An Introduction to the Doctrine of Signatures Tamarra S. James
It is unthinkable that any serious student of herbal
medicine would be unaware of the existence of a diagnostic system
called, "The Doctrine of Signatures". Most people have read of
it in passing with little or no explanation. In the historical
perspective, it is one of the most important modes of medical
thinking to have evolved, and it was expounded in medical texts
from the middle of the sixteen hundreds right up to the end of
the nineteenth century.
The Doctrine of Signatures is most notable in that it was not
originally formulated for the medical profession. It took shape
as a spiritual philosophy that had as its base the simple concept
that God had marked everything he had created with a sign. This
sign was a clear indicator of the item's true purpose as intended
There are allusions to this sort of theory in the writings of
Galen A.D. 131-200. But it was not until the publication of
Jacob Boehme's Book "Signatura Rerum; The Signature of all
Things" was published in the first half of the seventeenth
century that it took form as a complete philosophy.
Jacob Boehme was not a learned man, he was in fact, a
shoemaker from a poor family just outside Goerlitz, Germany. In
1600, he was visited by a sudden illumination of the mind in
which was made clear to him the doctrine he espoused for the
remainder of his life. He published his revelations in the book,
"Aurora" 1612, and was promptly exiled from his home town by the
city council on the advice of the pastor of Goerlitz. The city
council reversed the banishment the next day on the condition
that he wrote no further books. He was apparently unable to
comply with the conditions and left for Prague the next year. He
died in 1624 having authored two books and several treatises on
the subject of his visions.
The first person to look on Boehme's theories as something more
secularly useful than a method for spiritual meditations was
Paracelsus who was writing in the first half of the sixteen
hundreds. Paracelsus is considered by modern scholars to be the
father of modern chemistry, and he did much in his lifetime to
popularise the Doctrine of Signatures in its medical application.
(Put in its simplest terms, the Doctrine states that by
careful observation one can learn the uses of a plant from some
aspect of its form or place of growing.) The level of signature
often got a little far fetched, and it would seem that this was a
case of attempting to make the known facts fit the popular
theory. In a period where most of the world was still largely
illiterate, it is likely that the Doctrine of Signatures was
useful as a mnemonic aid for the apprentice who was learning by
observation and rote.
I will give here a series of examples from William Cole who was
writing in the Seventeenth Century and was greatly influenced by
the teachings of Paracelsus. They will give you some idea of the
practical application of the Doctrine. These examples are taken
from notes that were intended to teach the practices of medicine.
His books are titled, "The Art of Simpling" and "Adam in Eden".
The distilled water of Hawthorn: "It is found by good experience,
that if cloathes and spunges be wet in the said water and applyed
to any place whereinto thornes, splinters etc. have entered and
be there abiding, it will notably draw forth, so that the thorn
gives a medicine for its own prickling." The signature is in the
thorn itself in this case.
Lung wort, due to the spots on its leaves was related to
Plants with yellow flowers or roots, such as Goldenrod were
believed to cure conditions of Jaundice by the signature of
Plants with a red signature were used for blood disorders.
John Gerard states in his herbal when speaking of St. John's
Wort, "The leaves, flowers and seeds stamped, and put into a
glass with oile olive, and set in the hot sunne for certaine
weeks togather and then strained from those herbes, and the like
quantity of new put in, and sunned in like manner, doth make an
oile of the colour of blood, which is a most precious remedy for
deep wounds..." In this sort of case, the doctrine goes a little
far in demanding that the preparation be made before the
signature evidences itself.
The petals of the Iris were commonly used as a poultice for
bruising because of the signature of colour, the petals
resembling in hue the bruise they were to alleviate.
Beyond the signature of colour was that of form. If a portion of
a plant resembled an organ or other part of the Human Anatomy, it
was believed to be beneficial to that part, thus, Cole speaks of
Lily of the Valley in the following terms, " It cureth apoplexy
by Signature; for as that disease is caused by the dropping of
humours into the principal ventricles of the brain: so the
flowers of this Lily hanging on the plants as if they were drops,
are of wonderful use herein."
Poplar or "Quaking Aspen" leaves were used for shaking
Palsy, and Byrony root, which, with a little imagination could be
said to resemble a swollen human foot, was obviously signed for
use in cases of Dropsy which caused swelling of the foot.
There are many more examples of similar types, but this will
give a sort of general overview to the theory.
The Doctrine of Signatures naturally led to the concept of
Astrological influence, and this was developed and put forward by
Nicolas Culpeper in his book, "Judgement of Diseases" in the mid
sixteen hundreds. This was a sort of scientific version of the
Doctrine of Signatures that set itself up in opposition to the
simpler folk style we have seen previously. In fact there were a
number of vituperative arguments and clashes between Cole and
Culpeper over the relative merits of the two systems.
In short, the two systems weren't that far different from each
other, and their evaluations of the uses of herbs were generally
the same, the means of arriving at the interpretation was the
thing in dispute. Culpeper felt that only astrologers were fit
to study medicine, being an astrologer himself did not, I'm sure
hinder him in the formation of this bias. Cole was of the
"College of Physicians in London" whom Culpeper loudly decried
as, " A company of proud, insulting, domineering doctors, whose
wits were born about 500 years before themselves." Cole was also
the most avid proponent of the Doctrine of Signatures.
