Yorubic Medicine: The Art of divine Herbology
Yorubic medicine is indigenous to and widely practiced on the African continent. Yorubic medicine has its roots in the Ifa Corpus, a religious text revealed by the mystic prophet, Orunmila, over 4,000 years ago in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, now known as Yorubaland. Within the last 400 years, this healing system has also been practiced in the day-to-day lives of individuals in the Caribbean, and South America, in large part, because of the traditions brought over by African slaves arriving in the Americas.
Orunmila's teachings were directed at the Yoruba people which centered around the topics of divination, prayer, dance, symbolic gestures, personal and communal elevation, spiritual baths, meditation, and herbal medicine. This ancient text, the Ifa Corpus, is the foundation for the art of divine herbology. Although Yorubic medicine has been practiced in Africa for over 4,000 years, its fundamental principles are little known to Westerners around the world. Among the various medical techniques for diagnosis and treatment, Yorubic medicine provides an important and valuable system worthy of study. The purpose of Yoruba is not merely to counteract the negative forces of disease in the human body, but also to achieve spiritual enlightenment and elevation which are the means of freeing the soul.
As with all ancient systems of medicine, the ideal of Yoruba herbology is to condition the body in its entirety so that disease will not attack it. (The term Osain is also used to describe Yorubic herbology. The word "Osain" means "the divine Orisha of plants". I will also use this term throughout the essay.) Many Westerners take it for granted that "African medicine" is a vague term for a collection of medical "voo doo". This myth about African medicine creeped in over centuries of misunderstandings. What is left is the negative image of primitive "voo doo" witch-doctors. This "voo doo" mentality is devoid of the sacred realities born of African thought in respect to religion, philosophy, and medicine. Therefore, the reader must separate witch-doctor myths from the genuine article when considering African herbal medicine.
In order to understand the system of Yoruba medicine, it is important to have some knowledge of the historical conditions that gave birth to this African art of healing. Many factors and dynamics were involved which influenced the beginnings and the development of this indigenous medicine.
The Yoruba history begins with the migration of an East African population across the trans-African route leading from the mid-Nile river area to the mid-Niger.1 Archaeologists, according to M. Omoleya, inform us that the Nigerian region was inhabited more than forty thousand years ago, or as far back as 65,000 B.C.2 During this period, the Nok culture occupied the region. The Nok culture was visited. by the "Yoruba people", between 2000 and 500 B.C. This group of people wer led, according to Yoruba historical accounts, by King Oduduwa, who settled peacefully in the already established Ile-Ife, the sacred city of the indigenous Nok people. This time period is known as the Bronze Age, a time of high civilization of both of these groups.
According to Olumide J. Lucue, "the Yoruba, during antiquity, lived in ancient Egypt before migrating to the Atlantic coast." He uses as demonstration the similarity of identity of languages, religious beliefs, customs, and names of persons, places and things.3 In addition, many ancient papyri discovered by archaeologists hint at an Egyptian origin.
Like almost everything else in the cultural life of Egypt, the development of science and medicine began with the priests, and dripped with evidences of its magical origins. Among the people, amulets and charms mere more popular than pills as preventive or curatives of disease. Disease was considered to them as possession by evil devils, and was to be treated with incantations along with the roots of certain plants and mystical concoctions. A cold for instance, could be exorcised by such magic words as: "Depart, cold, son of a cold, thou who breakest the bones, destroyest the skull, makest ill the seven openings of the head!...Go out on the floor, stink, stink, stink!" In many ways, this provided an effective cure, known today by various contemporary medicine as psychosomatic. Along side the incantations that were used, the sick patient was given a foul tasting concoction to help ward off the demon housed in the body. The Egyptian principles of magic and medicine
There was a tendency of Egyptian physician and priest to associate magic with medicine. From such origins, there rose in Egypt great physicians, surgeons, and specialists, who acknowledged an ethical code that passed down into the famous Hippocratic oath. The Greeks derived much of their medical knowledge from Egyptian physicians around 750 B.C. The influence of Egyptian medicine was so great on European culture that even to this day Egyptian concepts still have its signature in modern Western medicine. For exemple, when a medical Doctor writes a prescription he uses the Egyptian symbol for health(Jupiter) with the symbol for retrograde= Rx This means, "I curse your health in retrograde" = death.
During the reign of King Menes, there developed a body of knowledge which centered around magic, medicine, philosophy and religion which is known as the Memphite Theolopy. Egyptian priest physicians saw the ideal of medicine as a magical principle: "that the qualities of animals or things are distributed throughout all their parts". Consequently, within the universe contact is established between objects through emanations (radiation), the result might be sensation or cognition, healing or contagion.4
There is no doubt the Memphite Theology played a major role in evolving Egyptian medical theory. To them, magic and healing was "applied religion". The Memphite Theology is an inscription on a stone, now kept in the British Museum. It contains theological, cosmological, and philosophical views of the Egyptians. It is dated 700 B.C. and bear the name of an Egyptian Pharaoh who stated that he had copied an inscription of his ancestors.
