Athelas

I am just re-reading The Lord of the Rings and have hit on the chapter called “The Houses of the Healing”.  Three important characters are mortally ill from their wounds after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.  These wounds are no ordinary ones, having been inflicted by the Captain of the Ringwraiths.  Aragorn, the new King asks the herb-master urgently for “athelas”, also called “kingsfoil” to save their lives.

(Of course this is a fantasy novel – no such herb exists in our world – or does it?)

The herb-master replies,

“..alas! sir, we do not keep this thing in the Houses of Healing, where only the gravely hurt or sick are tended.  For it has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness.  Unless, of course, you give heed to rhymes of old days which women such as our good Ioreth still repeat without understanding.

When the black breath blows

and death’s shadow grows

and all lights pass,

come athelas! come athelas!

Life to the dying

In the king’s hand lying!

It is but doggrel, I fear, garbled in the memory of old wives.  Its meaning I leave to your judgement, even if it has any.  But old folk still use an infusion of the herb for headaches.”

“then in the name of the king, go and find some old man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some in his house!” cried Gandalf.

And the lesson is that it often takes more than book learning and memorising of Latin names to know which herbs are needed in a given situation.  If herbalists are truly applying traditional wisdom in a contemporary context, a certain amount of poetic judgement is required to tap into the healing power of what is sometimes a broken tradition.

After 30 years of study I am but a novice in the craft.

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About donaldpurves

Traditional Herbalist since 1989, qualified originally with National Institute of Medical Herbalists (Tutorial Course, School of Herbal Medicine/Phytotherapy), joined Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners in 2011. University lecturer in Herbal Medicine since 2005. Born and brought up in the Scottish Borders. Higher Education at University of York (Biology 1980) and Scottish School of Herbal Medicine (MSc Herbal Medicine 2003). Married to Rukshana Afia, an artist working with drawing, textiles and ceramics. Passionate about environmental, economic and social justice.
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