Geoffrey Soma - Herbalist 'Notes From Beyond The Veil' June 2007
Notes From Beyond the Veil
Every month Herbal Haven asks the shade of a well-known herbalist to, briefly, drift back from those Elysian fields, to discuss herbs of particular interest at this time of year. This month we are proud to welcome back the noblest of the centaurs, Chiron. Born of Kronos he was of the old gods, long before Zeus came and took over the whole show. Famed for teaching Heracles, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) and Achilles in the arts of war, wrestling, poetry music and song – all that an accomplished Greek warrior was expected to know – he was also a renowned healer. Not so well known is that Chiron also taught Asklepios all he knew of the healing arts. These days Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans) is known as the God, or father, of Medicine but we Herbal Haveners like to go the source. Chiron lived a full and eventful life and incidentally was a dab hand on the golden harp. Sadly, wounded by his old mate Heracles with an incurable poison, Chiron took a short trip over the Styx to the land of the dead, Hades, whereupon Zeus decided to honour him by placing him amongst the stars where we can see him today as the constellation Sagittarius. Well, here at Herbal Haven we have long had interstellar capabilities and I see our space shuttle is now landing on the fields behind the poly tunnels and yes, Chiron himself is now stepping down the gangway. So without further ado take it away Chiron!
Hmm… well that was fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve trod this earth. Feels good I have to say. Of course I’d never have left except that drunken lout Al couldn’t keep his hands off the wine. Even stuff that wasn’t his. Don’t get me wrong Alcides and I were old mates but he never knew when to stop. ‘Must have limits’ I used to say to him but he could have been the god of excess for all he listened. Knew a herbalist just like him once. Al was later called Heracles but he was just plain Al when I knew him. Of course the Romans called Al ‘Hercules’ which I thought was rude. Typical of them, they never could sort out their own stuff. Hmm, we need Gods they said. I know those Greek chappies have got some good ones, let’s just nick them and change their names. Did the same thing to the poor Sabines when they needed women – oh those chaps have some fine ones – we’ll take ‘em! Countries, women, gods you name it, those bloody Romans just emptied the shop and then forgot to pay. Mind you they knew how to build roads and whatever, and did some awfully nice statues of me at one point, but where was I? Oh yes, young Al. Well there he was pigging wine from Dionysus himself and meant for the other centaurs who of course went completely bonkers at him. Al in his usual subtle way starting calming things down by killing everything that moved and when I step in to break them up he only shoots me in the bloody thigh with an arrow dipped in the hydra’s blood. Well there you go, I immortal but wounded with poison which was fated to kill anything. Bit of a dilemma, what. Couldn’t live but couldn’t die. The irony of it was of course that I’d only given him the poison myself hadn’t I, when I was training him – thought it’d come in useful for his later heroic quests. Bloody typical really. Well after feeling sick as a parrot for what seemed like forever I decided I’d had enough. Zeus had finally forgiven poor old Prometheus, about time too if you ask me, and I thought well, after all he’s been through he deserves a bit of fun so I swapped my immortality for his mortality and called it a day. Besides I quite fancied a trip to Hades to see my old mate Persephone. A lovely girl, knew her mother actually. Rather well if you get my drift and I was always fond of old ‘Seph as I called her. Of course down there, married for half the year to the Lord of Hell, they call her Hecate and I can see why, all gloom and grey shrouds with that damned pomegranate in one hand and a scary burning brand in the other. Very different to the fair maid of vegetation, playing with daisies in the meadow that I knew of old. Fair gave me the willies she did and I was quite pleased to be gone by the time old Zeus decided to stick me in the heavens, you know, recognition for services rendered an’ all that. Well they knew how to give someone a gong in those days, I mean, ‘arise Sir Salman’ indeed! And only giving that nice Michael Eavis chap a CBE. I’d have promoted him to king and given him my own crown if I’d been young Lizzie. They’ve just got no flair these days. But I can’t waffle on, I have to get back soon or all those born at the end of the year are going to find their futures going a bit doo-lally. It’s a serious business being a zodiac sign. Actually, not sure I believe in it myself, but someone’s got to keep Russell Grant in deep-fried mars bars. So, my three herbs are:
Roman Chamomile - Chamaemellum nobile
One of the safest herbal medicines around it can be used with confidence with children and pregnant women or men, should you know any pregnant men, despite being a mild emmenagogue. Anti-spasmodic, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, anti-emetic, bitter, carminative, anti-ulcer mild sedative, mild tranquilliser and mild sedative this versatile herb is one the most important herbs in the medicine cabinet. There are various types of chamomile and they all have similar properties and actions. Giving off a strong fragrant scent when trodden on, it was used in mediaeval days as strewing herb to lift the stench of their diseased hovels. Quite effective too it was. Of course we used it the same way back in Ancient Greece but we also knew that the scent was more than just pleasant, it was healthful too. Nowadays you call it aromatherapy but it’s always been known about; where do you think incense came from? The ancient Egyptians consecrated chamomile to Ra, the sun god, or Aton as he was later called. But that bit of silliness was all Amenhotep’s fault, or Akhenaton as he called himself before leaving that sweet kid Nefertiti for his nephew. No wonder Nef gave her daughter and the crown to that complete nobody, Tut, after he finally popped his clogs. Ironic really as Tut is probably the best known pharaoh of all these days despite dropping dead before he was even 20. But I digress. Old Mad Maude, Zeus love her, reckons chamomile is the only certain cure for nightmares, and Bartram rates it for use in psychosomatic illness, but he and Non Shaw warn against using large doses, which can be emetic, during pregnancy. The Saxons venerated the herb as one of the nine sacred herbs, given to mankind by Woden himself. I asked old one-eye about this over a pint in the Comet & Vomit (the celestial snug for old gods) and he reckoned it was probably Balder just before he choked on the mistletoe; cos he’d been having bad dreams. Culpeper champions chamomile’s use in dissolving stones in the body. Not a use anybody else mentions but as he claimed to have seen it work, in vitro as it were, I think he’s probably right. Pages could be written about this wonderful herb, and probably have been but I’m guessing you’ve got the idea. So...
