible to reestablish our connection to our Wise Woman tradition.
I had the good fortune to grow up with a woman who never forgot that tradition. My grandmother Mary was born in Armenia and came to this country during the Turkish invasion of her country. She and my grandfather escaped the death march and the almost complete annihilation of the Armenian people. She always credited the plants and her belief in God with saving her, and she passed her beliefs on to her children and grandchildren. We were instructed at an early age which plants were good for food and which for illnesses. Her teachings were without fuss, strong and powerful like herself. The lore she taught me in the garden of my childhood has stayed with me throughout my life.
A magical, intangible process, healing is an art, not a science. The same treatment regimen used on different patients for the same illness can sometimes cure, sometimes have no effect, and sometimes exacerbate a problem. If we are to heal the many levels of imbalance in the female world today we must make some overall changes in our attitudes and beliefs. We must first and foremost remember and accept that for countless generations we carried the wisdom and the magic of healing within ourselves. And we must find a way to reconnect with that ancient place of wisdom and power.
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