A little bit about Rebecca Fairfield

I was inspired to write a story about a character who was a natural healer–an intuitive healer. This character became Rebecca Fairfield. Rebecca, in turn, inspired me to study natural medicines, pursuing a course in aromatherapy, and as a result, I am now a certified aromatherapist.

As part of my studies, I was required to write a paper. With Rebecca in mind, knowing her healing abilities included, but went beyond, the knowledge of aromatherapy, I searched for something I somehow knew existed, i.e., Rebecca’s “Family Bible,” but didn’t know anything about. What I eventually discovered (and wrote about for my certification) was the Doctrine of Signatures:

A Wisdom Approach to Healing:
How the Ancestors Discovered the Healing Properties of Plants

Introduction

Much has been written about the various plants and essences ancient cultures used in their healing and spiritual practices. One author, Kathy Heshelow, has even written a concise little book devoted to the subject as part of a series titled Essential Oils Have Superpowers®, Anecdotes, Fun Facts and Fascinating History.  By comparison, little has been written about how ancient people discovered the healing properties of their plant based medicines.

Our ancestors did not have advanced knowledge of chemistry and biology; nor did they have the assistance of modern technology. So, in the absence modern science and technology, how did our ancestors discover the healing properties of plants? Perhaps through “the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight,” i.e., wisdom.[1]

Present to Past

For thousands of years essential oils have been employed for therapeutic and spiritual purposes;[2] however, until the late nineteenth century, there was, by today’s standards, no “scientific” explanation for the effectiveness of essential oils.[3] In other words, ancient peoples, without the assistance of modern science, discovered the particular medicinal benefits, for example, of chamomile, both German (Matricaria recutita) and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile).

Today, with the rising interest in aromatherapy comes a corresponding interest for scientific explanations for the efficacy of essential oils. However, as Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt notes “[I]n contemporary culture, only a very narrow form of conventional pharmacological proof qualifies as valid science.”[4] “Valid science” is essentially limited to reductionist chemistry and physics, which as Dr. Schnaubelt explains, ignores “other scientific approaches better suited to describing the physiological efficacy of natural extracts. As a consequence, real phenomena that evade description with the language of reductionism are ignored.”[5] A classic example of this is the use of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) as a burn remedy. Though highly effective, pharmacology does not recommend it because “it cannot identify an active ingredient that mimics the effect of the whole oil.”[6]

However, even under the narrow framework of reductionism, some therapeutic or curative effect of essential oils have been recognized, e.g., German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) as an anti-inflammatory, Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) as an antimicrobial, Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus castus) shown to be effective in rebalancing estrogen and progesterone levels.[7] Nevertheless, a reductionist approach to essential oils is ineffective for at least one very significant reason: Reductionism works well for a single component drug, such as aspirin, but the curative effect of essential oils may be due to a large number of components; accordingly, the reductionist procedure is “neither practically possible nor would it describe a meaningful reality.”[8]

Recognizing the problems with reductionism and essential oils, Dr. Schnaubelt takes a different approach, one based upon modern biology and what he calls a “new concept,” organicism, to wit:

Organicism holds that with the organizational hierarch of living organisms (emergent) properties arise at each level of organization. These properties cannot be predicted by even the most detailed knowledge (i.e., physical and molecular) of lower level organization. This has direct consequences for the study of aromatherapy, for essential oils are produced by the whole plant organism and, in their constantly varying composition, reflect the interaction of the plant with its environment. They are thus the vehicle for much of the plants communication with and relation to the outside world.[9]

While organicism rejects nonmaterialistic philosophies such as vitalism (the idea that living matter is greater than the sum of its parts because of some life force)[10] it is a modern biological philosophy that recognizes a fundamental unity in all things, “a unity in nature of which we are a part.”[11] It is also reminiscent of our ancestors approach to healing which rested in part on a philosophy or concept known in the West as the doctrine of signature—“the art of knowing from the outer appearance of a plant or its environment what its medicinal properties are.”[12]

