The Doctrine of Signatures

November 18, 2018 lawanda Newspaper Columns

Before modern medicine, before paper was made and books were written, before the internet, before any form of written communication, the only way people had to learn the uses of plants was by trial and error and by passing information along orally.  Long ago, cultures all over the world independently came to believe that plants were marked with “signs” or “signatures” that indicated how they would be helpful medicinally.

Paracelsus, a Swiss physician, alchemist and astrologer was the first person to formally write that “Nature marks each growth . . .  according to its curative benefit” in the 16th century.  Jakob Bohme, a German philosopher, Christian mystic, and Lutheran Protestant theologian was the first to give a name to the Doctrine of Signatures in his 1621 book, The Signature of All Things.  His thought was that God marked objects with a sign or “signature” for their purpose.

Signatures were not only in the physical characteristics of a plant.  Along with color, shape and texture, a plant’s scent and even the location where it was growing were also considered indications of its medicinal application.

For example, people thought that the red fluid inside the roots of bloodroot would cure diseases of the blood.  And saxifrage, a plant that can grow through and break apart rocks, must be a cure for kidney stones.  Toothwort, with its white flowers resembling teeth and its toothed leaf edges, should cure dental ailments.

Sometimes the Doctrine of Signatures actually holds true.  The Cherokee Indians thought that stems of the weed purslane looked like worms and that consuming the plant should help expel worms from the body.  Turns out that’s correct.  Another one – the flower eyebright resembles the human eye and was thought to help with afflictions of the eye.  Science has determined that eyebright contains tannins which have an anti-inflammatory property.  A quick google search turns up a multitude of eyebright eye washes, drops, compresses and capsules purported to soothe the eyes.

Some plants were given their names as a way to remember how they were used medicinally.  At your first encounter with the eyebright flower, you might not immediately think “human eye” but after you know what the flower is used for and someone tells you it resembles an eye, it becomes obvious and memorable.  So for cultures without the written word, the Doctrine of Signatures would be a vital tool in medicine.

There are hundreds, even thousands, more examples of the Doctrine that have been proven both true and false.

Many books have been written about the Doctrine of Signature over the centuries.  Believers are still writing convincing books on the Doctrine today and making a very good case for its legitimacy.


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