What is Medicine?
Today, in our ‘civilised’ western world, we are most used to the word medicine in particular clinical contexts. Good medicine is what you hope you’ll get when you visit your GP, or health specialist, or when you buy a product from the pharmacist.
You may be familiar with the word used when describing the practices of certain indigenous peoples – Native American Indian, for example, or Australian Aboriginal – although the word medicine is the contemporaneous (often white male Western) translation of tribal languages. In these practices, ‘Medicine’ (capitalised here to distinguish it from our everyday understanding of the word) is a healer of body, mind or spirit: though in the Medicine approach, such distinction is rarely made. Good Medicine can help seekers feel more connected and in harmony with all life forms, even if they are not physically ill. In tribal communities, this kind of Medicine is often used during rites of passage, or for divination purposes, as well as for the physical and mental health of the community.
Medicine is held in the natural world: in the landscape, in soil itself, in stones, bodies of water, clouds, rainbows, wind, rain. In celestial bodies, trees, plants and flowers. It’s held too in all living creatures: birds, animals and even insects can be Medicine.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of medicine as an actual product based on animal or vegetable material. Today’s aspirin is yesterday’s concoction from willow; today’s beta-blocker yesterday’s extraction from foxgloves. These days, we tend not to put butter on burns or cow’s urine on open wounds (my own grandmother, daughter of a Somerset hedge-witch, did both!), although certain Oriental medicine practices do still use unprocessed animal by-products directly for healing purposes.
However, there is a less tangible aspect to nature’s Medicine available – for those who know how to look – via direct contact with the landscape and what’s observed when travelling through it. In this approach, nothing needs to die so you live better. Hence the practice of the ‘Medicine walk’, or ‘vision quest’ (see below), used in many ancient tribal cultures and still in existence today.
The Medicine Tradition of Albion
Although there is little obvious practice of it today, and even less formally documented, the land mass currently known as Britain¹, has its own primal – native – traditions. This landmass, which has taken 400 million years to form its present shape and location, contains almost every known type of rock. It has rich strata too of Medicine practices dating back thousands of years, arguably from at least the end of the last Ice Age around eight to ten thousand years ago, when the English Channel was formed. This is the period usually taken as the cut-off point for determining ‘native’ species of plants and animals. Since that time, many peoples have crossed the seas and interbred with those ancient Britons, each leaving remainders of their own medicine practices.
In Medicine traditions, this ancestral knowledge is held in the land for those who seek it, and access to it has most often been facilitated by those known, at different times, and in different places, as shamans, druids, elders, seers, herbalists, medicine men and women, cunning men and women, midwives or witches. My own great-grandmother, living in a Somerset village, was known as a ‘hedge-witch’: the local healing woman, midwife, and layer-out of the dead. The ‘ancestors’ is another term we might use: one which implies once living though now long dead relations, and also encompassing the ancient traditions they practised.
The Medicine Walk – one technique
To receive Medicine that would give answers for personal or community challenges or health problems, our ancestors would often walk intentionally (that is, with a focused intent), sometimes for many days, through forests, or mountains; or they would cross open land or navigate water, to observe the portents or signs that would assist them in healing and obtaining wisdom.
The Medicine Walk is a way to access the wisdom of the land; to allow an osmotic healing process to occur, and also to initiate or consolidate links with totems, allies, or guides from the plant and animal kingdoms. We are in the territory of shamanism here – ‘the primal religion’. Caroline Myss, one of my own teachers, is worth reading on this.
Many people would say they are not religious, yet have some sense of a force/energy/spirit/ vibration (again, different words for a similar concept), which does not adhere to the rules of everyday physical existence. For some, these entities or forces are neutral, for others they are considered to be potentially helpful or harmful to human existence, and therefore on particular occasions, or at certain times of year, they may need acknowledgement, appeasement, or just simple thanks. This is the origin of many of our religious or spiritual festivals and celebrations, both ancient and modern.
Acting as if…
If this notion of the practice of an ‘ancestral medicine tradition’ does not sit easily with your own belief system, you may find it helpful to take on the simple premise that everything on the planet is connected at some level to everything else. Everything is effected by and affects something else. And if that doesn’t sit easily with your belief system either – but you are curious and want to try it – you can always act ‘as if’. Act as if you believe this: act as if you think it might help if you try this approach. Pretend, in other words. Why not? Who knows what might happen?
Remember, nature – and nature’s Medicine – is not separate from you, outside somewhere. Contrary to popular belief, nature does not just exist in that garden, that park, nature reserve, or wild place down the road or even across the globe. Nature is here and now, and it is you and me.
If you are looking for a Medicine teacher – or think you might be – then do make contact.
¹ The large island landmass known as Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic also has its own rich Medicine tradition. There are many similarities, particularly between parts of Ireland and Scotland, and parts of Ireland and Wales. However, my experiences, research and learning have come predominantly from my journeys in Scotland, England and Wales: a body of land formerly known as Albion.