Folk Healers, Herbalism & Naturopathy Today
By Stephanie Hazel, Clinical Western Herbalist
I find that I must often explain the distinction between herbalism and naturopathy.
Whilst it’s true that both practices use a lot of the same plants and strategies, Traditional Western Herbal Medicine (WHM) approaches healing from a much more holistic perspective. This means taking whole-body systems into account, similar to the approach of Traditional Chininese Medicine or Ayurveda. The theories of WHM have their roots in elemental and energetic understandings of the earth, the body and healing from over 2000 years ago.
Naturopathy on the other hand, was born out of the Nature Care Movement around 1900 in the US. It originally used only diet, exercise, rest and sunlight as treatments - no herbs, no supplements, no medicines of any type. Now, naturopathy in Australia uses many herbs, supplements and extracts, and is focused on using the scientific paradigm to make sense of natural medicine, rather than a holistic or energetic perspective of the health and herbs.
A Battle for Acceptance
In Australia, herbs as medicines are struggling to gain the grudging acceptance of the scientific and medical community. The naturopathic industry has made great strides in this direction, using lab testing and animal testing to gain scientific standing. This has led to more understanding and respect from the public, thus achieving a ‘verified’ status still outside of the reach of herbalism. In many ways this is great, but n the process of trying to gain scientific status, some of the more subtle and artistic aspects of our tradition have been lost.
Science is constantly evolving, and things that couldn’t be proven 10 years ago are now taken for granted. Based on this line of thinking it’s incredibly sad that strong historical teachings and knowledge are dismissed due to the narrowed perception that nothing is valid unless scientifically proven, despite thousands of years of anecdotal evidence. It’s likely that as science progresses, many other aspects of the healing power of plants that our ancestors already knew will become ‘proven’.
Although in Europe WHM is thriving and experiencing a resurgence, WHM as a profession is dying out in Australia. Many colleges who used to teach WHM diplomas now only teach herbalism as a component of naturopathy. In the USA, the distinction is much clearer - whereas herbalists work with whole plants in the folk tradition, naturopathy is a post-graduate diploma for doctors. They are what we would call ‘integrative GPs’ in Australia.
The Village Healer
The unique European view of herbalism may be due in part to the long history of the village herbalist or healer - for most of history the major source of healing around the world. This village healer would grow herbs in their garden, collect herbs from the wild, give you some tea, and share advice and knowledge based on a lifetime of experience, rather than a science degree. In the West, these people no longer exist, however in much of the world, this ‘village healer’ type provides the majority of the healthcare. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that 65-80% of the world’s population uses traditional herbal medicine as their PRIMARY healthcare.
The intense persecution of village healers (such as the witch hunts) by the church, and subsequently by medical associations has always been a struggle for power..
Medical professionals are an amazing and necessary part of our lives, but it’s a gated world, and we are never given the key. Healing is a very lucrative business, and throughout the centuries various people have tried to control this - the church, the medical associations, Big Pharma.
The village healers, the folk healers, the herbalists help you reclaim sovereignty over your own body. This isn’t about knowing all the scientific details of plants, it’s about knowing your body type, knowing the ways that your body needs nurture and support throughout your life, being able to provide good advice and a compassionate ear as needed. The best herbalists are the ones who teach you how to grow your own medicines, and how to read the signs your body is sending you.
This knowledge is integral to Western Herbal Medicine, and I’d love to see the village healer archetype return to help us learn all that herbalism has to offer.