The silvery willow near water, demonstrating Lunar rulership
Astrology and Health
herbs and symbolism
To the ancients there was far more to a plant than simply the tangible flowers, leaves and roots that could be seen, smelt and used. The plant would carry a whole series of associations with mythology and mysteries that would be immediately understood by all. Today we have lost much of this understanding. There is immense importance in rediscovering the symbolism behind plants...
The rational mind feels awkward about herbal lore, preferring to dismiss it as romantic nonsense and superstition. Yet, the sheer volume of lore attached to many plants makes it hard to discard with such an unquestioning attitude. The bulk of these ideas and associations have evolved in earlier centuries, when the worldview was radically different from today. If sense is to be made of herbal
lore, each plant must be considered in the way it was formerly perceived.
Learned minds of earlier centuries were trained to see life symbolically; everything in the physical world was seen as an expression of a subtler immaterial realm. This immaterial realm was perceived using the imagination, thus
when you see the word Sun, an image of the heavenly body is formed in the mind.
To the symbolic mind, this subtle mental image of the sun is just as important as the heavenly body in the sky, the two being perceived in parallel relationship.
Herbs too, were thus perceived as embodying a subtle, immaterial life-force called the virtue. By looking at the physical form of the plant
and its habitat, it is possible to visualize the nature of its inner virtue.
By understanding how this was done, many of the customs, rituals, medicinal uses and mythological associations of plants become obvious. The bay tree (Laurus nobilis) is a particularly good example of a tree that
has accumulated a rich variety of customs and folklore through the centuries. It is customary to fête great artists and heroes by placing a wreath of laurel on their heads – a practice that has continued from Roman times to the present day. Why is it important to use the laurel and not some other tree? Additionally, it is also said in folklore that to plant a bay tree next to the house brings
good luck, while to cut one down brings misfortune. How have these ideas become associated with the tree?
The English herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) provides a clue to understanding these enigmas when he describes the bay in his herbal, The English Physitian, as ...a tree of the Sun, and under the celestial sign Leo1
Since Egyptian times, planets have been used to symbolize the inner virtues of plants. However, many people today from reading Culpeper's herbal erroneously believe that he was the person responsible for connecting planets to plants.
However, Culpeper wrote his herbal in response to the contemporary
herbals of Gerard and Parkinson, which omitted the principles behind the practice of physic [the art of making medicines from plants]. As Culpeper himself explains in the Epistle to the Reader that prefaces his work:
What need have I written on this Subject, seeing so many and famous men have written so much in the English Tongue, much more than I have done? To this I answer neither Gerard nor Parkinson, or any that ever wrote in a like nature, ever gave one wise reason for what they wrote, and so did nothing else but train up young novices in Physic in the School of Tradition, and teach them
just as a parrot is taught to speak;... But in mine if you view it with the eye of reason, you shall see a reason for everything that is written, whereby you may find the very ground and foundation of Physic.2
Culpeper intentionally included the planetary rulers of herbs in his herbal because he saw the astrological symbolism as explaining the medicinal uses of herbs. It is fortunate for us that Culpeper did illustrate this knowledge in his extensive writings, otherwise it might have become entirely lost.
The bay tree: burnished with gold, demonstrating Solar rulership
Returning to the bay tree, its connection to the Sun is traceable to classical times where the tree was sacred to Apollo, the solar deity of the Roman pantheon.3 The solar nature of the tree is apparent from the leaves, for when a good sunlight illuminates them, they shine with a golden lustre. Gold is the colour and metal traditionally connected to the sun. Thus, the tree was
visualized as embodying this solar virtue.
Additionally the tree is evergreen, so these golden-green leaves, which last the year round, symbolically reflect the eternal light of the sun. It is known in the ancient temple dedicated to Apollo in Delphi, that the high priestesses or pythia started their ceremonies by burning bay leaves as incense.4 When the bay leaves were burnt, the released Solar virtue invoked the presence
of the god Apollo. Once his presence was felt the pythia went into a trance, communicating inspired messages to all that had come to the temple to inquire of the oracle. Furthermore it was noted that the principal pythia actually ate the bay leaves and was specifically fumigated before officiating at the ceremony.5
The Sun also traditionally symbolizes the soul. Just as the planets revolve around the Sun, so too the soul can be visualized as the inner sun, the light at the centre of one's being. The Sun therefore symbolizes the inner unfoldment and illumination that distinguishes great men and women from the
general populace. This inner illumination gives depth of vision to an artist or poet, whose work outshines their contemporaries. The same Inner Light dispels the darkness of fear and allows the hero to act courageously achieving goals that lesser mortals would shun. Indeed, the word courage is derived from the Latin cor, cordis meaning heart, the part of the body in medieval
physiology that was ruled by the sun.
Read more on Herbs and Symbolism