According to the Memphite Doctrine, "The primate God Ptah, conceived in his heart, everything that exist and by his utterance created them all. He first emerged from the primeval waters of Idun in the form of a primeval Hill. Closely following the Hill, the God (Atum) also emerged from the waters and set upon Ptah...out of the primeval chaos contained 10 principles: 4 pairs of opposite principles, together with two other gods: Ptah, Mind, Thought, and Creative utterance. While Atum joins himself to Ptah and acts as Demiurge and executes the work of creation.
a. Water is the source of all things
b. creation was accomplished by the unity of two creative principles: Ptah and Alum, the unity of Mind (Nous) with Logos (creative utterance).
c. Atum was Sun-God or fire-God
d. Opposite Principles control the life of the universe.
e. the elements in creation were fire (Atum), water (Nun), Earth (Ptah) and Air.
The gods whom Atum projected from his body were:
1. Shu (Air)
2. Tefnut (moisture)
3. Geb (earth)
4. Nut (sky)
Who are said to have given birth to four other Gods:
7. Seth (opposite of good)
8. Nephthys (unseen world)
The Egyptian concept of cosmology, like the Chinese doctrine of Yin and Yang, and the East Indian system of Tridosha (Pitta, Vata, and Kapha), offered a comprehensive explanation of the natural forces of the universe. There were other ideals which the Egyptians developed such as the Doctrine of the Soul. They believers that the soul and body were not two distinct things, but one in two different aspects, just as form related to matter. The soul is the power which a living body possesses, and it is the end for which the body exist, the final cause of its existence. By the time the Third Dynasty arrived during the reign of King Zoser, Imhotep, the great African physician had expanded on much of the earlier theories of medicine. Imhotep is regarded as the "real Father of Medicine". He diagnosed and treated more than two hundred diseases. Imhotep and his students knew how to detect diseases by the shape, color, or position of the visual parts of the body; they also practiced surgery, and extraction of medicine from plants. Imhotep also knew of the circulation of the blood, four thousand years before it was known in Europe. His sayings and proverbs, which embodied his philosophy of life, were handed down from generation to generation. He is best known for his saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die."
Imhotep also promoted health by public sanitation, by circumcision of males, and by teaching the people the frequent ipse of the enema. Diodorus Siculus, the historian tells us: "In order to prevent sicknesses they look after the health of their body by means of drenches, fastings and emetics, sometimes everyday, and sometimes at intervals of three or four days. For they say that the larger part of the food taken into the body is superfluous, and that it is from this superfluous part that diseases are engendered."
The habit of taking enemas was learned by the Egyptians from observing the "ibis", a bird. that counteracts the constipating character of its food by using its long bill as a rectal syringe. Herodotus, the Jewish historian reports that the Egyptians, "purge themselves every month, three days successively, seeking to preserve health by emetics and enemas; for they suppose that all diseases to which men are subject proceed from the food they use."
We can see that the Egyptians recognized the connection between food (disease) and the cause of certain pathological diseases. In Africentric science, all life (i.e. elements) is created by harmony and recreates harmony. A disease is viewed as harmonizing healing crisis of the body. When a person gets overloaded with waste, toxins from constipating junk foods, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sodas, fried foods, bleach white flour, enriched flour, white rice, dairy products, cooked pig and blood in meat, salt, white suger, incorrect food combinations (i.e. protein and carbohydrates=meat and bread or potatoes) the body reacts with a healing crisis (cleansing reaction). This cleansing is called a disease by Western medicine. Actually, the disease is the "food itself". Western medicine tries to cure the body from curing (cleansing) itself with a cure (drugs) and/or surgical mutilations. Oddly enough, Western doctors blame the cleansing reaction.
The concept of universal harmony is character istic to African thought. Africans believe there is a harmony in the universe - the circling of the planets, the tides of the earth, the growth of vegetation, the lives of animals and. people all are related. All that is in the universe emanated from the same source, one universal Mind.
The ancient Egyptian priest looked out at the universe, and noted the ratios of the different planetary cycles, and counted the rhythmic periods in nature. They also calculated the ratios of the human body. They put together a "sacred" geometry which were a set of mathematical ratios and proportions. They believed that these ratios if used in the sound of music and the architecture of buildings (pyrimids), this would resonate with the life forces of the universe and thus enhance life. The ancient physician/priests of the Nile Valley were said to have been instructed in temples which were called "Per Ankh." In today's language they would be called the "House of Life".
Of the thousands of medical papyri originally written, less then a dozen have been discovered, and of that number, the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Papyrus are deemed the most profound. The Edwin Smith Papyrus was published in 1930 by James Henry Breasted, who had spent ten years translating the document. This papyrus describes 48 different injuries to the head, face, neck, thorax and spinal column and the appropriate surgical methods for attending to them. It is suspected that the Eighteenth Dynasty scribe who was responsible for copying the original text only wrote the first 48 cases dealing with the upper third of the body. There are more than 90 anatomical terms referenced in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, and there are more than 200 terms listed in various Nile Valley medical literature.
