Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Herbs And Planets

This is the kind of post which risks annoying people who think of themselves as sceptics, so before I launch into this, I want to say in defence of the concept that just as nowadays we refer to things as being, for instance, in the Rosaceae, which reminds us that they're likely to contain vitamin C and tannins, or the Ranunculaceae, thereby reminding us that they're probably quite toxic, so back in the day, before Linnæus, people needed another method to help them remember significant features of herbs.  In fact, over the next few days I plan to cover quite a few of the most contentious aspects of herbalism.  I also want to point out that just because this is "out there", it doesn't mean everyone uses it.  It also has cybernetic significance, and as usual I suspect that word is going to make people think of this kind of thing:

(both copyright 1981, BBC - will be removed on request).

Incidentally, that last graphic is less than 2K in size and could easily have been displayed on a BBC Model A or a ZX Spectrum, so the fact it's copyright 1981 is quite appropriate.

Anyway, herbs and planets.  Astrologically, the traditional planets are:  Cynthia (the "Moon"), Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Many astrologers nowadays include other planets and there are also the "hypothetical planets" such as Cupido, but leaving those aside, in the seventeenth century when the herbalist Culpeper was around the general idea seems to have been that there were eight like today, just a different eight.  Let's get going:

Associated with Cynthia, here labelled "Moon", are those herbs to do with water or which are cold or lunar in shape.  One example is the banana and another the cucumber, but others are weeping willow and many types of seaweed.  The general association is between the tides and the herb itself, although menstruation and pregnancy are not associated with it.  I'll come to that in a bit.

Next is Mercury:

Mercury is so similar to Cynthia that even astronomers are often unable to tell the difference from photographs of craters on either body.  From a distance it's somewhat easier because Mercury lacks the "seas" found on our companion world.  Mercury is associated with the metal because it darts around the Sun very fast, like quicksilver.  Mercury is an airy world in astrological terms and is therefore associated with plants whose aerial parts are finely divided, or contain a lot of negative space, such as dill:

(Yes I know I've used it before).

Mercurial herbs are also associated with communication and therefore the voice and throat.  Their airiness is also expressed in their fine odours, another example being Valerian:

Valerian also indicates a signatury thing:  herbs of Mercury have an affinity with the nervous system because it too is finely divided and subtle.  The communication thing also links Mercury with Gemini, but that's another blog post.

Next, Venus:

This is of course not what Venus looks like at all.  Earth and Venus are the only major planets with feminine names.  Just to explain this image, this is what Venus would look like if she had water and had been more like Earth, and in fact at some point early in her history, this is what Venus might have looked like.  Venus as she stands is completely covered in cloud and this leads to one of the associations with her herbs.  Only the superficial parts of Venus are visible and the rest is hidden.  This is seen as giving the planet an affinity with herbs which have a superficial action, on the skin for example.  The association with the female reproductive system - "venereal herbs" - is another thing. This is where menstruation and pregnancy come in, and it means that gooseberries and raspberries are venereal herbs.  So is rose, partly due to its association with the skin - it prevents scar tissue - and partly because it has a prominent non-phallic reproductive part, namely its flower.

The next "planet" is the Sun:

Solar herbs include herbs which look like the Sun, so for example:

"Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1" by Michael H. Lemmer - Own work * http://www.naturkamera.de. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1.jpg

Hypericum perforatum, incidentally, is intensely "signatury" to me.  It has so many associations it's not true.  The Sun doesn't literally have rays in the sense that a sunflower or a marigold has, They tend to be strikingly orange or yellow, and to be bitter or aromatic.  They also have direct associations with the Sun, such as the tendency the above plant has to photosensitise the skin, the tendency of the one above that to follow the Sun and the usefulness of marigold for alleviating sunburn (hint).

Mars, the bringer of war, is the "male" planet and as such is associated with herbs which vigorously defend themselves in various ways such as nettles, thistles and mustard.  These plants have weapons.  Some of them, such as arum lilies:

"Arum maculatum 0 700". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arum_maculatum_0_700.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Arum_maculatum_0_700.jpg

have a frankly phallic appearance, so the idea behind it can be that they look like the male member in the same way as a rose might be considered to look like the female one.

Jupiter is of course the largest planet, and the Solar System has been described as consisting of the Sun and Jupiter with assorted debris:

It is of course bloody massive, like the biggest human internal organ, the liver, which basically does everything except for the few functions performed by other more specialised organs.  The function of the liver in the human body is often to change things which are problematic if they hang around to ones which aren't as problematic.  This frequently involves absorbing toxins and converting them to a form which is less toxic and/or can be booted out of the body.  The planet Jupiter does exactly the same thing for Earth, and here's a photo of him doing it:

Those "bruises" you can see near the pole are a comet hitting Jupiter, which is a big target with a lot of gravitational pull, so it's a useful planet to have around.  It also had the role of pulling rocks, dust and gas around in the early Solar System so that the planets formed roughly where they are, so were it not for Jupiter, Earth wouldn't exist and there might not be any planets capable of supporting "life as we know it".

It's not surprising, therefore, that jovial herbs govern the liver.  An example is dandelion:

"DandelionFlower" by Greg Hume - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DandelionFlower.jpg#mediaviewer/File:DandelionFlower.jpg

Many liver herbs are also yellow, but since the same applies to solar herbs this can be a bit confusing.

Finally, there's Saturn:

Saturn is of course distinguished by its rings and, in terms of early modern astronomy, its position on the edge of the Solar System.  Both of these things can be considered limits.  Saturn can be personified as Old Father Time:

"Lord's weathervane". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lord%27s_weathervane.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lord%27s_weathervane.jpg

Father Time's scythe is of course very like the Grim Reaper's and this is also true of saturnine herbs:  they tend to kill people.  An example of a saturnine herb is the deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna:

Atropa is named after Atropos, one of the three Fates, the one who cuts the thread of life.  In other words, the Greek version of the Grim Reaper.

Saturn also governs herbs which have prominent rings, which obviously includes many trees (which are not botanically speaking herbs).

That's all a fairly sketchy portrait of herbs and the traditional solar planets.  The next entry will be about the star signs, Melothesic Man and iatromathematics.