In the home:
Children: Nappy rash in babies, apart from being painful can, by weakening the skin, predispose to infections like thrush. Washing the bottom with a weak infusion of chamomile can help prevent this, along with letting air circulate round the area by leaving the nappy off as often as possible. Washing with an infusion of chamomile can be effective in treating thrush as can essential oil of chamomile in a base of almond or sesame oil. Chamomile cream applied to the affected skin 2-3 times a day is also an excellent remedy for cradle cap (seborrhoeic dermatitis).
Adults: An infusion (tea) of chamomile and fennel will relieve flatulence, and combined with nervine herbs such as skullcap, betony or passionflower, chamomile can be made into a tea that will ease stress and anxiety, and alleviate tension headaches.
Thyme – Thymus vulgaris
A powerful expectorant and antiseptic herb that is often used in infections of the respiratory and digestive tracts this little beauty gets it’s name from the Greek work thumus meaning bravery and in the days of jousting, Sir Lancelot and all that stuff, when knights weren’t forming unwise attachments to their leige’s other half, young maidens would embroider a bee over a sprig of thyme, as a symbol of energy and bravery, on the scarves they presented to their champion. Quite appropriate in another way as bees are just mad for thyme and when I were a young foal they used to say that the best honey in all of Greece came from Mount Hymettus (near Athens, Ed.) because of all the thyme it was covered with. So we always thought of thyme as being sweet and even used it as a term of praise; “Oh she smells of thyme” we used to say if some girl was looking particularly elegant or fashionable. Anyway this herb as been much in use for centuries due to it’s many virtues; it can be used to expel worms in children, used externally it will relieve bites and stings and also relieve sciatica and rheumatic aches and pains. Modern research has even concluded that thyme (with it’s volatile oil) can act as a tonic and help counter the effects of aging; must be why my mane is so glossy – no wonder the young girlies can’t help stroking me!
In the home:
An infusion of thyme taken three cups daily will alleviate a cold – make sure that the essential (volatile oil) doesn’t escape, i.e. if made in a cup put a saucer over the cup until cool enough to drink or make it in a pot. The diluted essential oil can be used to treat skin infections such as scabies, it works even better if the essential oil is added to a strong decoction of tansy. Care should be taken with scabies to clean specifically under the nails where the infection can lodge and then hide following the scratching of itchy skin!
Viper’s bugloss – Echium vulgare
This wonderful herb with it’s tall wands of speckled flower-bearing stalks was thought to expel poisons hence the name (echis = viper) and Dioscorides (and many other herbalists down the ages) always said that whosoever consumed viper’s bugloss before they be bitten will not be hurt by any serpent. Wouldn’t try it myself mind, an excellent plant used externally to ease bee or wasp stings, but to be quite honest your average viper’s venom will just laugh at this herb while it’s creeping into your bloodstream. Trust me on this, nasty poisons are a bit of a specialty of mine! However where it really comes into it’s own is the realm of magic (i.e. the stuff that science hasn’t found an explanation for – yet); it heals a wounded or even broken heart. Let’s hear again from Culpeper – old Nick knew a thing or two and here’s what he had to say on the subject “The root or seed is thought to be the most effectual to comfort the heart, and expel sadness, or causeless melancholy” and “There is a syrup made hereof, very effectual for the comforting the heart, and expelling sadness and melancholy”.
In the home:
Rub a bit of the tincture soaked in cotton wool on the skin for bee or wasp stings, or other bitey, hurty things. You know, ants and the like. For those whose hearts are yearning make a syrup from the seeds or root. If you don’t know how to make a syrup, instructions are given in previous Notes from Beyond…
Well it’s been nice to have some honest clay clumping round my hooves but I have to get back. Those in my charge are going to meet a dark stranger who’ll make them an offer about a job they’ve been wanting and a new love is about to begin for those whose names begin with an S. Or not. Hard to say really – you’d have to ask Russ, he knows far more about it than I do. Bye!
As the space shuttle relaunches from tunnel 4 burning the tops of the skullcaps and all that valerian Zsuzse spent so much time propagating (sorry Zsu) we wish to thank Chiron for his thoughts, dripping as they were with the weight of ancient wisdom. We also wish to thank Anne McIntyre for our usual light-fingered lifting of info re nappy rash and cradle cap from her excellent ‘Herbal Treatment of Children’ (Elsevier). Acknowledgements too, to Nicholas Culpeper’s “Complete Herbal and English Physician”. We use the 1826 edition but there are available cheap facsimile editions of this great reference (e.g from Parkgate Books, London). As ever, if unsure about usage, always consult a professional herbalist before using herbs on yourself or others. Next month we don’t know who we’ll interview but we have spiritualists and mediums scouring the space between the worlds as we speak and if you have any requests for herbs you’d like our learned shades to write about, do email John (email@example.com) who’ll pass it on when next we visit Elysium. Until then, grow, use and love your herbs – cos it’s true that they love you too.