Ancient beliefs, based on what is now often referred to as ‘intuitive science’, are making an unprecedented comeback and believers in the philosophy of ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’ are being taken more seriously than they have been for hundreds of years.
Sometimes called ‘Magia naturale’ or ‘Natural magic’ — the doctrine of signatures may, to the uninitiated, sound like a heap of hocus-pocus yet at the same time it does also make a whole lot of sense.
It has its roots in ancient times when healers, herbalists, and even magicians, associated the ‘signatures’ of herbs with parts of the human body.
This philosophy states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments afflicting those particular parts.
These ‘signatures’ are based on colour, texture, shape, aroma and the environment in which the herbs are cultivated.
At first it is easy to dismiss the association between herbs and the body parts they resemble as crazy, but if you look at the examples around us, it becomes apparent that the philosophy may actually hold water.
Take something as simple as a walnut. It looks exactly like a miniature brain with a left and right hemisphere and upper cerebrums and lower cerebellums, and it has been scientifically proven that walnuts greatly assist brain development.
The ancient herbalists, who believed in the doctrine of signatures, also recognised the intrinsic relationship between plants such as ginger and the digestive system. After all, ginger roots resemble a stomach and it can be used to treat stomach ailments, assist digestion and to prevent motion sickness. They also believed that figs, which are full of seeds and mostly grow in pairs, could be used to cure male sterility.
Under the doctrine of signatures it is not only the shape, colour, texture, seed and leaf formation of herbs that help in discovering their healing properties but also their scent and the location in which they are cultivated.
Plants growing in or besides water are considered to be associated with ‘wet’ diseases/illnesses such as coughs and colds whilst those growing in muddy swamp-like conditions are connected with mucous excretions in the respiratory and reproductive systems. Plants falling in the former category include various species of mint, willow and verbena, which are widely used in cough and cold remedies. Eucalyptus and sunflowers, on the other hand, are cultivated to dry out waterlogged areas to make them suitable for growing crops.
Herbal treatments aside, the doctrine of signatures also includes a list of fruit and vegetables that, if added to one’s daily diet, can cure or at the very least relieve a number of illnesses and complaints. Some of these might seem a little farfetched, while others are perfectly understandable and scientifically proven too.
We have long been told by our parents that eating carrots will improve our night-vision. While this is not completely true, the regular consumption of carrots increases blood flow to the eyes, acting as a comprehensive vision toner and all-round eye strengthener. In fact, a cross section of a carrot actually resembles a human eye.
Celery, that wonderfully crunchy salad delight, is quite similar to the shape of our bones and has long been used in both, internal and external medicines, and poultices for bone ailments. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that ancient wisdom in associating the two was spot on: Bones contain 23% sodium and so does celery. If the body doesn’t receive enough sodium from dietary sources then it uses up sodium from the bones. This can weaken them and leads to future problems including osteoporosis.
Kidney beans are shaped just like kidneys and, unsurprisingly, a regular helping heals and helps maintain good kidney function.
The case for those increasingly popular avocadoes is twofold. Firstly, the fruit takes exactly nine months to develop, from flowering to harvesting, and secondly the ripe fruit is very similar in shape and form to a human womb. Making avocadoes a regular part of the female diet helps to maintain hormonal balance, deters cervical cancer and speeds up weight loss after giving birth.
That’s not the only female-friendly fruit either: olives greatly resemble ovaries and it is scientifically proven that olives help balance ovarian health. Similarly, citrus fruits, which resemble mammary glands, are known to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Try cutting a mushroom in half and you will see that you are looking at a detailed portrait of the human ear. Mushrooms contain Vitamin D, which is necessary for bone health including all of those tiny bones in the ear which help transmit sound to the brain.
Similarly, the pancreas shaped sweet potatoes are known to be useful in balancing the glycemic index of diabetic patients.
When it comes to pomegranates, things get a little more complex. For some, the anaar resembles the heart, while for others, with its many seeds, it is closer to the female ovaries. Some even say that, like the orange, it more closely resembles the mammary glands.
They may all be right.
According to the Chinese, who are also great believers in this theory, the blood-red colour and shape of the pomegranate indicates that it’s good for the heart. Also, a report published in the January 1 issue of Cancer Prevention Research claimed that pomegranates contain compounds that may prevent the spread of breast cancer. Finally, pomegranates are also very rich in iron, which is great for the health of the female reproductive system.
Now, although it is certainly not so easy to visualise bananas as antidepressants, they do contain something called tryptophan which converts into serotonin, a naturally occurring mood-lifting chemical in the brain. Is this why people who laugh at just about everything are sometimes accused of ‘having gone bananas’?
