Where was the medicinal plant knowledge kept before there were books?
Before the invention of the printing press, knowledge of plant medicines was recorded in manuscripts by scribes and carved on stone and clay tablets. However, humanity has not always held its knowledge using the written word. Before writing, knowledge was (and still is in some cultures) passed down orally among the cunning folk, medicine men, shamans and knowledge keepers of the world’s villages, clans and tribes.
Singing to country
The Aboriginal Peoples of central Australia have engaged in the ceremonial practice of singing to country for thousands of years. Unlike a herbal that provides instructions for extracting specific therapeutic components from plants, singing to country is a mutually beneficial vibrational exchange that ensures the ongoing spiritual and physical health of the Elders, the bush medicines, their Peoples and all that is associated with them.
Looking further afield, Rongoā Māori knowledge is held orally in New Zealand; African nations have a strong, ongoing oral tradition of plant-based medicine, as do many other cultures. Early written references to herbal medicines in South America, India, China and Egypt all have their origins in oral traditions.
Ancient Egyptian healing beyond the grave
One of the world's oldest extant records of herbalism, the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC), is held in the University of Liepzig’s Library. It records information thought to have been handed down orally at least 500-2000 years before it was written. The papyrus made its way into European hands in 1872 when it was purchased in Luxor by the German Egyptologist George Ebers. The 20-metre scroll was reputedly found at the feet of a statue of Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god who presided over embalming and burial chambers.
The Egyptians honoured their dead with complex funerary rites, entombing them with all that was needed to live well in the afterlife. The Papyrus’ placement at Anubis’ feet may have been an offering to ensure the healing of the dead. The scroll comprised 100 pages with 811 prescriptions that included poultices, decoctions, gargles, snuffs, ointments, enemas, fumigations and inhalations made with honey and many plants known to us today including: Linseed, Barley, Lettuce, Mint, Grape, Poppy, Juniper, and Onion.
Also described were the three types of ancient Egyptian healers: physicians, surgeons, and sorcerers. Sorcerors were thought to be able to expel the spirits that were the cause of illness. The scroll also contained spells and incantations for this purpose, highlighting the importance of both spiritual and physical wellbeing in Egyptian culture.