This papyrus is also of great importance because of its use of the word "brain" and references to the neurological relationship between the brain (spinal cord and nervous system) and the body. The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1500 B.C.) explores a broad range of medical science and includes chapters on the pulse and cardio-vascular system, dermatology, gynecology, ophthalmology, obstetrics, tumors, burns, fractures, intestinal disorders and much more. There is also considerable evidence that physicians in Egypt (also Kemet) practiced circumcision, brain surgery and were extremely well versed in gynecology and obstetrics. By 2000 B.C. physicians in Egypt had already created an effective organic chemical contraceptive. This formula consisted of acacia spikes, honey and dates, which were mixed in a specific ratio, and inserted into the vagina. Modern science has since discovered that acacia spikes contain lactic acid, which is a natural chemical spermicide.
Pregnancy and fetal sex tests were conducted by Egyptian herbalist who soaked bags of wheat and barley in a sample of a woman's urine. Urine from a pregnant woman was known to accelerate the growth of certain plants; if the barley sprouted, it meant that the woman was pregnant and was going to give birth to a female child, and if the wheat sprouted it meant that she would give birth to a male child. The urine pregnancy test was not rediscovered by modern science until 1926 and the wheat/barley sex determination teat was not developed until 1933.
In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences published a report by the National Academy of Engineers entitled Lasers: Invention to Application. In a chapter titled "Lasers in Medicine", the author, Rodney Perkins, M.D., suggests that a form of laser therapy was actually used in Egypt. Dr. Perkins states that: "The use of the laser in medicine and surgery has a relatively short pedigree of less than two decades. Although the range of laser radiation extends both below and above the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, that radiation is, in a sense, only a special form of light. The use of other forms of light in medicine has a longer history. There is documentation that the ancient Egyptians recognized and used the therapeutic power of light as long as 6,000 years ago. Patches of depigmented skin, now referred to as vitiligo, were cosmetically undesirable. Egyptian healers reportedly crushed a plant similar to present day parsley and rubbed the affected areas with the crushed leaves. Exposure to the sun's radiation produced a severe form of sunburn only in the treated areas. The erythema subsided, leaving hyperpigmentation in the previously depigmented areas."5
When looking at Nile Valley Egypt and its contributions to natural and herbal medicine, it must be understood that we are not just talking about Egypt alone. We must consider the whole continent which extends over 4,000 miles into the geography of Africa. Many tribes and African nations contributed their share of herbal and medical wisdom. This would include the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, and dozens of other African nations. The Nile Valley, however, became something of a cultural highway which made it a great historical stopping place for wisdom and knowledge.
Out of Africa came the world's first organized system of herbal and medical science. This knowledge was so profound, much of it passed from the Egyptians to the Phonicians, the Yorubas, India, Syria, Babylon, the Middle East, the Greeks, to the Romans, and from the Romans to Western Europe. The three major herbal systems, Ayurveda, Chinese Traditional Medicine, and Western herbology were extracted from the knowledge created by the priests and wise men in the Nile Valley. When this gigantic work is completed, I believe the evidence will reveal information that will amaze humanity.
Early in its history and its development, Nile Valley civilization created a basic way of life that attracted teachers, and priests from other parts of Africa, always enriching the original composite composition of the Nile Valley. By the time the Yoruba people made their journey to the Nile Valley, led by the mystic prophet Orunmila, Egyptian priests had accumulated centuries of herbal and medical knowledge. The Yoruba's drew from this treasure chest of wisdom, and incorporated it into their own religious and cultural customs. The key point, in respect to the evolution of Yoruba medicine, is that Egyptian knowledge, coupled with the earlier Nok people, produced the outcome of Yoruba herbal practices.
From a conceptual standpoint, Osain herbalism is a religion, a philosophy, and a science, Born from this concept is the idea that oneness with the Creative Essence brings about a wholeness in the human essence. Seekers, or aspirants of the system of Osain, or Yoruba, seek to bring themselves into alignment (balanced health) with his spiritual being (immortal reality), and his relationship with the Divine Cause. This is achieved through herbs, spiritual baths, right living, diet, rituals, and self-development which are meant to maintain a healthy and happy life. Thus, Osain is a divine journey to the inner self which encompasses all aspects of life.
As envisioned by the ancient prophet, Orunmila, of Yoruba, the Ifa Corpus (Cosmic Intelligence) is the text of Osain herbalism. Orunmila saw that dual levels of potentiality existed in the human body. Through him, we understand that the study of animate and inanimate, manifest and unmanifest, visible and invisible worlds leads to fundamental understandings of the processes of growth and life cycles of trees and plants, the lives of insects, animals, and. human nature. Through the guidance of Orunmila, the principles of Yoruba Cosmology evolved: "The Self-Existent Being (Oludumare), or the One Source, who is believed to be responsible for creation and maintenance of heaven and earth, of man and women, and who also brought into being divinities and spirits (Orisha) who are believed to be his functionaries as intermediaries between mankind and the Self-Existent Being (Oludumare)."6
It was through the Ashe (Nature) that matter and forces of creation evolved from. This was created by Oludumare for a divine purpose. The union of the Orisha (angelic forces) and Aba, (human development) gave birth to the dual potentiality of the human spirit. It is the goal of man to align his earthly consciousness with Ori (the physical and spiritual head) in order to connect with his divinity.
