The origins of the Western Materia Medica stem from Ancient Greece, but many of those medicines in turn were used by older cultures including the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. There is strong evidence that drug trade routes from the far East were well established, even at the time of Hippocrates, 2400 years ago. By 2000 years ago, Medicines in Ancient Greece were derived from Africa, Middle East, India and as far as China, brought as trade along the Silk Road.
From around 1000 years ago, the Arabs had a great influence on the Medicine used in Europe, and this had further influence on the Materia Medica. At this time, some Indian medicines were introduced.
The following is a brief introduction of the Traditional Western Materia Medica. It is an overview to some of the most important and most used Materia Medica.
One fact worth mentioning is the huge reliance on 2 genera: Cucurbitaceae (Pumpkin or Gourd family) and the Apiaceae (Celery family). The former was the source of the Cold Seeds, the foundation of many classical Cold formula. The Apiaceae supplied Seeds (Anise, Celery, Fennel, Cumin, Caraway etc.) and Roots (Celery, Fennel, Celery, Parsley etc.). There is a great logic in the ancient using herbs that were both Food and Medicine. The flesh of the various Gourd family could be eaten while their seeds are collected for medicine. Likewise the Celery family is a rich source of both food and medicine. The Apiaceae also supplies a large number of herbal medicines which are not food.
The use of Seeds in the Western Tradition formed an important part of the Materia Medica. The seeds of numerous plants were often included in various classical formula. The most used seeds can be divided up into Cold and Warm seeds.
The ‘Four Greater Cold Seeds’ are the seeds of the Cucurbitaceae, usually Melon, Cucumber, Gourd and Water melon (some authors in some places at some times substituted one or more of these with a related seed such as Pumpkin). These seeds are Cold, clear Heat and have a secondary effect of nourishing Yin. A great many classical cooling formulas relied on the Cooling seeds.
The ‘Four Lesser Cold Seeds’ are the seeds of Chicory, Endive, Lettuce, Purslane. These are very useful to clear Heat but lack the tonic effect of the Greater Cold seeds.
Other ‘Cold’ seeds commonly used include Quince, Sorrel, and Plantain, for example.
Whereas the Greater Cold seeds are derived from the Cucurbitaceae, the Warming seeds are derived from the Apiaceae.
The ‘Four Greater Hot Seeds’ were composed of equal parts of Annis, Caraway, Cumin and Fennel. They Warm the Stomach and Kidneys in particular, and are also effective to clear Wind. They have a secondary effect of supporting Yang.
Numerous other Warm seeds of the Apiaceae were likewise used.
Other ‘Warm’ seeds include seeds of Mustard, Rocket and Onion.
Fruits & Nuts
All the great Traditions have used different Fruits and Nuts in their formulas. Some have tonic effects, some are more medicinal. Using a fruit or fruit paste as a basis for a formula makes it sweeter, more gentle, and more grateful to the taste, and using Nuts in the formula are used to strengthen the Kidneys and increase Sperm.
Some of the best purgative formulas, for example, may be based on a pulp of Prunes or Cassia, which are gently laxative, but also has an effect of correcting harsh medicines and making the medicines more pleasant to take.
Similarly, Lung medicines are often based on Raisins or Figs which both strengthen and cleanse the Lungs, and make the medicine better tasting.
Some fruit were commonly used in the past but are largely unavailable today. This includes fruits such as Sebestens and Medlars.
Nuts are often used, especially in Tonic formulas. Almonds, Hazelnuts, Pistachio, Walnuts and Pine nuts were all regarded as very nourishing and strengthening.
The Western Tradition relied on many gums. These are potent natural ‘extracts’ of the plant and are highly concentrate. Gums may be divided into several general categories:
i. Blood-moving gums: Myrrh, Frankincense, Bdellium and Dragons Blood are examples of medicines which help move the Blood.
ii. Aromatic Gums: Asafetida, Galbanum, Opopanax and Gum Ammoniac are all highly aromatic Gum-resins. They are very warm, clear Wind and Phlegm, and open Obstructions. They are all related species of Ferula.
