Friday, March 19, 2010

Folklife Fridays: Doctrine of Signatures

Anything posted here is for education and entertainment. I am not a doctor, just someone who loves folklore and learning about how people coped before modern medicine. You are entirely on your own if you want to experiment.

Those of you who have studied folk medicine will have heard about the Doctrine of Signatures. It is a philosophy that says the shape and colors of some plants look like the body parts that their medicinal properties could treat or cure.


For example, liverwort has liver-shaped leaves and is used for liver ailments.


Bloodroot, a beautiful green plant with white blossoms, has red roots that look like blood. Native Americans used the roots for blood related maladies, but internal use is discouraged now; it appears to be highly toxic.


Lungwort is so named because its spotted, oval leaves resemble diseased or ulcerated lungs. The list goes on and on.

One of the oldest known herbalists, Galen of Pergamun, used this philosophy during the 2nd and 3rd century.
The doctrine was widely spread in 1621 by the writings of Jakob Bohme, who suggested that God marked objects with a sign for this purpose.

Nicholas Culpepper, 1616-1654, in The Complete Herbal implies the doctrine to be common knowledge. This book is a standard among herbalists and has been reprinted many times. I have my own ragged copy; a gift from a special gardening friend.

This doctrine is found consistently in modern herbal lore.

The doctrine of signatures is thought to be mere superstition by modern medicine. Still, could all this be coincidental?



Another example of the doctrine of signatures is that dandelion blossoms are good for the kidneys, because they are yellow like urine. I tested this last year on a day my feet were swollen from retained fluid. Please see the disclaimer at the top before you try this.

I picked a handful of the blossoms, then soaked them in salt water so the tiny insects would come out. When clean, I covered them with a cup of boiling water and let it steep. When it was cool and the lemon-colored, I drank it. It was not too tasty, but not as bad as some things I have tried.

It worked. I was in the bathroom much more than usual, and the swelling in my feet disappeared.

It's a great day; the birds are singing a dirge to winter. Go for a walk in the woods, and see what you can find.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Genesis 2:8