The Doctrine of Signature(s)[13]

“The ‘doctrine of signatures’ holds that features of plants resemble, in some way, the condition or body part that the plant can treat. So, bloodroot’s scarlet roots could treat diseases of the circulatory system, or mandrake’s resemblance to male genitalia means it could be used to treat infertility. The plant’s common name often speaks to this associative thinking.”[14]

Although it may seem a simple approach, the doctrine of signature is much more than a mere matching game between plants and human, and it is certainly not for amateurs:

“If you wish to use the doctrine of signature to make or create medicines, you should have in-depth botanical identification skills and be able to identify all poisonous plants and plant parts by heart! Don’t forget—it was a tool used by the master herbalists, pharmacologists, and botanists of time gone by; they were people who knew their plants. The doctrine of signature is not a free-for-all.”[15]

Similarly, it would be foolhardy to attempt to reduce the doctrine of signature down to a few pages. To understand the doctrine of signature in its entirety and put it into practice requires a serious commitment of time and expertise. However, it is possible to summarize some basic doctrine of signature concepts or principles that may help to explain how our ancestors discovered the healing properties of plants.

Philosophical Roots[16]

The doctrine of signature was likely shaped by the hermetic tradition and alchemy:

“Both sought not only to grasp the essence, essential, of plants, but of all creation—the elements, minerals, metals, plants, animal substances, humans, etc. To the ancients, the most important thing was to understand how things in the macrocosm, the universe, correspond to those in the microcosm, the individual person.”[17]

To achieve understanding and obtain such knowledge, one must observe nature, and what one observes depends both upon what is being observed and the mind and senses of the individual observing.[18] In other words, meaningful observation of nature begins with physical sense perception, but does not end there. Insight comes from imagination, inspiration and intuition as well.[19] From this holistic observation, a theory is formulated and adapted to later findings.[20] Thus, the doctrine of signature is a science of observation, but “not a science reducible to mathematical formulas” because it is also an art.[21] Julia Graves describes it this way:

“The doctrine of signature is really a poetic language describing a multidimensional reality in which different facets of signature are simultaneously true, and in which the interplay of the countless elements cannot be exhaustively and finally interpreted. Since it is the human mind that gives meaning to nature, naturally the signatures and their categories shift from one cultural context to another, one adding to the other without contradiction but rather contributing another piece to the larger puzzle.”[22]

Or as Haitian folk herbalist Jacquelin Guiteau has said, “The doctrine of signature is how the medicinal plants introduce their healing powers to the healer.”[23]

What is a Signature?

In the simplest terms, the signature of a plant may be defined as a characteristic detected by the physical senses and given meaning by the mind.[24]  Notable signatures are plant and plant family characteristics that are unique or special. Julia Graves breaks down these characteristics into the following categories: Colors, Shapes, Physical Senses (smell, taste sound and touch) and Understanding (the Sixth Sense), Elements and Environment, Planetary, Organ and Physiology, Disease, Animal, and Energy.[25] Each characteristic of a plant is a signature; however, the healing essence of a plant is the sum of all its characteristics together with its whole—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The doctrine of signature helps to draw parallels between a plant and a human condition,[26] but as noted previously, because the human mind gives meaning to nature, a plant’s signature cannot be definitively determined.[27] Thus, only one with well-honed intuitive skill and a solid education in botany and human physiology should use the doctrine of signature in making medicines from plants.

Essential Oils and the Doctrine of Signatures

Scent

The essential oils used in aromatherapy are concentrated plant extracts, and the doctrine of signature works with the plant as a whole. As such, the doctrine of signature is somewhat less useful with respect to aromatherapy, but still informative because scent (a characteristic/plant signature) plays a significant role in aromatherapy.[28]

 “’Smell’” receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus) that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. When you breathe in essential oil molecules, some researchers believe they stimulate these parts of your brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health. For example, scientists believe lavender [Lavandula angustifolia] stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way some sedative medications work. Other researchers think that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.”[29]

The broad characteristic of plant scent may be broken down into smaller categories, e.g., dull/heavy, fresh, sweet, nectar rich, aromatic, pungent, sulfurous, and sour/acrid; there are also smells related to the elements, e.g., earth, water, fire and air, while others are in the nature of “like cures like.”[30] Once the plant characteristic or signature is ascertained, a parallel may be drawn to a human condition.