Storax and Benzoin are two other aromatic gums, which have an effect of opening the orifices of the Mind and clear the Senses. They are similar.
iii. Gum Arabic and Tragacanth are often used together. They are sweet and strengthening and appear in a number of important cooling, strengthening and Yin-tonic formula. They relieve irritation, stop Cough and soothe the mucous membranes.
iv. Mastic: this important tonic gum is warm and sweet. It strengthens the Stomach, increases Qi, and is used to correct harsh or irritant medicines much like Licorice does in TCM, although it is stronger.
The Myrobalans are a group of fruit, similar to wild plums originally used in Ayurveda. Their usefulness led them to be important medicines in Arab and Tibetan Medicine, and many formulas based on them are used in all systems except TCM which only uses Chebulic Myrobalan, and that, not very often.
There are Three main varieties which together are known as Triphala in Ayurveda. These are Chebulic, Emblic and Belleric Myrobalan, each regarded as tonics and regulators of one of the Three Dosas (Humors) of Ayurveda. The Chebula has a number of varieties itself, Tibetan Medicine recognising 8 types; however, 3 are of primary importance: Chebula, Yellow and Black Myrobalans. Chebula has a special effect on Wind and benefits Wind constitutions. The Yellow is special for Bile, while the Black excels in treating Melancholy.
In the Western Tradition, sometimes Three Myrobalans are used together, and in some cases all 5 are used.
The Myrobalans have a cleansing and purging effect with a secondary tonic effect. This leads them to be very useful and widely applicable. They are the basis for a great many formula, and some of the formulas for the most serious or complex diseases are based on these medicines.
The Arab pharmacopoeias have a whole section devoted to these formulas called Itraphal. They are one of the cornerstones of Traditional Materia Medica in all systems except the Chinese.
The use of Spices in the Traditional Materia Medica is quite widespread in all systems except for TCM. Many formulas from all other systems often use several of the Spices within a formula.
The Spices Warm, clear Cold, Damp and Phlegm, help regulate Qi, as well as promoting bioavailability, increasing digestion and promoting circulation.
The widespread use of them helps support Yang Qi and improves the efficacy of a formula when added.
In particular, the individual spices have the following special effects:
i. Clove: regulates Qi, especially through the Du Mai ('Life Channel'), the main channel of Yang Qi. It is also penetrates to carry other herbs deeper.
ii. Nutmeg: works well with Clove as its astringent effect helps the loss of Qi that is apt to follow the use of such pungent, heating and aromatic medicines. It helps anchor Qi in its place of residence, the lower abdomen. It is a useful astringent in cases with Cold, Damp, Phlegm or Wind.
iii. Cinnamon: has a special effect of warming digestion and helping distribute nutrition around the body. It also leads Yang Qi to the lower abdomen (Dan Tian), a special effect as most warm medicines lead Yang Qi up and outwards.
iv. Ginger: a special medicine for the Stomach, it warms and strengthens the Stomach, promotes digestion, relieves Nausea and Vomiting and increases bioavailability, thereby increasing the effect of the other medicines it is combined with. Galangal is used very similarly.
v. Cardamon: there are a number of different but related medicines used as Cardamon. The Greater Cardamon (Amomum subulatum) is a special for the Spleen. It is regarded as the best medicines for the Spleen in Tibetan Medicine as it warms, dries, is aromatic and grateful to taste. The Lesser Cardamon (Elettaria) is a special medicine for the Kidneys in Tibetan Medicine.
Flowers were often used in Traditional formula, and Flower Conserves (fresh flowers beaten with sugar to a paste) have been kept by Apothecaries for many centuries. The Rose was by far the most used flower and was used in numerous forms and compounds. Conserve, Syrup and Distilled Water of Rose are regularly used in the Western Tradition.
Often the ‘Flowers’ of herbs such as Rosemary or Sage were ordered in a formula. In these cases, the Apothecary would generally understand ‘Flowering tops’, that is, the tips with flower.
Flowers commonly used include Rose, Violet, Peony and Water Lily.
Aloeswood, and the Three Sandalwoods commonly appear in formulas. Other woods of the New World like Guaiacum and Sassafras appeared later.