The Orisha, which are the angelic forces of Yoruba context: Elegba, Obatala, Oshun, Ogun, Yemoja, Shango, Oya, and others too numerous to mention. In the herbal context, each require special herbs and foods to bring out the life force energy that bring about their qualities. This "bringing about" is a dual endeavor as the herbalist need follow certain guidelines and practices to efficaciously heal or correct imbalance of physical health.
"Orisha" as a term, is actually the combination of two Yoruba words (I discovered that the root word is from the Egyptian god Osiris who had other qualities, "Osh", meaning many, and "iri", meaning to do or many eyed. Osiris came to mean Omniscient). "Ori" which is the reflective spark of human consciousness embedded in human essence, and "sha" which is the ultimate potentiality of that consciousness to enter into or assimilate itself into the divine consciousness.7 From this idea, we can see that given the right encouragement of the human consciousness, man can heal himself along with the use of herbs and foods as special inducements. From this standpoint, the Orisha assist in the development of (iwa-pele) or balanced character. This is the premise of true Yoruba medicine. The connection between one's consciousness (Ori) and one's behavior (iwa-pele) is clearly seen as a way of maintaining a correct attitude towards nutrition and lifestyles in order to ward off sickness (negative spirits) and disease.
Disease according to the theory of the Ifa Corpus, is caused by oppressive forces known as "ajogun". The Orisha are spirits of heaven-sent, to continually wrestle with the human nature in order to uplift it -- to purify it. The "ajogun" are the "demonic" beings. They are all earthly and heavenly forces whose destructive intent is to off-set the human body. It is the job of the Oloogun (medicine healer) to help the patient overcome the opposing forces that disrupt their health.
When understanding the African's use of demonic and spiritual agencies in medicine, it is important to understand that this concept is used merely as a cosmic-tool to explain physical phenomena in nature which is unique to African thought. When the Europeans came into Africa and saw the African dancing in a frenzy with their bodies covered in ashe, they did not understand or comprehend, so they labeled it primitive, savage and backward. They hadn't made the connection between the Creator, spirits and their manifestation in nature as the African had done. The Western mentality couldn't understand because of their materialistic way of seeing.
Because the Osain system have many Orisha which serve different purposes, we will only focus on Erinle-Orisha, the Orisha of medicine. The seven major Orisha are examined in table one. (The Yoruba's were obviously inspired with the seven Orishas by the ancient Eygptian's concept of the seven openings in the head.) Table 1: The Seven Major Orisha
Orisha Attributes Obatala
Creator of Human Form, White purity, Cures illness and deformities. Elegba
Messenger of the Orisha, Holder of Ashe (pover) among the Orisha, he is prime negotiator between negative and positive forces in body, enforces the "law of being". Helps to enhance the power of herbs. Ogun
Orisha of Iron, he expands, he is divinity of clearing paths, specifically in respect to blockages or interruption of the flow vital energy at various points in the body. he is the liberator. Yemoja
Mother of Waters, Sexuality, Primal Waters, Nurturer. She is the amniotic fluid in the womb of the pregnant woman, as well as, the breasts which nurture. She is the protective energies of the feminine force. Oshun
Sensuality, Beauty, Gracefulness, she symbolizes clarity and flowing motion, she has power to heal with cool water, she is also the divinity of fertility and feminine essence, Women appeal to her for child-bearing and for the alleviation of female disorders, she is fond of babies and is sought if a baby becomes ill, she is known for her love of honey. Shango
Kingly, Virility, Masculinity, Fire, Lightning, Stones, Protector/ warrior, Magnetism, he possesses the ability to transform base substance into that which is pure and valuable. Oya
Tempest, Guardian of the Cemetery, Winds of Change, Storms, Progression, she is usually in the company of her counterpart Shango, she is the deity of rebirth as things must die so that new beginnings arise.
