In the West, herbal lore is often associated with the wise, or cunning woman; women who were persecuted as witches in the Middle Ages for their forbidden knowledge. However, many other cultures did not think so poorly of these practitioners of herbalism and healing, so here are a few celebrated Goddesses of herbal lore.
In Ancient Greece there was the goddess Panacea. Her name is still used in the English vocabulary today and is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases”. Panacea was the daughter of Asclepius, a demi-god associated with medicine and healing who was the protégé of the centaur Chiron. Panacea and her four sisters were known collectively as the Asclepiades, and each had her specific role in the healing cycle. Hygieia was the goddess of cleanliness and sanitation (and the root of the word hygiene), Iaso the goddess of recuperation from illness, Aceso the goddess of the healing process for wounds, and Aigle the goddess of healthy glows. Panacea was the goddess associated with herbal lore and the salves and medicines that were made from them. She was thought to have access to a special curative herb that could heal all, and she was often invoked during the making of medicines and ointments.
For the Irish Celts the Goddess Airmid was the keeper of all their herbal lore. She too was born into a medicinal family, a family that belonged to the Tuatha Dé Danann, and her father was Dian Cécht, the God of Healing. Her brother Miach was even more skilled; when Nuada (the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann) lost his arm in battle, her father was only able to replace the arm with a prosthetic made of silver. Miach took the healing a step further, placing his hands upon the silver arm, he was able to transmute into real living flesh, effectively restoring Nuada’s arm back to him. Dian Cécht was enraged with jealously upon witnessing his son’s skill and attacked his son attempting to severe his head from his body. Killing a man with the power of restoration is more difficult than it seems, but after four attempts Dian Cécht managed to decapitate Miach and send him to his death. Airmid was devastated by the loss of her brother and stayed by his grave-side weeping into the soil. From this earth tiny sprouts began to push through and unfurl. Watered by her tears, the 365 magical herbs began to grow, one for each of the joints and sinews contained in her brother’s body. As they grew Airmid collected these herbs, arranging them on her cloak according to their healing properties so that they could be used by the people. Alas, her father found her, and saw her herbs sorted and cataloged, ready to share with the world. Again, Dian Cécht fell into a rage, he grabbed the cloak and shook it so all the herbs mixed back together, and so that none but Airmid would ever know all of the secrets of herbalism.
For the Yoruba people of West Africa, the Gods were willing to share the secrets of herbal lore. The Òrìṣa Aja rules this domain, as well as looking after the forests and all the animals within them. She shares her knowledge freely with her people, and herbal lore is used in everyday practice. For those that have a special knack, it is said that Aja takes the form of a wild wind and carries them off for days or months, teaching them her sacred knowledge and returning them as talented healers.
We live in an age of disconnect from nature, and separation from those who hold the sacred healing traditions of our ancestors. Big Pharma has managed to create its own persuasive mythology, one that has become the dominant belief system of the modern era. However, there are still those who maintain the Old Ways, and when the dust of modernity settles, we shouldn’t be surprised if our hopes turn to the Wise Women of our past, and the Great Goddess who they serve.
Whether She is invoked as Panacea, Airmid, Aja or by any other name, there is still much we have to learn from the plants that grow in Her gardens, and those with the wisdom to tend to them.