For example, fresh scents, like lemon (Citrus limon) and peppermint (Mentha piperita), are awakening or uplifting and have a corresponding effect on the human body and mind, e.g., increasing circulation, stimulating, clearing of the mind. It follows then that an aromatherapist might use lemon (Citrus limon) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oils in a blend formulated to address muscle/joint complaints (inflammation, bruises, sprains, etc.) as well as depression or other emotional upsets.

As Above, So Below

Other plant characteristics that play a more obvious role in aromatherapy are the esoteric/spiritual influences arising from the principle of unity.

“[Unity] is the principle on which all ‘holistic’ therapies are based, including aromatherapy, where the overall aim is to bring the body and the mind into harmony through attention to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs.”[31]

To see how the unity principle works in the context of the doctrine of signature one might look to the color characteristic of a plant and how it corresponds to the physical, mental and energy system (chakras) of the human body.[32]

ColorChakraBody PartInner/Mental Effect
WhiteCrownCentral Nervous SystemInner peace, bliss,
sense of oneness
VioletThird EyeEyes, Ears, SinusWisdom, clairvoyance
BlueThroatThroat, ChestKnowledge,
communication
GreenHeartHeart, LungsUnconditional love,
forgiveness
YellowSolar
Plexus
Stomach, Liver,
Gall Bladder
Personal power,
authority, discipline
OrangeNavelsexual organs
small intestines
Sexuality, procreation
RedRootBones, bloodSurvival, instincts,
groundedness

Recent scientific research confirms that the power of the mind is a key factor in the healing of the body,[33] yet the unity principle is not a modernday concept, but rather one as old as humanity, and it crosses cultures. In other words, while ancient communities may have embraced differing myths and legends, they shared a common belief: “[W]e, as humans, are dependent upon maintaining a harmonious relationship between an external and internal reality; between the seen and the unseen; between the body and the mind.”[34]

In ancient times, illness was attributed to an external cause, e.g., an evil spirit, sorcery or an unhappy deity, and the remedy was a return to the right mental or spiritual attitudes through some form of “magic.”[35] Thus, in its earliest form, healing was a spiritual practice, dependent upon one’s “ability to appease the spirit world, please the gods and combat curses.”[36] So it naturally follows that the first physicians were also the holy people of the early cultures, priestess, priests, shamans, etc., and aromatics, medicine and magic were interrelated.

Aromatics were the go to “magical” remedies because it was believed fragrant scents were favored by the gods, and herbs were thought to have magical properties[37]. It was also believed the evil/occult powers that brought about illness were sensitive to fragrant scents or smoke, so incense were commonly used to cure the ailing.[38]

In the 21st century, magical remedies to disease brought about by a curse or evil spirit would generally be dismissed as superstition and ignorance—quackery—but many aromatic plants that were given special powers were “based on direct experimentation, observation about the manner in which they grew, their healing potential and the effect of their fragrance.”[39]

Said differently, ancient peoples (lacking present day knowledge of chemistry and biology) may have attributed the healing properties of aromatics to magic, but just as is done today, their findings were based upon empirical research that proved their healing “magic” really worked.[40] It is worth noting, too, that today, even though reductionist science cannot explain how and why essential oils work, aromatherapy is gaining momentum as a valid alternative and complementary therapy to mainstream medicine.[41]

Conclusion

According to Professor (Dr.) Ciddi Veeresham, despite the present preoccupation with synthetic chemistry, the contribution of plants to disease treatment and prevention is enormous: “Even at the dawn of 21st century, 11% of the 252 drugs considered as basic and essential by the WHO [World Health Organization] were exclusively of flowering plant origin.”[42] These drugs came about through modern research and study in the science of molecular biology and chemistry, which prompted the question: How, in the absence of modern science and technology, did our ancestors discover the healing properties of plants? The practical answer turned out to be rather obvious: observation and experimentation.