In the body, the Erinle-Orisha can be understood in terms of metabolic energy which activates, or stimulates the other Orisha. Each Orisha is characterized by certain attributes and is in charge of specific organ functions. Each has its dual force of ajogun (demonic force) and Orisha (positive force). The Orishas also have special places or main locations in the body where they can accumulate, or cause havoc and disease. Therefore, it is important to use the corresponding herbal treatment to correct the derangement. Table 2: Physical Correspondences
Orisha Physical Correspondences Obatala
brain, bones, white fluids of the body Elegba
sympathetic nervous system, para sympathetic nervous system Yemoja
womb, liver, breasts, buttocks Oshun
circulatory system, digestive organs, elimination system, pubic area (female) Ogun
heart, kidney (adrenal glands), tendons, and sinews Shango
reproductive system (male), bone marrow, life force or chi Oya
lungs, bronchial passages, mucous membranes EWE (Herbs)
The use of herbs and plants, called ewe in Yoruba, is of great importance. Herbs are picked for medicinal, and the spiritual powers they possess. In Yorubaland, herbs are gathered by the Oloogun, or by the various types of herbalists who inhabit the regions where Osain is practiced. The population can usually obtain herbs either by private practice or from the marketplace in town. In the Americas and the Caribbeans, Osain based practitioners are also directed to use herbs as medicine. Here the Oloogun or priests, as well as devotees alike gather herbs for medicine, baths, and religious artifacts. Because of the wide-spread practice of Osain in the New World, Nigerians and people from other African countries have begun to set up herbal businesses in increasing numbers. More and more indigenous herbs are now being made accessible to devotees here in the Americas. It is said that ewe (herbs) are for the "healing of Nations" and many health food stores provide them in powder, leaf, and capsule form. Adherents to the traditional practices of Osain are usually advised to use herbs as medicine before going to Western allopathic drugs for healing. There are many books written on the subject of herbology. Therefore, researching the possibilities of herbal use is recommended. Table 3 below shows herbal directives. They provide examples of the ewe based on the presiding Orisha correspondence. It is best that novices seek out divination before attempting to get and prepare herbal formulas. It is also advisable to rely on priests and qualified herbalists to begin the healing process before getting involved with the properties and powers of herbs yourself. Table 3: The Ewe and Presiding Orisha Correspondences
Orisha Ewe (HERBS) for Medicinal Usage Obatala
Skullcap, Sage, Kola Nut, Basil, Hyssop, Blue Vervain, White Willow, Valerian Elegba
All Herbs Oshun
Yellow Dock, Burdock, Cinnamon, Damiana, Anis, Raspberry, Yarrow, Chamomile, Lotus, Uva-Ursi, Buchu, Myrrh, Echinacea Yemoja
Kelp, Squawvine, Cohosh, Dandelion, Yarrow, Aloe, Spirulina, Mints, Passion Plower, Wild Yam Root Ogun
Eucalyptus, Alfalfa, Hawthorn, Bloodroot, Parsley, Motherwort, Garlic Oya
Mullein, Comfrey, Cherrybark, Pleurisy Root, Elecampane, Horehound, Chickweed Shango
Plantain, Saw Palmetto, Hibiscus, Fo-ti, Sarsaparilla, Nettles, Cayenne
The following is a recommended way to prepare these herbs: The herbs can be used along or in combination with other herbs. Add the herbs to a pot of mildly boiling water (to prepare a decoction). Let the herbs steep for about thirty minutes before straining. The remaining herbal solution is then prepared as a tea. In some instances the herbal solutions are used in diluted form for enemas. Enemas are among one of the most effective treatments in cleaning out the colon which is the seat of many diseases. In Osain, sugar should never be added to herbal solutions. Honey may be used, however, along with some lemon. Diagnosis and Treatment
As one can see, we have a useful system of categorization which applies to all levels of disease and treatment. To understand the application of Osain herbology, lets's take as an example a person suffering from a bronchial-pulmonary condition including cough, and spitting of white mucus. The approach of Osain herbology would be to determine which of the Orishas are out of alignment. Osain would do this by taking into account the patient's manifest symptoms along with locating the main areas in the body where the mis-alignment (disease) occurs. Our patient would be considered to have a mis-alignment in the "Oya" and "Obatala" Orishas. Oya Orisha predominates in the lungs, bronchial passages, and the mucous membranes. The Obatala Orisha is responsible for white fluids of the body which is located in the throat region of Orisha/Obatala (also known in Yaga as the 5th Chakra, see diagram 3). The condition can be corrected by prescribing the patient with Comfrey and Sage, as an herbal tea, or applied externally by a spiritual bath.
From this example, one can get an idea of the wholistic treatment approach of Osain Herbology. However, the emotional and spiritual causes of disease would be taken into account in order to appease the negative forces of ajogun to make the cure complete according to traditional Yoruba religious practices. This would include herbs, spiritual baths, symbolic sacrifice, song, dance, ani prayer, as well as a change of diet.
Some may argue that there is a fine line between "medicine" and "superstition" in the rituals of Yorubic healing arts. The art of medicine, as Yorubic practitioners understand. it involves practices by which human beings hoped to be able to understand and control the forces of the universe. Myth, legend, drama, ritual, dance, in addition to whatever it may be, are vehicles for carrying profound knowledge about the human experience. Every culture has its roots in esoteric concepts, philosophies, and religious practices. Constructively using spiritual archetypes allows man to energize and intensify life to a surprising degree. A careful study of history will show that Europeans developed from a background of taboos, and superstitions, as well as mythical beliefs. The Chinese thought Westerners barbarians and made no attempt to learn from them until recent.