Humoral Medicine has many purgative formulas which are used to purge Humors responsible for numerous diseases. Some of these formulas are strong, but well corrected, and are therefore noble in use and safe when used properly.
Purgatives may be divided into gentle (laxative), mild and strong:
Gentle: Prunes, Cassia, Linseed and other seeds and their oils
Mild: Aloe, Rhubarb, Senna
Strong: Scammony, Colocynth, Jalap, Euphorbium
Saffron deserves its own place as it has been so widely used in Traditional Formula. It benefits the Heart, increases circulation and opens obstructions. It is regarded as a powerful Cordial (medicines which cherishes the Heart and Spirit), and is so highly regarded that a small amount added to an appropriate formula is believed to greatly increase the overall effect of the formula.
In modern practice, Safflower has replaced the widespread use of Saffron due to the high cost. In some instances, it is necessary to retain Saffron in a formula, even if the dose is reduced.
Another ‘special’ medicine worth mentioning is Tabasheer. Tabasheer is an almost pure silica derived from Bamboo. It was mistranslated by early translators of Arab texts as Spodium, which is burnt Ivory. It is commonly used in Unani, Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine, less commonly in TCM.
Tabasheer is cold, dry, clears Heat, resolves Phlegm and stops Wind. It is most commonly used in formulas for Heat and Fever in the Western Tradition. It is also good for Hot-Phlegm Lung conditions and Wind-Heat type Convulsions.
A number of Earths were used since classical times. They are mostly aluminium silicates. Broadly speaking they can be divided into 'White' and 'Red', the former being Kaolin-like clay-earths, the latter being the same but with Iron to give a red color. They are astringent, and resist and absorb toxin, the red also being used to stop Bleeding. Terra Sigillata, 'Sealed Earth', was used which was Earth formed into discs and 'Sealed' with a figure. These were most used against Epidemic and Infectious Diseases, and different Poisons.
In all Traditions various semi-precious and precious stones have been used. The most practically used stones today are Pearl, Coral, and Amber. These appeared quite commonly in Western formulas.
Pearl is Cool, dry, slightly sweet, clears Heat, settles Wind and calms the Mind and Spirit.
Red Coral is cool, dry, clears Heat, calms the Mind and Nerves and stops Bleeding from Heat.
Amber calms the Mind and Nerves, stops Spasms, moves Blood, and promotes Urine when obstructed.
These stones are usually levigated (powdered finely with water or Rose water), whereas other stones such as the gems require very careful preparation otherwise they can cause damage if ingested.
The most common application of these stones is Fever, Convulsions, especially in children, Palpitations, Anxiety, Insomnia etc.
Certain special formulas contained precious Gem stones. In most cases they are not toxic as well as they are extremely finely powdered (levigated) to an impalpable powder, most being aluminium silicates. One exception is Emerald, containing beryllium which is toxic.
All the Great Traditions have used animal medicines since ancient times. Animal medicines are of different kinds. Some are by-products of the animal where the animal doesn’t need to be killed, such as Honey, Wax, Silk and Deer horn. Some require killing the animal, such as organs, parts or glands etc.
Modern Western society is now very aware of endangered animals and the time for hunting Rhino for their horn or Tiger for their bones must end. But these animals were, and in some instances wtill are, killed to protect local humans. In fact, Bear bile was hailed as a wonderful medicine in parts of Europe for centuries. Bears would be trapped to avoid them attacking people or stealing food, and the bear fat and bile would be harvested for the Apothecaries.
The most applicable animal medicines in the modern world are those derived from animal we slaughter for food. The use of animal organs to strengthen weak human organs is an ancient premise of traditional medicine, ‘like cures like’. The eating of offal is practiced in all Traditional cultures and is also following the ancient principle of 'letting your food be your medicine'. Organs of farmed animals can often be used in place of more exotic animal organs. For example, Rabbit bile has been found to be equivalent medicinally to Bear bile.
The most important animal medicines are the potent aromatics, Musk in particular, but also Castoreum and Ambergris. These are all basically obsolete, but can be replaced by a potent vegetable aromatic such as Storax.