Mother Africa, Earth Medicine
The continent of Africa is a vast treasure trove of traditional medicinal wisdom. The people that live here continue to rely strongly on plant medicine for their wellbeing and the practice of traditional herbalism is an important component of cultural systems of resilience and self-sufficiency. At the heart of African medicine is the sangoma. She is the gateway through which medicine is given to the community. It is she who is the keeper of medicine and the conduit for the wisdom that comes from the Earth Mother.
There is a deep thread of spiritual wisdom that is woven into African medicinal practices. African herbalists embrace a way of knowing, a way of relating to plants, that reaches deep into the spirit of the plant kingdom and the earth itself. This ancient understanding of earth medicine is very much alive in Africa today and it is a valuable component of the cultural richness of the continent.
Traditional African medicine is less about measurable molecules and their dosages and more about an understanding of the living relationship between human beings, the plant kingdom and the soul of the earth. It follows the roots of the plants deep down into the fertile darkness of the earth and there it speaks to a living sacred presence that offers healing for all ailments of the body, mind and spirit. This wisdom of our medicinal healing traditions is considered sacred knowledge that has always been the exclusive secret of the initiates, but there is an urgency now to share these secrets more openly with the world.
This sacred wisdom of herbalism is one of the primordial gifts given by the original Earth Mother to humanity and I believe that, if we continue to sustain the practices of our traditional herbalism, then the gift of the wisdom of plant medicine will continue to nourish the people that live in this place today and in the future. I also believe that this ancient thread of knowledge is a living thing that cannot be destroyed. It is the wisdom of the Great Mother, her sacred knowledge and as such it will always be kept alive within humanity, but there is a responsibility in this time for us to protect and care for the tradition. Plant medicine and the knowledge of how to use it is an innate human right, as much as the air that we breathe. It will always be alive inside us and it will give back to us tenfold if we are wise enough to take care of it.
The earth is suffering under the heavy hand of western materialism and there are murmurings that the time has come for the medicinal wisdom of the four corners of the earth to be called back to the centre of creation. Symbolically we can imagine that this centre is Mother Africa, where humanity was born, a return to the source. It is the sangoma, initiated in the sacred ways, who is the conduit for this coming together.
Through the door of divination
Because plant medicine is sacred knowledge, to understand the relationship between Africa and her medicinal treasures we need to pass through the doorway of divination. By that word, divination, I mean that we access the wisdom of African herbalism though following this thread of the divine that is present in nature.
The thread of the divine in nature is not an alien concept to the west. Carl Jung called this divine light present in nature the lumen naturae. This light in nature presented a possibility of direct knowledge to Jung, knowledge that he said was only was accessible from within matter, within the earth. It was also the primary focus of alchemy to find and extract this divine light that was present in matter.
So to understand African traditional medicinal wisdom, we need to know that the path to knowledge is through an experience of this divinity. This is why divination rather than science is the doorway through which medicinal wisdom is accessed in Africa. The medicinal wisdom of Africa is not written in books because it is a living fountain of wisdom that can only be received when we listen to the subtle voice of the goddess of the earth and the language of plants. This is the ancient language of the soul that the doctors of the ancient world know so well, it is the language of the sangoma initiate, the herbalist and the healer.
In African herbal traditions there is this deep respect for the tradition of communicating with the ancestors, who are alive in the realm of the afterlife. It is here, with the help of the ancestors, that the sangoma finds the knowledge of medicine as a living thread of divine light that reaches back in time, all the way back to our ancestral Eve. The ancestors are the direct conduits that reach in an uninterrupted thread back to the original Earth Mother. Like the past, they are alive and watching us.
To touch that wisdom and to learn from it, we must reach in, deep into the fertile darkness of the earth, where the goddess resides. The sangoma knows that if she looks deep within she can find this thread and follow it back to the source, in the dark depths, and receive wisdom in how to offer healing to those that come for help. In the depths of the fertile darkness the sangoma encounters the Great Mother.
