Flowers, folklore and folk-medicine

Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old –
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you –
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars –
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in a division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) –
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead –
Most of their teaching was quite untrue –
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door –
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore –
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

If it be certain, as Galen says –
And sage Hippocrates holds as much –
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

Rudyard Kipling


Yes, there were some dreadful examples of medicine in days long ago, yet there were also many examples of folk-medicine that did work and that we use today.

For example research in biomedical Egyptology shows that many were effective and that some 67% of the cures recorded in various papyri complied with the 1973 Edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex. They used honey, a natural antibiotic, to dress wounds and treat throat irritations, for instance, and aloe vera was used to treat blisters, burns, ulcers and skin diseases. They also used mouldy bread to treat infections; one of the moulds that grows on bread is penicillin!

There are many more examples of cures that worked and the active ingredients are used in modern medicine. Indeed, there is a branch of science called ethnobotany or ethnopharmacology that studies folk-medicines with the hope of finding new and active ingredients to treat the plethora of diseases still suffered by humanity.

Regardless of whether they worked or not, reading and researching about the uses of plants and other materials in folk medicine as well as the theories our fathers of old had about illness is something that I find fascinating, when I have the time to dig and delve into it. I find lots of interesting tales about where the names of plants come from, so I learn more about etymology, history, folklore, legend and myth. I get to look at photographs and illustrations of the plants used, so widening my knowledge and experience of art and so inspiring me to create my own. One day, the tales may even help to inspire me to do my own creative writing, maybe poetry, about all the wonderful lore that surrounds our most familiar plants, crystals, rocks, horseshoes, and so on.

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