The Shamanic Origins of Herbalism
The Shamanic Origins of Herbalism

The Shamanic Origins of Herbalism

|By Steven Martyn|Shamanicorigins

When we use wild plants for food or medicine we are taking communion with a mystical order far beyond the grasp of our history, science or even reason. We are drinking from the divine crucible that made us human.


Steven with St.John’s Wort

It strikes me as funny when we try to scientifically justify how herbs work. For me this is like looking at the tracks of something rather then spending the time to look for and at the animal itself. The chemicals we claim to understand (as the active ingredients) are just the calluses on an unseen hand that has done that healing work for ages.

Wildcrafting and Herbalism have nothing to do with scientific methods or thinking. Herbalism, knowing how to harvest and use wild plants for medicine is at its core a mystical practice. Aspects of herbalism are perhaps the last direct legacy of a shamanic existence we all shared long before the advent of civilization.

Science looks at the mechanisms with which Life speaks, rather then listening to Her voice and trying to understand what She is saying. But we are meant to learn simply by watching Her, and nothing could be easier or more natural because Her voice in-forms everything we see in nature.

But I suppose the obsession with scientific validation is understandable, because we’ve all been taught how to see the world through that lens for at least 12 years! And this reality is then further annexed by the modern world because the vast majority of us live within the domestic confines of civilization.


tenacious motherwort growing in the stone fence

When we grow up in the city, suburbs or even farmland, we grow up only ever interacting with a world we created. We might catch a glimpse of real wilderness from a park trail (running away from us) , canoe or distantly look down on Her from a plane, but tragically most people are born, live and die within an institutional setting, far from the Earth.

We only eat domesticated food. And most of these species appear so different from their wild relations they seem somehow separate from nature. There is a hidden mythic history of how each of these plants came to be in our fields. But most of us don’t know of the connection between our food and their wild cousins, so it’s easy for us to imagine that these beings are somehow “ours” to do with what we like.

These days, most of what people buy in supermarkets couldn’t survive without constant industrial intervention. These plants have been genetically modified or hybrid so they are unable to reproduce, and are grown indoors to prevent them from life’s environmental stresses. Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Zucchini, cucumbers and greens and many herbs are all grown year-round in greenhouses in ‘Roxol’ insulation soaked with chemicals to replace the “messy” unpredictable soil. One of the big problems with this way of growing is, “we are what we eat”. And we wonder why fertility is plummeting, why we have low immunity and are deficient in minerals and micronutrients.

The scariest part is that our medicine is created by the same industries that own modern agriculture. As a society we have been brainwashed to trust industry and its foot soldiers the doctors, and not to trust nature or the old ways. So, when we’re sick we hand ourselves over to some aggrandized authority that prescribes us the latest and greatest “proven” synthesized pill made from some coal byproduct. Wave after wave of tweaked industrial byproducts have been sold as “cures” by big pharma, who give doctors “educational” trips and other perks to push their wares. The pill quickly suppresses the bodies’ natural healing symptoms, which is perceived by the client as it “working”. And although it seldom “cures” the problem they will buy it again because it made them feel better, and our worldview is yet again confirmed. We can even know the history of allopathic medicine and its limitations, but until we establish a new tradition of herbalism within our families, we will still go see a doctor because, when we are sick and vulnerable it’s natural to take the path of least resistance. Almost everyone who has come to see me as an herbalist, came because they have already played out the allopathic route and are at a dead end.

Even though science has shown us that we are in no way special and are completely dependant on and a product of nature, all of the man-made realities we surround ourselves with give us the delusion that we are somehow not subject to the laws of nature and that we are capable of living outside Her realm.



We believe in our own reflection and study it with scientific precession. And then we order our narrow findings to justify our actions. We grow up only knowing a domesticated reality, and so we actually think that we need all our “modern” innovations to survive, justifying our destructive disconnected lives. The other unstated half of believing we need all our stuff is that the Earth is incapable of providing for us, or taking care of us. We think that life before we had all our stuff was difficult and unsafe. Well, life is still difficult and unsafe. As the joke goes, life is a terminal condition, no one get out alive. But if we don’t get this joke we’ll keep on trying to be safe and live as long as possible, but the quality of that fearful existence never comes into direct question.

No matter how we try we will not be able to prevent strife and tragedy. We insulate everything in hopes that we won’t have to feel the smallest of natural hardships, like the cold and the heat. But then our insulation gives us cancer. We coat all our petroleum-based synthetic materials, clothes, toys and upholstery with fire retardants, in an attempt to control the nature of fire, and then our fear coated reality gives our kids cancer. You get the idea, I could go on and on with this brutal reckoning, because we are surrounded by these fearful bad ideas, that are all coming home to roost.

I’m driving these points in deep because I want us to see that what we think of as progressive forms of agriculture, herbalism and midwifery are just imitations of what they once were, and will be again! These arts, have been co-opted by the very authorities and industrial powers that almost pushed these practices out of existence, through legal, religious and social persecution. I want us to not be fooled. I want us to see that the authorities and powers-that-be have won! They couldn’t get rid of us so now they own us. Herbalism has been reduced to a quaint backward form of allopathic medicine. Registered midwives aren’t taught about herbs which were the central tool of their trade, and agriculture is dictated by big business and machines that have turned the countryside into a factory.