It is a mystical secret that all knowledge comes from the gods and that we are merely conduits for the wisdom of the divine, not the creators of wisdom. So to understand the wisdom of African medicine we not only need to go to divination, but we very specifically must go to the goddess, Mother Africa. She is the archetypal earth goddess, mami wati, the great Ma of Zulu folklore. She is the earth and she is our mother. She is a living being, more alive than we know and she is inside us. She is the embodiment of all the mysteries of creation. From her being emanates all life as we know it. In the beginning of time She was a tree that gave birth to all life: the rivers, forests, mountains and oceans, the animals and the people. All life is endlessly being born and dying in the great cycle of life within her body. The very mystery of time, the alpha and the omega, are contained in her being. She is the present continuous, the eternal unfolding moment of now. In her body is a beautiful timelessness. In the vast fertile darkness of the earth there is a magical inseparability of all creation, where past, present and future are all continuously held. This is important because it reminds us that the wisdom of the earth and her plant medicine is here now, not lost somewhere in the past or waiting for researchers to discover in the future. The sangoma knows that we are, here now, the sum of all divine knowledge of the past and future unfolding in this moment.
Plant medicine and the body of Earth
When a sangoma gives us a medicine it very often involves a plant remedy. With plant medicines she reminds us that we are eating the body of the earth, partaking in an ancient ritual of consuming the body of a goddess. Plants are the vehicle through which the earth gives herself to us. When we consume the body of a goddess we are partaking in a divine act that has the power to work miracles. Medicine is, in its purest essence, a gift that she gives to us as her beloved children for the sake of our healing. When we invoke the divine beings of plant medicine who are present in the inner worlds and work with them to use medicine, then there is an opportunity for an intercession of the divine to work its magic in the world.
This ancient ritual is a magical ceremony in which the healer works with multiple dimensions to bring energy, balance, movement and healing to the patient. The plants are the body of the earth that carry this message of healing, this frequency of a prescription, to do the work that is asked for.
In this greenery of plant medicine is where the alchemy of creation takes place. In plants we find every imaginable molecule delicately woven from elemental attributes of creation: air, water, earth and the fire of the sun.
These elements are divine attributes of creation that come into existence as the primary divisions of the oneness of God when the divine light of oneness constellates into the duality of matter. It is in the vast apothecary of the plant kingdom that our medicines are made from these elements. These molecules that are created in the biological systems of nature are assemblages made literally from the divine light of God. They are each in themselves attributes of God, they are the names and forms of the divine light embodied in matter and so they carry the signature of God. Our Mother Earth and her abundance of plants are the signature of God in this world of form. She is the divine incarnate in material form.
In African medicine divination and herbal treatments form the bedrock of healing. There is an innate understanding of the divine language of the earth which is at the root of African herbal medicine and healing philosophy. The multitude of healing traditions across the thousands of tribes in the vast motherland of Africa share a common thread: An understanding that our earth is a living sacred being.
There is a language that is spoken to the earth, a knowledge that, with eyes closed and sitting in silence, the Earth Mother is alive within us, in the fertile darkness of creation. The African healing traditions implicitly understand that a healer is one who speaks to to the earth and receives direct healing wisdom in conversation with this ancient being. And whilst herbal medicine is only one aspect of African traditional healing, it is plants that can act as the messengers of wisdom through their embodiment of the medicinal knowledge. Plants are able to be the connection, the conduit, the divine substance of exchange between the soul of the earth and a human being.
In parallel, African culture is connected to the ancient ways of knowing that formed the bedrock of western civilisation. Our western culture was formed on the same principles of direct knowing, of communion with the divine in nature, in the mystery schools of Greece and before that it came through the thread of wisdom that flowed though Egypt, the Persian empire and ancient Tibet.
In ancient Greece, all wisdom came from the oracles who conveyed the divine fountain of wisdom present within the body of the earth. The knowledge of logic, astronomy, mathematics, medicine all were given by the oracles, then interpreted by the philosophers and written into Greek wisdom.
Divination was the source of the wisdom and this practice formed the bedrock of wisdom upon which western culture was born. This divination was an implicit aspect of ancient cultural systems of healing, where the gods were communicated with in order to receive gifts of healing. In rituals of divination which involved altered states of consciousness through a practice of incubation, people would converse with the gods and ask for their favours. These practices of divination allowed humanity to go deep within, into the darkness of the self and converse with the spirit of the depths, the gods and goddesses of creation.
Great gods of the plant world were participants in these ancient practices and shared vast treasure troves of medicinal wisdom with the ancient healers, which fed the content of the great books of medicine and taught the secrets of medicine to the healers of the ancient world. In the writing of high sanusi Credo Mutwa he recounts Zulu legends of ancient Africa conversing with traders and travellers from Egypt and draws comparisons between the systems of healing and divination that both cultures share. There is an umbilicus of wisdom and knowledge that these cultures share which is still present today if you look closely. I feel it is important to remember this connection.