The Yorubas believed that the Orishas of the celestial world were emanations of Oludumare (The One Source) who conceived the universe by a series of emanations, and in this way it is possible to reconcile the unity of God with multiplicity. The One Source was the First Cause or Creator, the necessary Being in whom essence and existence were one. It is through incantations, drums and dance, and special herbs that one can communicate to the human body by awakening the internal Orishas, and thus return to unity, spiritual light, and health.
Western medicine deals in the area of eliminating the symptoms that have manifested in the physical body, while Yorubic healing deals with the elimination of the root source of the problem. All illness is the result of imbalance of the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects in the body. The Yorubic healer who cures the person of the symptoms has to dissipate the negative energies. Unless he addresses the cause of the disease, the sickness will eventually come back.
The only complete healing for a ailment must include a change of "consciousness" (Ori) where the individual recognizes the root cause and does not wish, or feel compelled to violate its pain. So the Western doctor, by removing the discomfort through drugs, has temporarily taken away the motivation (iwa-pele) for their patient to look for the true healing. However, as the patient's state of consciousness asserts itself, they will again violate the same natural law and eventually have another opportunity to receive motivation in the form of a new ailment to learn what they are doing wrong. Whenever we listen to our bodies, it moves to provide us with the training and the appropriate knowledge that we need to regain our balance. The Integration of Yoruba medicine into Planetary Herbology
I have tried in this essay to accomplish the first part of a pleasant assignment which I rashly laid upon myself about two years ago: to integrate African medicine into the scheme of Planetary Herbology. It is no exaggeration to say that this work would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Dr. Michael Tierra. My goal was to add to the tremendous work Dr. Tierra laid out in integrating Eastern and Western philosophies and the principles of Chinese, Japanese, Ayurvedic, and North American Indian herbal medicine.
After close study of the herbal principles applied in African medicine, I noticed the fundamental unity and similarities within and between other herbal systems. Namely, Ayurvedic, North American Indian herbology, Western, and Chinese herbology. This was due pertly because of the historical, and cultural links of each of these systems. Yet, it is well to remember that the meeting of cultures have also triggered tremendous creative explosions in medicine and philosophy. East Indian medicine was born in a meeting of the Black Dalilia (the Black Untouchables) and Indo-Europeans. Chinese herbology adopted some of its principles with the meeting of Egypt. Japanese medicine was born in a meeting with Chinese culture, and Western herbology sprang from a meeting of the ancient Greek and Egyptian priests. These are only a few illustrations; much of what I find exciting and interesting.
Let us look at the correspondance between Western herbology and the Egyptian system. The Hypocritic humoural theory was taken from Egyptian Magical Principles (see diagram 1). The basis of this theory was the belief that the human body was made up of the four elements of which the whole material world was composed: fire, air, earth and water. It was also believed that each element possessed certain qualities: hot, dry, wet, and cold. These elements could be mixed in more ways than one, and the various mixtures gave rise to different temperaments and "humours". The proper balance of elements preserved the health of the body, and a lack of balance led to illness which called for the doctor's healing magic. The Yoruba priests adopted this same system with sleight modifications. In the Yorubic system, the four elements became: Shango (the fire element), Oya (the air element), Yemoja (the water element), and Elegba (the Ashe, or earth element).
Traditional Chinese Medicine places primary emphasis on the balance of qi, or vital energy. There are 12 major meridians, or pathways, for qi, and each is associated with a major vital organ or vital function. These meridians form an invisible network that carries qi to every tissue in the body. Under the Yoruba system, the major meridians are the 7 Orishas. The flow of vital energy is represented by Ogun, which is the divinity of clearing paths, specifically in respect to blockages, or interruption of the vital energy at various points in the body (see table 1). Upon close study, it becomes evident that the Orisha modes correspond very easily to the Chinese concept of qi. Also in Traditional Chinese medicine, the vital energy comprises two parts: Yin and Yang. They are considered opposites masculine and feminine, heavenly and earthly. The theoretical equivalent of Yin and Yang in Yoruba is represented by Oshun (the divinity of feminine essence), and Shango (the divinity of virility, and masculinity). It is interesting to note that just as Yin represents the quality of cool and Yang the quality of hot, Oshun represents the power to heal with cool water, and Shango is represented by fire (heat).
Physical and spiritual balance in Yorubic medicine is best described by the concept of "Aba", or human development. Aba is a circle in the center which is aligned with the seven Orishas, each of which is represented by smaller circles of the opposite colors of black and white. The smaller circles represents the ever changing nature of Orisha (spirit) and ajogun (demon), and each Orisha demonstrate that each contains the potential to transform into its corresponding demon (or disease). (see diagram 4) It is the job of the African healer to bring the internal Orishas into alignment. This coincides with the Chinese belief that the universe is forever changing through Yin and Yang.