The twist came about with the realization that the healers among our ancestors were no less educated than the premier scientists of today; though a significant difference between them is how they attained their knowledge. Top-notch medical researchers and service providers today are university educated scientists who generally acquired (and continue to advance) their knowledge through experiments and research performed in laboratories equipped with an array of high-tech instruments. Their historical counterparts relied on the wisdom acquired through intense, personal observation of nature (human, animal, plant, and the elements) and their highly developed skills of sense perception (both the five physical senses and the Sixth Sense of keen intuitive powers).

The approach to medicine—the reductionist science of today as opposed to the unity principle underlying the healing arts of the past—is another significant difference. That difference, however, appears to be narrowing as (1) scientists like Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt adopt organicism (which recognizes a fundamental unity in all things); (2) recent scientific breakthroughs acknowledge the mind-body connection in health and healing; and (3) aromatherapy gains greater acceptance as an alternative and complimentary therapy to mainstream medicine. Thus, it might be said, in some respect, that modern medical science may be evolving by recovering the wisdom of our ancestors.


[1] Collins Dictionary, available at https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/wisdom

[2] See generally, Lawless, Julia, The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils, The Complete Guide to the use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health & Well-Being, Conari Press, 2013 ed. (providing a comprehensive description of 190 essential oils and their traditional/historic uses).

[3] Schnaubelt, Kurt, Ph.D., The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy, Healing Arts Press, 2011, pp. 10-11.

[4] Id. at p.11.

[5] Reductionism is the scientific process “in which complex phenomena are explained by parsing them down to even smaller components and then analyzing the simplest, most basic physical mechanisms present.” Schnaubelt, Kurt, Ph.D., The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy, Healing Arts Press, 2011, p. 10. For a more comprehensive explanation of this process, see Id. pp.12-13.

[6] Id. at p.11.

[7] Id. at pp. 17-18, 22.  See also Ali, B., et al,  Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy: A Systemic Review, Asian Pac J Trop Biomed 2015; 5(8): 601–611 (Aug. 2015) (discussing aromatherapy as one of the complementary therapies used by mainstream medicine), available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2221169115001033

[8] Schnaubelt, Kurt, Ph.D., The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy, Healing Arts Press, 2011, p. 12 and 32.

[9] Schnaubelt, Kurt, Ph.D., The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy, p.32.

[10]  See Gilbert, S. F. and Sarkar, S. (2000), Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century. Dev. Dyn., 219: 1–9. at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999%3C::AID-DVDY1036%3E3.0.CO;2-A/full:

One principle of the principles of organicism is that the properties at one level of complexity (for instance, tissues) cannot be ascribed directly to their component parts but arise only because of the interactions among the parts. Such properties that are not those of any part but that arise through the interactions of parts are called emergent properties.

[11]  R.J. Rummel, Understanding Conflict and War: Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field, Chapter 33, Atomism-Mechanism Versus Organicism*, at https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/DPF.CHAP33.HTM

[12] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, Lindisfarne Books, 2012, p. 3. The doctrine of signature is often reduced to nothing more than a memory aid and been dismissed as unscientific because it is not causal. Both assertions Julia Graves disagrees with, pointing out that the naysayers do not understand the doctrine within its own context. Id. at pp. 4, 30-34.

[13] Julia Graves, author of one of the primary sources for this paper, uses the doctrine of signature and doctrine of signatures (plural) interchangeably.

[14] Diamond Allaire, That Signature Look: An introduction to the Doctrine of Signatures, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2014 (January 29, 2015) at http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/doctrine-signatures

[15] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, p. 59.

