Certain herbs and other plants have been known to have useful properties – as seasonings or preservatives for food, medicines or simply a pleasurable odor – for thousands of years. Along with that ancient knowledge sometimes comes ancient myths.
Tombs uncovered in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as old as 60,000 years held remains of medicinal herbs preserved with the humans buried there. Over 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians had acquired an extensive catalog of plants (many of them herbs) that could be used as laxatives, relief for headaches and other ailments. Thyme was used as far back as 3,000 BC in Sumaria as an antiseptic.
Coriander (the leaves of which are used to produce cilantro) has been used for 3,000 years or more. Hebrews used it to flavor meals. Roman soldiers brought it on campaigns to the region to use as a meat preservative.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC – 377 BC) systematized much of what was known in his era and extended that knowledge. He used many herbs in his treatment of illness, believing that disease had natural causes contrary to many contemporaries who held that it was inflicted by gods. He used parsley to treat rheumatism and relieve kidney pain. Tarragon was used to treat toothaches.
Basil was a commonly used herb both in Greek and Roman culture. Chives were used by ancient Romans to relieve sore throats. But, oregano was said to be a favorite of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Myth lay alongside science.
During the Middle Ages, after a nearly thousand year lull, botanical knowledge again began to accumulate and expand. Much of the base of the medievals valid knowledge had been preserved and was now imported from Arabic cultures. Myths persisted, however. Dill was believed to have magical powers. Rosemary was thought to be able to ward off plague. Sage was used in an attempt to treat epilepsy.
Chinese and Indian herbalists in the east were busy all the while, accumulating their own storehouse of information about the helpful qualities of certain herbs. Ginseng is only one of the better known examples.
The Renaissance (which means ‘rebirth’) was, in essence, the rebirth of Greek-style science – observation and validation by experimentation. Though, the Greeks weren’t entirely consistent in that approach. During the 16th and 17th centuries, knowledge of the beneficial effects of certain herbs grew by leaps and bounds. Nicholas Culpeper published an herbal compendium in 1652 that listed an extensive array of herbal remedies known in Great Britain.
Though science turned increasingly to artificial chemistry beginning in the 19th century, there is still today a thriving practice of attempting to analyze what is helpful in herbs. These compounds, found in their natural setting, often carry additional substances that are missing in purely synthesized products.
That mixture of valid knowledge and superstition remains with us to some degree today. The belief that herbal medicines can cure disease is a combination of verified observations and medieval hokum. The observations show that some herbs do work on some conditions, while the causes are largely invented myths and arbitrary speculation.