Monday, January 19, 2009

The Origin of Medicine

When I was a small child my Grandmother would send me out to the back of the house with a big hand-woven reed basket to gather herbs for her. She knew exactly where each plant was growing with out looking. I was instructed to bring in yarrow, stinging nettle, etc. and how to pick them and what to say to them as I picked them. I would return with a basket full of the most wonderfully smelling plants imaginable. I would sit cross-legged at her feet as she sorted the plants and told me what they were good for .... something for Grandfather's bruised leg, something to add to the stewed corn for supper, something for a calming tea, a sprig of spearmint for me to chew as I listened. Waiting, waiting for the fascinating stories that always came with Grandmother's teaching. And her stories always started ..... "Listen softly, Little One, and remember the Old Ways ....." and then the story began......

At one time, animals and people lived together peaceably and talked with each other...But when mankind began to multiply rapidly, the animals were crowded into forests and deserts. Man began to destroy animals for just their skins and furs, not just for needed food. The animals became angry at such treatment by their former friends, resolving that they must punish mankind.

The Bear tribe met in council, presided over by Old White Bear, their Chief. After several bears had spoken against mankind for their blood-thirsty ways, war was unanimously agreed upon. But what kinds of weapons should the bears use? Chief Old White Bear suggested that man's weapon, the bow and arrow, should be turned against him. All of the council agreed. While the bears worked and made bows and arrows, they wondered what to do about bowstrings. One of the bears sacrificed himself to provide the strings, while the others searched for good arrow-wood.

When the first bow was completed and tried, the bear's claws could not release the strings to shoot the arrow. One bear offered to cut his claws, but Chief Old White Bear would not allow him to do that, because without claws he could not climb trees for food and safety. He might starve.

The Deer tribe called together its council led by Chief Little deer. They decided that any Indian hunters, who killed a deer without asking pardon in a suitable manner, should be afflicted with painful rheumatism in their joints. After this decision, Chief Little Deer sent a messenger to their nearest neighbors, the Cherokee.

"From now on, your hunters must first offer a prayer to the deer before killing him," said the messenger. You must ask his pardon, stating you are forced only by the hunger needs of your tribe to kill the deer. When a deer is slain by a Cherokee hunter, Chief Little Deer will run to the spot and ask the slain deer's spirit, "Did you hear the hunter's prayer for pardon?" If the reply is yes, then all is well and Chief Little Deer returns to his cave. But if the answer is no, then the Chief tracks the hunter to his lodge and strikes him with the terrible disease of rheumatism, making him a helpless cripple unable to hunt again.

All the fishes and reptiles then held council and decided they would haunt those Cherokees, who tormented them, by telling them hideous dreams of serpents twinning around them and eating them alive. These snake and fish dreams occurred often among the Cherokees. To get relief, the Cherokees pleaded with their Shaman to banish their frightening dreams if they no longer tormented the snakes and fish.

Now when the friendly Plants heard what the animals had decided against mankind, they planned a countermove of their own. Each tree, shrub, herb, grass, and moss agreed to furnish a cure for one of the diseases named by the animals and insects. Thereafter, when the Cherokee visited their Shaman about their ailments and if the medicine man was in doubt, he communed with the Spirits of the Plants. They always suggested a proper remedy for mankind's diseases.
This was the beginning of Plant medicine from nature among the Cherokee tribes a long, long time ago. It seemed the stories lasted only as long as it took Grandmother to fill her gourd bowls with all the sorted and prepared herbs.


  1. Oh Van, what a wonderful story and it reminds me of sitting at my grandmothers knee while she knitted or crocheted and told stories. It's been 20 years and I still miss her so much. Thanks for the pleasant memory.

  2. Such respect for nature. Sounds like you got your Grandmother's story-telling skills too.

  3. Van, your wonderful knowledge of the world and nature and how we are tied to the earth reminds me of the Clan of the Cave Bear series. While these were fiction, much of the tale was very similar, in that they all had deep, spiritual ties to the land and other living things! Perhaps many of us need to find these things within ourselves to be more peaceful. Teri Twitter: Teri_B

  4. please i want to know more about history on traditional medicine like as old as man my e-mail ;