The sacred thread
Similarly, in Africa there is a thread of divine wisdom that nurtures and sustains the tradition of herbalism in the world. The principle of the sangoma is of one who has been taught to listen to and interpret the wisdom that is given in these depths. The sangoma performs the role as conduit of the divine wisdom that comes from deep within the darkness of the earth. The true principle of the sangoma is to be a place on earth where they offer themselves as a priestess who is a conduit between the realms of divinity and nature.
The earth speaks a language to humanity, like a mother to her unborn child, with words that the initiates can interpret through paying very careful attention and through very specific practices. The sangomas of Africa are the oracles who attune to the voice of our earth and receive her wisdom for the benefit of the people, the community and the land. The initiates have had their inner ear attuned to the voice of the inner worlds, have learned how to interpret the signs and converse with the great earth goddess.
This tradition of divination is inseparable from the ever-growing body of traditional wisdom in African medicine. It is this living practice of communicating with the earth that makes our Mother Africa such a special place, especially in these times of ecological devastation that we are facing. We are fortunate that here in Africa the threads of divination have been kept alive, the conversation with the divinity in nature has not been as severely interrupted as in Europe and the land still speaks to us.
These sacred practices of communicating with the body and soul of the earth are vital ways of knowing and being in this world that our future communities will need to preserve in the uncertain ecological times ahead. Our sangomas are the vital lifeline between community and the wisdom of the earth and we must respect our healers and protect their sacred practices and places so that their wisdom can remain intact. It is the sangomas of Africa who will know how to guide us in times of crisis, not the politicians.
These sangomas form a web of consciousness that is connected across the healing traditions of Mother Africa and their daily practices hold the conversation thread alive. The healing traditions of Africa are united in the oneness of the Great Mother, dancing to the same beat, the same ancient pulse of creation. No separation exists between the sangoma and creation; their hearts beat with the same mysterious pulse of life oscillating between the very poles of creation in an endless rhythm of life unfolding unto itself in the dark depths of earth wisdom.
The sangoma herself is like a medicine for the earth, a medicine that aligns and restores energy dynamics between the two poles. She is the place of fertilisation between the pure light of spirit and the dark recesses of matter. In her body there is a special place that can hold these energies and fertilise life into new forms. Her womb is not just a place for the growth of a child, but it is the centre of creation, a dynamic centre that holds life and gives birth to what needs to come into this world. Our transcendent prayers have no place to be answered if we do not have the womb of the sangoma to give birth to its outcome. The transcendent spiritual traditions can’t achieve anything without the sangomas to bring their power into manifestation. The sangoma is the body of life through which a certain type of grace is born into the world. Certain things are born through the body of this woman alone and cannot be born into this world unless they have the sacred place of the sangoma’s womb. Any transformation we are hoping for in life will not happen until we create the place for our sangomas to take their position at the centre of society, where their trusted role has been since time began. Their relationship to medicine is entirely given through their ability to listen to and interpret this ancient language of oracles.
The wisdom of Africa and its healing traditions have the potential to teach the world a different way of being and knowing. Our continent has a deep and ancient culture of healing which speaks an ancient language without cultural borders, without words, not bound by time or place, syntax or fixed meaning. It is the language which emanates from the silent depths of creation, that speaks with the heartbeat of the earth. This wisdom is timeless and it echoes the ancient past as much as it speaks to the present and holds promise for the future. It teaches us that to be human is to be inseparable from the body of the earth and the plants that grow here. It shows us a different way to wisdom that is grounded in the depths of the earth, a way that helps us to look downward, inward, into the fertile depths of wisdom where the oracles still reside. And if we look deep inside, feel into the depths and speak to earth as a goddess, we will remember that the whole earth is a medicine.
Spiritual Ecologist, passionate about African botanicals & the Earth
Steve Hurt’s writing falls within the paradigm of spiritual ecology which approaches ecology from a spiritual perspective. His writing is influenced by shamanism, sufism and a deep love for the earth. Steve currently lives in South Africa and runs a business that trades in African medicinal plants, a trade that is driven by his wish to preserve the rich heritage of African medicinal knowledge for future generations.