Jokes aside, lets also take a look at the multi-layered onion which, whether eaten raw or cooked, cleanses the body and the skin (also multi-layered) of impure elements. What’s more, these eye-watering bulbs also keep the cook’s eyes clean by making him/her cry!
Grapes represent the alveoli of the lungs and medical science confirms that eating lots of these ‘Health bombs’, which contain high levels of reserveratrol, is highly beneficial for the epithelial cells lining the lungs and trachea. Regular consumption of grapes works to alleviate asthma and other bronchial complaints. This goes double for black and red grapes. Additionally, eating grapes or drinking pure grape juice on an almost daily basis has been scientifically proven to neutralise carcinogenic substances present in the body.
The primary reason for this action lies in the two different types of polyphenals (a type of organic chemical) grapes contain which actively inhibit, and sometimes even destroy, cancer cells. These two polyphenals (anthrocyanins and proanthrocyanins) have been noted to be especially effective in preventing or dealing with lung, breast, liver and prostrate cancers.
Furthermore, the body’s immune system is strengthened by the presence of bioflavinoids found in the skin of black and red grapes. A ‘fully charged’ immune system is far more successful at fighting off cancer cells than one that is in a weakened state due to unhealthy dietary regimes.
Cauliflower is another anti-lung cancer and healthy bronchial tract food, as is broccoli. And yes, both of these vegetables resemble the bronchial tract and lungs. Their anti-carcinogenic action is attributed to the carotenoids, flavinoids, folic acid and sulphur compounds present in these, and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage. The fact that ancient practitioners of natural magic were, somehow, aware of this, is simply amazing.
Low calorie pumpkin, thanks to the presence of a multitude of vitamins and minerals, is recognised as a great medicine for curing an upset stomach and is also a healthy part of any weight-loss diet. If that’s not enough for you, then also consider that it has beta carotene content and anti-carcinogenic properties. And of course, it’s also large, round and hollow, much like a stomach! Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is known as ‘paitha kaddu’ in Urdu.
And last, but never least is the incredible Ginseng root which has been used in eastern Asia for millennia. It’s considered a cure-all, able to fix just about anything, and why not? After all, the root itself looks like a miniature human being!
So next time you head down to the grocery store, take this issue with you, and who knows? It just might save you a trip to the pharmacy!
In natural magic, there is a theory that many natural objects — rocks, roots, plants, animal bones, etc — have a connection within them to some part of the human experience. For example, a rose quartz is linked with love and matters of the heart, a piece of oak would take on the attributes of strength and sturdiness, and a sprig of sage is connected to wisdom and purification. In this form of magic, also called sympathetic magic, the link between items and their magical symbolism is referred to as the Doctrine of Signatures.
Influence of doctrine of signature on Homeopathy:
Homeopathy has often called upon the doctrine of signatures for finding potential herbs to use in its cures. Despite some rejecting it as a valid theory for classification of plants or their properties and uses in medicine, many homeopathic and other “natural” practitioners still use the concept today.
Chinese herbal medicine and the doctrine of signatures:
Traditional Chinese medicine classified substances of potential medical use by correlating their appearance with human organs. For example, rhinoceros horn and deer antlers were considered useful in curing impotence and for enhancing male virility.
The doctrine through the ages
1. The earliest known reference to the Doctrine of Signatures is in the writings of Galen (131-200 AD). He was a physician, writer, surgeon and philosopher who became the most famous doctor in the Roman Empire and whose theories dominated European medicine for 1,500 years.
2. The Doctrine was then revived in modern times by a Swiss physician, alchemist and philosopher named Paracelsus (1493-1541), who is also known by many as the father of modern chemistry. Paracelsus noted how the qualities of plants are often reflected in their appearance. He thus theorised that the inner nature of plants may be discovered by their outer forms or ‘signatures.’ He applied this principle to food as well as medicine, remarking that “it is not in the quantity of food but in its quality that resides the Spirit of Life.”
3. In the late 1600s it was revived after Jakob Bohme, a master shoemaker in the small town of Gorlitz, Germany, began writing on the subject. A religious man, Bohme suggested that God marked objects with a sign, or ‘signature’, for their purpose. A plant bearing parts that resembled human body parts, animals, or other objects were thought to have useful relevance to those parts, animals or objects. The ‘signature’ may also be identified in the environments or specific sites in which plants grew.
4. However, it was an avid student of Parcelsus, William Coles (1626-1662), a 17th century botanist and author of The Art of Simpling and Adam in Eden, who ultimately popularised this concept for practical medical applications. Coles found that walnuts were good for curing head ailments because “they have the perfect Signatures of the Head”.
*The suggestions in this article have been provided for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider. The Express Tribune does not endorse any specific service or treatment.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 9th, 2012.