They carried on a literary battle for supremacy which was
effectively won in 1649 by Culpeper, when he published, " a
physicall directory or a translation of the London dispensary
made by the College of Physicians in London..." In this book, he
had translated the College's main medical text from the Latin,
into the vernacular so that the common man could wean himself
away from dependance on the Doctors by delving into the mysteries
that were formerly known only to the learned physicians. He also
added his own commentary on the formulas, and included a healthy
dose of his astrological theories, seeming to give them the
credence of the College. The College was not amused and
proceeded to attack Culpeper in broadsides from this time, and
continued unceasingly, even after his death.
The astrological system of diagnosis and treatment was set forth
in Culpeper's "complete herbal" in the following way:
1. Consider what planet causeth the disease; that thou mayest
find it in my aforesaid "Judgement of Diseases". (His other
2. Consider what part of the body is affected by the disease and
whether it lies in the flesh or blood or bones or ventricles.
3. Consider by what planet the afflicted part of the body is
governed; that my "Judgement of Diseases" will inform you also.
4. You may oppose diseases by herbs of the planet opposite to the
planet that causes them; as diseases of the luminaries by the
herbs of Saturn and the contrary; diseases of Mars by the herbs
of Venus and the contrary.
5. There is a way to cure diseases sometimes by sympathy and so
every planet cures its own diseases; as the sun and moon by their
herbs cure the eyes, Saturn the spleen, Jupiter the liver, Mars
the gall and diseases of the choler, and by Venus diseases in the
instruments of generation."
Astrology was consulted for diagnosis, classification of
medicinal plants and bodily functions, the preparation of
medicines, and the determination of the most favorable time to
administer the remedy.
I will briefly set down the basic planetary divisions of the
botanic kingdom. One will note how similar the method is to the
broader Doctrine of Signatures, in fact, there is little
deviation here from the planetary catalogue set down by
The sun was said to rule the heart, circulation, and the
vertebral column. All plants that appeared solar, such as
Calendula and Sunflower fell under its influence, as did those
plants that followed the sun in their growth such as Heliotrope.
Plants that were heat producing, such as Clove and Pepper, and
all those having a tonic effect on the heart were classified
under the Sun.
The moon was held to influence growth, fertility, the breasts,
stomach, womb, and menstrual cycle. It also exerted control over
the brain and the memory. All body fluids and secretions were
believed to be under the lunar sway. To some extent, the entire
plant world was subject to the Moon, as harvesting and planting
was performed in accordance with the lunar phases. Most
especially lunar were those plants with a diaphoretic action, or
with juicy globular fruits. Moisturizing, cooling, or soothing
juices fell in here as well.
Mercury ruled the nervous system, and the organs of speech,
hearing, and respiration. Mercuric plants bore finely divided
leaves such as fennel, dill, and carrot. The smell was usually
sharp and distinctive. The most typical of Mercury's plants had
a mood elevating, slightly tonic effect.
Venus ruled the complexion, the sexual organs, and the hidden
inner workings of the body cells. Venusian plants almost all bore
heavily scented, showy blossoms such as the Damascus Rose or the
Apple Blossom. The medicinal effects were commonly emollient,
anti-nephritic, and alterative. Of course, many of the
aphrodesiac plants were included under the auspice of Venus as
Mars ruled the muscles, body vitality, and the libido. It
also had influence in the combustion processes of the body and
the motor nerves. Its plants generally affected the blood, and
were stimulating, and in many cases aphrodesiac. Many were hot
and acrid in their nature.
Jupiter ruled the liver, the abdomen, the spleen, and the
kidney. Digestion was governed by this planet as was body
growth. Most of Jupiter's plants are edible, many bearing nuts
or fruit such as the chestnut and the apricot. Its medicinal
traits are antispasmodic, calmative, hepatic, and anthelmintic.
Saturn ruled over aging, the bone structure, teeth, and all
hardening processes. Many of its plants are poisonous such as
Hemlock and Belladonna. The effects of Saturnian plants are
sedative, pain relieving, coagulant, or bone-forming.
Beyond these seven planets, the proponents of this theory
had no knowledge of any other heavenly influences.
To many of us, this method seems very arbitrary and unreliable,
but one must note, that it was more a system of catalogue than a
real formula for discovery. A budding herbalist may know that
Mercury has many plants with highly divided leaves like Parsley,
but he also knew, that Jupiter had the Hemlock, also with finely
divided leaves, and so he could not trust that all plants with
the leaf type would act the same. Most of the herbal apprentices
could read little and write less, and the Doctrine of Signatures
came to the rescue as a slightly more dignified mnemonic key than
the doggerel verse of the village witch-wife.
"The Signature of All Things", Jacob Boehme: James Clarke & Co.
Ltd., Cambridge 1969.
"The Golden Age of Herbs & Herbalists.", Rosetta E. Clarkson:
Dover Publications Inc., New York 1972.
"Culpeper's Complete Herbal", Nicholas Culpeper; W. Foulsham &
Co. Ltd. London
"The Herbal of General History of Plants": John Gerard: Dover
Publications Inc. 1975.
"Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy": Manfred M. Junius: Inner
Traditions International Ltd., New York 1985.
THANK YOU TAMARRA JAMES.
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