On a more personal level, The Algonquin Tea Co. that I co-founded twenty years ago, which has sold literally millions of cups of tea and helped people in countless physical ways, without one reported incident, is now not allowed to say or suggest in any detail what the herbs in the tea can do for you, or have traditionally done physically without having a Drug Identification Number. We can’t even sell herbal tea for what we’ve know it to be for thousands of years without massive funding, scientific testing and research.

I’m saying this because we need to get mad, at them, or at me or yourself. Like a Zen master I want to give everyone a good burning slap to wake you up to what’s really going on. And may the anger that rizes at being denied our basic human rights spark a fire of change, and burn off the haze of seductive modern reality.

The herbalism I teach is a form of shamanism, which requires the practitioner to have an intimate spiritual connection with the plants and people being healed.

To start learning this original form of herbalism we have to leave our scientific thinking at the door. Stop polishing our self-reflection and realize we know nothing beyond that mirror.DFAB0AF5-EA366

Science has enabled industry, not just through physical discoveries. But, primarily through its heartless “objective” methodology, and Nazi like subjection of the living world.

The irony for those who know their history is that both philosophy and science were born of ancient mystic orders. Those Athenians like Plato and Aristotle, who we sight as the founders of western knowledge and civilization took all their direct insights from well-known mystics, such as Parmenides. Science is the child of alchemy, captured by the authorities and yoked with greed into servitude, to plow a diverse wild world into submissive fields of monoculture.

This right to the wealth of nature and the endless extraction of wealth is at the core of our culture and present economy. Without continually stealing this wealth the giant fake edifice of modern “culture” would collapse under its own weight. This thievery started long before the advent of science. The philosophy that justified such ignorance has gone on for more then two thousand years. And don’t be fooled by today’s eco-jargon, we are still in the thick of ignorance. For the most part our so-called “information age” and “green” technology is just a friendly guise for ambitiously furthering the destructive reach of the industrial age.

While we may have accepted proof that we are not the centre of the universe, we still act like that discovery never happened. Science has been chained to the service of industry for so long, it’s now too dull-witted to see that its great advances and explorations have only occurred in its own pen. And with each scientific advancement, we take a step backward, further from the truth of our real situation here on Earth.

Occasionally someone like Einstein or Tesla breaks from the pen and begins to articulate dimensions of creation that we had no idea even existed. But all of us, including scientists, have an incredible propensity to ignore what doesn’t fit with our worldview and then try to cram in the acceptable new information. But a live elephant won’t fit in a breadbox. So we kill the new information and then cut it up until it does.

We can try to justify the use of herbs scientifically, but it is irrelevant to the healing. Our scientific perspective is just another way to own something bigger then we can even see, and to fit it into a box.

Only fools try to analyze love. Magic and reason live in different places. Magic exists outside of the analytical territory, the “house” of our reason. And reason, stuck inside a house of its own making is hidden to Magic, so they seldom meet. Magic, love and healing are sisters of the wilderness. Don’t test the waters of Magic with reason. There is no easy slope between them. The only way we get in is to dive. If we stand back and analyze love, it will add up to nothing, and in the tallying we only drive the Magic away.

We were made to liv20130525_112224e outside in the wild world where our soul runs with love, death and healing so we can live in a sacred way. We can escape the bounds of civilization. Not just in our minds and spirits but in physical reality, we can drop into the mythical dimension of the wild. And the “reality” of living in this mythical world will keep us from not buying into the consumeristic mess that’s killing the world.

We think we can just buy wild herbs or wild food, and think we’ll get their the magic, the medicine, for a few coins. But there are things money can’t buy. We can buy a plant’s dead body, but if she wasn’t taken in a good way her spirit will still be in the woods from where She was harvested from. Without the spirit you don’t have the plant’s “medicine”, her magic. We can’t just take these plants when we want because they are not ours to take. The plant people existed long before us and will long after. We must get off our high horse, thinking somehow humanity is better then the rest of the animals or plants, and that we have a special purpose. If we ever did, we clearly forgot what it was a long time ago.

We all think we’re the rider but maybe we’re the mount.

It seems to me that it is our “special” status that’s killing the planet. The real truth is, as animals go, we’re the runt of the litter, the latecomer. The little guy that’s pumped himself up and holds himself sideways to look big to its brothers and sisters, who all snicker behind his back. All the animals and plants, that we think are somehow there for us to take, are actually our elder relatives who took pity on us. And, without them our ancestors would not have survived and we would not be here now.

swamp copy

wetland covered with an algae bloom

I grew up being told by everything in our society that we are higher than animals, and how could anyone even begin compare one’s self to a plant? Yet even our science, that we hold in such high regard, has shown that we are all the same, we all have a physical body, made from the same genes and elements. We are all made from the same stuff because we are the same stuff. What we see as outside us is actually inside us. And our spirit or what we think of as our true self lives not in our body but in another realm that sustains and surrounds the physical body. Our spirit came from and will return to an aquifer beyond the spring of our lives here and now. Reality is like a coral reef of multidimensional existence.

Science can help us intellectually realize that we are all the same, made from the same little bits, but it fails to realize the next truth that should follow. That our individuality and separateness from Nature, and therefore our objectiveness is an illusion. Where science can’t go is where our intuition or our heart reins. And where we know in every cell of our body that beyond the illusion of separateness that there is a sea of inner sentience, which animates and sustains all we are and all we see.

Join us for our Herbal Workshops, coming up at the end of June, and early August.