In the Yoruba system, the seven Orisha's have many counterparts, or partners that bring about various qualities or spiritual forces. This reciprocal relationship, in turn, gives rise to the four elements, and other attributes which influence the physical world. (see diagram 5)
As in Western and Chinese herbology, the Yoruba system incorporates environmental and emotional states. Yoruba priests believe that the Orishas govern a law of human passions and desires which, if improperly indulged, or violated, will prevent a person from gaining spiritual benefit from the external acts of rituals. Demons, or negative spirits enters the body through the five senses, the imagination and the carnal appetites. The Chinese also recognize the "seven emotions" as causes to disease. The "seven emotions", or "evil vices" approximates "the law of human passions and desires" in Yoruba medicine. For example, under the Yoruba system, someone suffering from guilt can bring on a multitude of evil spirits, or illnesses, The Elegba Orisha, is the primary negotiator between negative and positive forces in the body. The emotion of guilt can put Elegba into a negative disposition, which in turn, can effect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Physically, the negative disposition can cause chronic digestion problems, and a weakening of the immune system.
Shango Orisha represents the fire element and is hot and dry in nature. It is considered to be the Protector/Warrior, and possesses the ability to transform base substance into that which is pure and valuable. It is associated with the color red. It's season is summer.
Elegba Orisha represents the earth element and is dry and cold in nature. It is the Messenger of the Orisha, Holder of Ashe among the Orisha, and is associated with the colors red, black, and white,
Yemoja Orisha represents the water element and it is cold and wet in nature. It is the Mother of Waters, and is associated with the color blue and crystal. It's season is winter.
Oya Orisha represents the wind, or air element and is hot and wet in nature. It is responsible for the winds of change, and is associated with the color reddish-brown. It's season is spring.
The Oloogun (priest) may prescribe the patient various herbal combinations to be included in a spiritual bath to cleanse the person of negative influences which have impacted upon their aura essence. The spiritual bath is given along with prayers and incantations especially designed to help ward off the negative spirits. As in Tradition Chinese Medicine, the Yorubic priests help to cure physical symptoms by treating the emotional vice that lead to the ailment in the first place. Like other traditional medicines with a long history, Yorubic medicine focuses on the individual and what imbalances may be contributing to or causing illness or disease.
Now let's look at Ayurveda in light of Yorubic herbal principles. I found that there were many comparisons between the two systems. As I mentioned earlier, racially and linguistically, the East Indians and Africans have a common origin, going back to the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Dravidians. Ayurveda developed in contemporary contact and mutual influence from these ancient societies. Note the startling resemblance between the linguistic terminology of Yoruba and Ayurveda, very often the same sounding words, meanings, and similar spellings. These similarities in names can hardly be coincidental: Yoruba Ayurveda
Ayurveda holds that the body is governed by three basic biological principles, or doshas, that control the body's functions. These doshas and the functions they govern are:
vata -- movement
pitta -- heat, metabolism
kapha -- physical structure
The Indians believe that each individual has a combination of doshas. Imbalance of these doshas is the cause of disease. A Vaidya (Ayurveda doctor) seeks to achieve health throuhh the balancing of the three doshas. The Oloogun's under the Osain system utilize a similar concept. They believe that the body is composed of seven Orishas which exist in focal points of the body. These Orishas are in harmony when in perfect alignment, and the result is balanced health. They believe that when a person is in spiritual alignment, demons cannot produce illness. At the very foundation, both systems draw from religious and philosophical view points, which brings a mind/body approach to medicine and life. Ultimately, the beliefs of Indians are similar to those of the Africans. Both are also rooted in the belief of supernatural forces for the minor ills of life. Oblations, charms, exorcisms, astrology, oracles, incantations, vows, divination, priests, fortune-tellers, and demonic spirits are a part of the historic picture of Africa and India. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Osain and Ayurveda, symptoms and diseases that could be viewed as mental thoughts, or feelings are just as important as symptoms and disease of the physical body.
In terms of therapeutic approaches, both systems have many comparisons. Ayurveda uses the Panchakarma for purification and removal of toxins in the body. Osain utilizes the spiritual bath for this same purpose. Ayurveda and Osain saw purification as a means of purging the body of possible infections and impurities, a practice which has proven to have a rational basis. It is recorded that the ancient Hindus used ritual purification in minor cases by such simple ceremonies as being sprinkled with holy water, and in major cases by more complicated methods, culminating in the Panchakarma. This purification consisted in drinking a substance called ghee, or clarified butter. A little more to the taste of Africans was the religious precept to use the spiritual bath; here again a hygienic and spiritual measure, highly desirable in Osain medicine, clothed in a religious form to expel the evil spirits that might have entered the body.
