The Wise Woman Tradition of Herbal Medicine
by Corinna Wood
First published in the New Life Journal, January, 2003
"Mommy, plantain poultice!” My two-year old has fallen and hurt his knee, and he’s pointing to the plantain plants that grow at our doorstep, one of the most common weeds around. He wants me to make another fresh compress because it always helps him so much.
At home and in my classes, I've seen how easy it is to learn about the edible and medicinal uses of plants. This ancestral knowledge comes naturally to us; it is our birthright. The ancient practice of using common, local plants to heal is at the core of the Wise Woman tradition. This lineage includes village healers, community midwives, and family herbalists. The Wise Woman tradition is based on nourishment and self-love, rather than seeing disease as our enemy or the body as dirty and in need of cleansing. As Susun Weed, a prominent voice for the Wise Woman tradition today, writes in Healing Wise:
We are all healers in the Wise Woman tradition. Self-healing and self-loving, we co-create healing with our allies. Our allies are our problems; they bring us gifts of wholeness. Our allies are wise women; they support us in our transformation. Our allies are green allies, wild plants; they supply us with optimum nourishment.
Although doctors, shamans and medicine men have more prominence in our cultural history, the common healers, especially for women’s health concerns, were women. It was women, as it is today in tribal cultures, who attended pregnant women and sick children, and who nurtured the beginning and the ending of life. Part of the reason that wise woman ways are so often overlooked is that much of this work is invisible. A wise woman prevents illness by cooking nourishing meals for her family, or building stamina with daily herbal teas. The wise woman cooks a root stew for her family in the depth of winter, makes salads with wild spring greens, garnishes the summer festival platters with edible flowers, and harvests berries to feast on in fall and to dry for the long winter.
How did this ancient tradition get broken? In Europe, it ended with mass “witch burnings.” Almost everyone knows of the Holocaust of World War II, but few people know of the extent of the witch burnings, which spanned the 1300’s to the 1600’s. As Jeanne Achterberg writes in Woman as Healer, “Witches, also known as wise women (femina saga), were accused of the ‘crimes’ of aiding the sick, birthing babies, and caring for the dying.” Under the influence of the church and the newly formed male-dominated medical establishment, the word “witch,” which originally meant “wise one,” became a term of scorn. It took a reign of terror lasting several hundred years to radically alter a way of life thousands of years old. Millions of women who carried the healing lineage were systematically killed.
The ancient cloak of women’s wisdom is being re-woven as we take back responsibility for our healthcare. Some say we have a cellular memory of the ancient ways; we did them for so long, they are practically instinctual.
Do you remember the Wise Woman? She brings a bag of herbs for the young woman beginning her moon cycles to ease the cramping. She is the midwife who visits the expectant mother and speaks to her of transformation into motherhood, of surrendering to the process of birth. She is the one who holds tight the arm of the laboring woman, saying, “I know it hurts,” as she stares deep into her sister's eyes. She is the one whom that mother calls upon as she becomes a crone herself, for teas to soothe the hot flashes and wild emotional rides. And it is she who sits on the bed of the aging elder and speaks of death, offers porridge to ease the belly and herbal spirits to calm the mind.
We can each reclaim the wise woman inside of us. As we heal ourselves and our loved ones with compassion. As we learn the plants that grow where we live and raise our children and grandchildren in that way of life. As we remember the ancient ways.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.