Traditional medicine is intimately connected to the people and their moral, social and religious order. The body and the mind of the individual are not seen as a loose entity separated from other people, ghosts and natural forces. Within this vision individual health can only be reached through the purification of the moral or emotional status of his/her community. Today this traditional view on medicine is largely repressed by the modern vision. Where traditional medicine tries to restore the balance between the physical and spiritual, modern medicine tries to heal disease with specific medicaments of which the physical effect is the contrary of that of the disease. People are no longer seen in the context of their living environment and community, but rather as a complex machine in which the mind and the body are seen as two entirely different things.
Within the traditional community family and sib-kinsman (the people) stood central. These communities knew a relatively low population density and a mobile existence. The classical hunter-gatherers knew a relatively good physical and mental health. Because of this viral infections and chronic conditions only existed on a very small scale. Most deaths were caused by poisonous organisms, wild animals, trauma’s and fights. For the most common problems they fell back on mostly vegetable remedies. As a consequence of the ecological and cultural changes which came forth from the development into an agricultural society, the variety of herbal medicines became significantly more complex. Because of the higher population density viruses and bacteria could spread more rapidly and infections became more common. This of course led to a further development of traditional medicine, which specialized in these new diseases that were common in the agricultural society.
However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that an explosion of serious infectious diseases occurred. The urbanization and rapid increase of the population density led to outbreaks of tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid fever and many other diseases. Although the drop of the death rates at the end of the 19th century, nowadays is commonly contributed to the rise of modern medicine, it is much more likely that it was due to the improvements in the area of sanitation, diet and general living standards instead of vaccinations and other medical developments. At that time the poor workers and farmers simply did not yet have the money to pay for a doctor or new medicine and so even then they mostly used traditional medicine with its herbal remedies. Today diseases such as cancer, heart and vascular disease, caused by an industrial environment (among others by synthetic chemicals, pollution and over-consumption) are the main cause of death among the population. Despite the fact that an expensive and high-quality biomedical industry developed, these diseases are a direct consequence of contemporary life and they are the biggest threat to mankind.
So modern medicine is relatively new and is closely connected with the developments surrounding the Industrial Revolution. In ancient Greece Aristotle and Hippocrates developed a theory about the primary qualities of the body and the balance of body fluids. It was this theory which was decisive for western medicine for over 1500 years. It was not until the emergence of synthetic medicines during the Industrial Revolution, which increased the friction between the medical botany and academic medicine and later on developed into the modern medicine of today. These days the concept of traditional medicine is viewed through the eyes of academic medicine as a dichotomy between the magical-religious and rational. These categorical abstractions, which are the product of the modern western liberal ideology, have drifted far from the traditional worldview of the ancient European people. In the traditional world religion and medicine were strongly intertwined with all other aspects of the folk culture. The separation of the world in the field of the mystical and the rational is therefore a biased view of reality which is largely ideologically determined.
The Germanic peoples did not only use plants and herbs to cure diseases, they also were an important part of the cultural wellbeing and cohesion of the people through legends and folklore. Symbolic plants embodied and expressed the unity of all life. In the Germanic worldview Yggdrasil – the cosmic tree of life – stood central. Yggdrasil represented the universe in the form of an evergreen tree glistening in the dew. Its branches reached over heaven and earth and under its roots there was Helle, the cold land of torture, the cold land of the frost giants and the realm of men, could be found. For the Germanic peoples the holy forests were the center of all religious and political life. With traditional medicine the knowledge and wisdom of our far ancestors is narrated through legends and folklore to our modern era. These old traditions and rituals are rooted deeply in the culture of our people. With the introduction of Christianity and the Christianization that followed they kept on existing and even today they play a humble role in our celebrations and customs.
Now the concern for the environment increases and a new tendency develops which promotes a “green” style of life, and a renewed appreciation for traditional medicine can be seen. However modern society with its shallow hedonism is plagued by the abuse of all kind of herbal stimulants; coffee, marihuana, cocaine, heroin, alcohol and tobacco. While these in the traditional community were only used within a ritual context, snatched from their folk cultural context they seemed to be a disaster in the fast, restless, consumerist modern world of today. Only a return to our folk cultural origin and a general restoration of the systems of belief of our far ancestors can help us learn and use traditional medicine again, so we can use it to enrich our lives and that of our community. In a world which is characterized by the biggest ecological disaster of human history and in which mankind is more than ever removed from his roots, this might be our only salvation.