(The following is my first essay submitted the the East West School of Plantery Herbology for Lesson 1 for my Herbology course. I intend on publishing every essay for all those that may be interested.)
Erisa Evelyn Byrd
East West School of Planetary Herbology
November 21, 2018
"Explain how the categorization of herbs under Dioscorides is both different than and similar to the categorization of herbs within the Chinese material medica."
Nearly 2000 years ago, around the year of 70 AD in the first century of the Roman Empire, a man by the name of Pedanius Dioscorides created a work that continued to influence the world of Herbology for at least 1500 years. This Herbal was known as, De Materia Medica. At the time of it’s creation, there were all ready other materia medicas in existence across the world which most likely influenced the well-traveled Dioscorides. The very first Chinese material medica, the Pen T’sao of Shen Nong, was created nearly 250 years prior and in India, the Vedas, the four great books on the nature of existence, philosophy and health, had been in practice for thousands of years, but it was Dioscorides’ media that made the most impact in the west. What made this medica so special?
Dioscorides, born in Asia Minor in modern day Turkey, spent 20 years, almost his entire young adult life, researching the local plants of the Roman Empire and during his life-time, the well-organized Roman Empire was far reaching; from the edge of modern Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to the Middle East and Northern Africa. Partially because of Dioscorides' employ as Emperor Nero’s army physician and partially because ancient doctors were known to be wanderers, Dioscorides made it his mission to explore it all and gather as much information as he could. Dioscorides’ final Medica covered at least 1000 natural medicinal substances: animal, mineral, and around 600 plants. Each substance had it’s own chapter which included a drawing and was organized by physiological effects. This was revolutionary for the time. Other Western medical works existed before Dioscorides’. For example, the 450 B.C. Greek doctor Hippocrates, most known for his “oath”, only included around 265 medicines in his Aphorisms and Prognostics, and Hippocrates, like many healers of the day, approached his herbs under the categorization of the Four Humours and as a way to create medicines that treat a person as well as the disease. For hundreds of years, this was the norm in Greek and Roman healing. Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica’s change in herbal organization built a bridge between the classic Greek and Chinese organization of herbs, and successfully elevated herbs from allopathy to physiology. He wrote his medica in Greek, but many of the ideas where Asian. He did include drug properties and therapeutic actions in his descriptions like the Greeks but tended to focus less on the humours and divided and organized his plants by energetic descriptions of Healing vs. Cooling and the 5 Flavors as is similar to the elemental energy systems of China and the Three Doshas of India. What actually set Dioscorides’ medica apart from those of China was the use of illustration. China’s first illustrated medica, Tang Can Pen T’Sao, wasn’t released until the Tang Dynasty, nearly 600 years after Dioscorides and this made Dioscorides’ Medica absolutely invaluable across the world to those that had access to a copy.
What made De Materia Medica so fantastic? Dioscorides created an incredibly detailed and researched medica that changed the world of medicine. It not only referenced and elevated the work of the classic Western herbalists that came before, but created a bridge to the Asian herbalists, and through it’s illustrations it became the most accessible and most influential herbal to date as Dioscorides’ love and care for a topic that he cared deeply about helped generations of people heal themselves and that’s truly what it is all about.