[16] For more in-depth information about the history of the doctrine of signature, ancient practices and underlying philosophies see Id. at pp.3-34.

[17] Id. at p. 15.

[18] Id. at pp. 22, 28.

[19] Id. at p. 24. Visions and dreams have also led to some of the so-called “rational” scientific discoveries. Id. at pp. 31-32.

[20] Id. at pp. 29-30.

[21], Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, at p. 39. See generally Id. at Chapter 2, The Doctrine of Signatures Today (discussing how the doctrine of signatures has led to medicinal discoveries, e.g., fifty years before scientific research found a peptide in mistletoe that punctured cancer cells upon contact, mistletoe extract as a cancer cure was recommended based upon the doctrine of signature).

[22] Id. at p. 39.

[23] Id. at p. 38. See Diamond, Allaire, That Signature Look: An introduction to the Doctrine of Signatures, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2014 (January 29, 2015) at http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/doctrine-signatures

[24] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, p. 38.

[25] Id. at p. 60. See generally Part 2 of The Language of Plants for more in depth discussion about the general categories of characteristics (some of which overlap) from which a signature emerges.

[26] Id. at p. 39.

[27] Meaning changes as new minds observe and interpret. Thus, it would be impossible to identify in this paper every signature of every plant. Indeed, even Ms. Graves’ excellent and comprehensive book The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures cannot go so far.

[28] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, p. 34.

[29] University of Maryland, Aromatherapy at http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/treatment/aromatherapy. See also Ali, B., et al, Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy: A Systemic Review, Asian Pac J Trop Biomed 2015; 5(8): 601–611 (Aug. 2015) (discussing how aromatherapy works), available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2221169115001033.

[30] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, pp. 192-94. Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) has a  “like cures like” scent association: “Figwort is very stinky, and it is a deep acting cleanser of blood and lymph—waste-laden body fluids giving rise to bad smells, as do the lymphatic infectious conditions it is curative for.” Id. at p. 194.

[31] Lawless, Julia, Aromatherapy and the Mind, The Psychological and Emotional Effects of Essential Oils, Thorsons, 1998 ed. p. 4.

[32] Graves, Julia, The Language of Plants, a Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures, p. 78.

[33] Vance, Erik, Unlocking the Healing Power of You, National Geographic Magazine, December 2016, available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/12/healing-science-belief-placebo/; The Bravewell Collaborative, The Connection Between Body and Mind, available at http://www.bravewell.org/integrative_medicine/philosophical_foundation/mind_and_body_connection/.

[34] Lawless, Julia, Aromatherapy and the Mind, the Psychological and Emotional Effects of Essential Oils, p. 5.

[35] Id. at p.4.

[36] Id. at p. 5.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Empirical research may be defined as “any research that is based on experimentation or observation or quantitative measurement. It can be research in health, natural, and social sciences…Tied into the idea of “empirical research” is the scientific method of working of testing a hypothesis through observation and experiment.” Ithaca College Library, Empirical Research, available at https://library.ithaca.edu/sp/subjects/empirical

[41] Ali, B., et al, Essential Oils Used in Aromatherapy: A Systemic Review, Asian Pac J Trop Biomed 2015; 5(8): 601–611 (Aug. 2015), available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2221169115001033. Similarly, where it was once dismissed, the power of the mind/belief is once again recognized as a key factor in the healing of the body. See Vance, Erik, Unlocking the Healing Power of You, National Geographic Magazine, December 2016, available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/12/healing-science-belief-placebo/; The Bravewell Collaborative, The Connection Between Body and Mind, , available at http://www.bravewell.org/integrative_medicine/philosophical_foundation/mind_and_body_connection/

[42] Veeresham, Ciddi, Dr., Natural Products Derived From Plants as a Source of Drugs, J. Adv. Pharm. Technol. Res. 2012 Oct-Dec; 3(4): 200–201, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560124//.