Tag Archives: Herbal medicine

The Alphabet of Galen – A Review

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I love reading historical herbals and other medicinal texts. I find comparing what “they” knew “then” to what we know today an interesting (and sometimes mind-boggling) exercise. You’d be surprised at how accurate some entries are, without scientific evidence.

The Alphabet of Galen wasn’t written by the Galen (c. 129-217 CE) but predates him by probably one or two hundred years. Someone a few centuries down the line gave it that name – who knows why? The translator was able to see eight manuscripts dating from the seventh to the twelfth centuries (none identical, some fragmented), along with the first printed edition (1490). Although I can’t read Latin, I’m still jealous. I do own several pairs of white cotton gloves…

The first third of the book is discussion of the history, sources, translation/dating and the manuscripts themselves. The last fifteen percent or so is an extensive bibliography and index. In between are the 302 entries with Latin on the left and English on the right. It’s extensively footnoted.

Yes, some of the entries scared the bejeezus out of me. Bathing in lye, anyone? The same fragmented entry mentions something about “[…] true for the internal uses […]”! Others made me a little queasy – I’m not sure I’d ingest a skink’s inner flesh (in a twelfth of a pint of wine) as an aphrodisiac. Yet others, however, told of properties we still know today, such as St. John’s Wort “heals burns when applied topically by means of a compress”.

Mr. Everett did a wonderful job not only translating but cross-referencing this Materia medica with other well-known writers such as Dioscorides and Pliny.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into far-ancient times. Unlike many of its contemporaries, there isn’t a spot of superstition or magic. It’s all “fact”.

Five stars.

Do Herbs Work?

A rant by one of my favorite people, Harold over at Alchemy Works, got me to thinking about a question I’m frequently asked. The answer is a qualified YES.

My answer is qualified because a) there are some issues where herbs won’t help and more importantly, b) not all herbs work the same way on each person. Your physiology is unique and what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. For example, 95% of the population falls asleep when they take Valerian. Not me. I’m bouncing off the walls for several hours if I take it. (And I really do prefer the smell and taste of coffee if I need to stay awake for some reason.)

I often hear, “I took X herb for Y problem and it didn’t work.” When I ask if they tried any of the other herbs that will help with Y problem, the reply is, “No. A commercial on television/Z website/W magazine/T friend said to take that herb.”

This is where I heave a huge sigh. As I said here and probably a lot of other places, research is necessary! Perhaps some other herb this person took is interfering. Perhaps one of their prescription drugs is. Or perhaps their physiology just doesn’t react the same as other folks’.  My personal database lists about 500 herbs and I forget how many medical conditions. Nowhere is there one medical condition/one herb.

Above all, as the old aphorism goes, Know Thyself. With herbal medicine, experimentation is necessary. (With synthetic drugs, too. Just look at how many prescription drugs are available for, oh, high cholesterol.) Maybe you’ll get lucky and your first herb will do the trick. But if that one doesn’t work, do a little more research and try another. Eventually you’ll come upon the one (or combination) that works for you and your problem.