The Doctrine of Signatures

Auroleus Philip Theophrastus Bombastus was born in Hohenhein, Switzerland, in 1493. His father was a doctor and he became one also. He took the name of “Paracelsus Von Hohenhein”. He was a rebellious, restless fellow who traveled a lot.  He was quite a notorious teacher in his day and very controversial.

In the early 16th century, medicine was still practiced following the teachings set down by the ancient Greeks, but Paracelsus had different ideas.  He felt that medicine should be learned and practice by observation and experiment.  One of the things that he observed was that certain plants were effective in treating disease, and he felt that in certain cases there was a relationship between how plants looked and what they were good for.

Jakob Böhme was born in a small town in Germany, in 1575, about 35 years  after Paracelsus died.  He was a humble cobbler who one day, when he was about 25 years old, had a vision from God.  He began writing about his visions and his theories about God’s plans for man and nature.  One of those visions lead him to write “Signatura Rerum; The Signature of all Things”.  It was meant to make a spiritual statement.  He stated that by observing the color, flower, roots, the shape of the plant and other “signatures” one can determine what God’s plan was for the plant.

The Doctrine of Signatures was reminiscent of what Paracelsus had espoused – that medicine should be open to observing and experimenting with things.  By the time that Böhme wrote his famous treatise in the 17th century, Paracelsus ideas had become wide-spread and they fit in perfectly with the doctrine.  The notion of matching a plant’s characteristics with a particular body part or disease became widespread and was even brought to America and practiced during colonial times.  Treating injury or disease with roots, leaves or flowers which “matched” the problem to be addressed according to the Doctrine of Signatures was common practice through the 18th century.

Three plants here in Nantahala have “rattlesnake” as part of their common name, and for that, we think back on the Doctrine of Signatures, and realize that great minds think alike, and the Native Americans of this region had the same bright idea as Paracelsus, reasoning if something looked like a predator or a body part, then it simply had to be good to cure any ill associated with it.

Rattlesnake fern                                       Botrychium virginianum

Rattlesnake fern Botrychium virginianum

Rattlesnake fern’s spores are produced by what might be thought of as the rattle of a rattlesnake, so the plant was used to make poultices for rattlesnake bites.

Rattlesnake Platain                                   Goodyera pubescens

Rattlesnake Platain Goodyera pubescens

Rattlesnake-weed                                     Hieracium venosum*

Rattlesnake-weed Hieracium venosum*

The leaves of rattlesnake-weed and of rattlesnake plantain have markings that are reminiscent of the markings of a snake (???!!!), so those plants were also used to treat rattlesnake bites.

Most cultures have noticed the efficacy of plants in medical treatment and have tried to second guess just what plant will benefit just what ill.  The Indians were no different.  Many of the wildflower names in this area are names given by Native Americans and Colonists following the Doctrine of Signatures tradition.

IMG_0306One of the best sources for information about plants said to have medicinal value is the Peterson Field Guide of Medicinal Plants and Herbs for the Eastern Central region.

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