According to Osain herbology, medicinal herbs, spiritual baths, prayers, and meditation is the cornerstone of health. Many of the herbs users in Osain are specifically selected to effect a particular Orisha in the body, including the energies and therapeutic properties inherent in the nature of the herb. The herbal properties are absorbed into the human dimensions end assist in the dissipation of negative influences. The ewe(herbs) are also classified and used in order to enhance one's Ashe. This is essential in Yoruba medicine in order to bring one's nature back in contact with the inherent force of all creation. This "contact" with the inherent force involves a tri-lateral process which includes:
1. Nature (Ashe)
2. Angelic forces (Orisha) ------------------ ewe (herbs)
3. Humans (Physical forms)
By enhancing the ashe in the human form, the spiritual channels are increased in power in order to allow the internal Orishas to gain leverage over the oppressive negative forces which are upsetting the balance of the body. Now let us compare the Western system of classification with the herbal properties of the presiding Orisha correspondence:
Obatala: Antispasmodic, stimulants, nervine, diaphoretic
Elegba: All herbs (herbs used for harmonizing)
Oshun: Alteratives, blood tonics, cholagogues, emmenagogues, antipyretics, expectorants, carminatives
Yemoja: Perturient, tonics, diuretics, cholagogues
Shango: emmenagogues, astringents
Ogun: Rubefacients, antianemics, antihemorrhagics, nutritive tonics, cardiac tonics, diuretics
Oya: Antituesives, demulcents, expectorants, antiphlegmatics. Bladder infections, prostate planets, impotence, wasting diseases.
The Planetary system of herbology also recognizes environmental energies at the core of its principles. Environmental energy is also categorized in herbs using the Osain system of herbology. Furthermore, herbs are categorized. according to numbers, colors, and directions. Table 4: Color, Number, and Natural Environment
Orisha Color Number Natural Environment Obalata
White 8, 24 Mountains, Woods Elegba
Red and Black, White and Black 1, 3, 21 Woods, Crossroads, Gateways Yemoja
Blue and Crystal 7 (salt water) Oceans, Lakes Oshun
Yellow 5 (fresh water) Rivers, Lakes Ogun
Green and Black 3 Railroads, Woods, Forges Shango
Red 6, 12 Places struck by lightning, base of trees Oya
Reddish-brown, Rust, earth tones 9 Cemetary, places hit by Hurricanes, Storms
It is believed by Africans that where a plant grows also effects its spiritual powers (energy) to heal. For instance, the Oya Orisha is considered the Guardian of the Cemetery. Any plants that are found growing in cemeteries, are said to have the enhancing powers of Oya. More specifically, the Oloogun priest will search for cemetery plants growing in brownish-rusty areas which is believed that Oya Orisha hides its spiritual powers. The number nine is associated with the number of Orisha counterparts which also accompany Oya Orisha. Yemoja Orisha, the Mother of Waters, is said to contain her powers in Lakes, and oceans (salt water). Plants in these areas are used to help protect energies of the feminine force. Examples of some of the herbs used under this classification is kelp, aloe, and Squawvine which have traditionally been used to treat female imbalances in the amniotic fluids in the womb of pregnant women. The direction that a plant is picked in a particular area is also important under Yorubic medicine. The Orishas are said to concentrate their spiritual energies in particular directions just as the internal Orishas reside in different parts of the body. After comparing the Yoruba system of direction with the "four directions of herbs" classified in the North American Indian medicine wheel, I discovered striking similarities.
Oshun, is represented by the color yellow. This Orisha indicates medicines which effect the circulatory system, digestive organs, and the elimination system. Its direction is East.
Ogun, is represented by the color green. This Orisha indicates medicines which tone the tendons, and sinews. Its direction is south.
Elegba, is represented by the color black. Medicines indicated are herbs which effect the Brain and nervous system. Its direction is West.
Obatala, is represented by the color white. This Orisha indicates white purity, and herbs that cure human deformities. Its direction is North.
The four directional energies that correspond perfectly with the wisdom of the Native Americans were: 1) Oshun; 2) Ogun; 3) Elegba; and 4) Obatala. Again, Yoruba medical principles give us a system which harmonizes with the directional energies given in Planetary Herbology. One can perceive a universal wisdom that is common in every culture and system of herbal medicine. If the universal energy is One, then the foundation on which the four energies rest is Universal Energy. In other words, if the universal center is the source of all great herbal inspirations, then these four directional energies are the vehicles through which the inspiration becomes manifest. There is no other explanation for the similarities between herbal systems around the world. Every ancient culture taught the "sacred four". They indicated that we must pass through all four aspects, or directions, if we are to be complete and balanced human beings.
In earlier times, working these herbal principles was something that medicine men. Today, we are left to universal energies into was done by the great work these things out on our own. This can be an illuminating process. The essay I have given is by no means complete. It is merely a basis to establish the integration of African Medicine into the family of Planetary herbology. I invite your questions and suggestions for the topics given. I look forward to our dialogue.
Tariq Sawandi (A.K.A. Darrell Williams) can be reached as follows: 3B04-210, P.O.B. 3466, Corcoran, Ca. 93212
The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade (Samuel Weiser, Inc.; York Beech, Maine; 1994), p. l
Michael Omoleya, Certificate History of Nigeria (London & Lagos: Longman Group, 1986), p. 15
Cheikh Anta Diop, Precolonial Black Africa (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, co-published with Lawrence Hill, 1992), p. 216 http://www.planetherbs.com/articles/yoruba.html