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Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History, and Geography of Herbal Medicine

Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History, and Geography of Herbal Medicine by Holly Bellebuono. New York, NY: Helios; 2015. Hardcover, 278 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62914-589-1. $24.95.

This beautifully photographed and illustrated book honors some of the best-known, wild-hearted, and dedicated women healers of world medicine traditions, from ancient times through modern day. Though the book’s focus is on botanical traditions, it covers a range of other healing practices and topics, including allopathy, biochemistry, shamanism, homeopathy, midwifery, flower essences, essential oils, ethnobotany, plant conservation, and more. From the embalming herbs of Egyptian mummies to common (and not-so-common) herbs and healing practices of India, Asia, Australia, Central and South America, Africa, and Polynesia, the information presented is not merely focused on herbs. It exudes the “Science of Spirit” and reflects each woman’s relationship with plants and people, and their diverse personal attitudes toward healing. It quietly emphasizes the significance of mentoring other women healers and the importance of passing on healing traditions.

Nearly every continent is represented. These wise women and their remarkable stories reveal passion, insight, dedication, wisdom, faith, immense heart, and diverse approaches to health-giving therapies. In traversing the myriad landscapes of world healing traditions, many women emphasize soul work through bathing, flower essences, praying, meditating, or entering the spirit realm. Others underscore the need to attend to the mental or physical condition of the body, or to connect to the earth and the plants themselves. The concept of medicine encompasses everything from intuition, or ingesting a simple herb or potent psychoactive plant, to participating in a ritual, watching the sunrise, calling upon the elements, being still in nature, and so much more. To quote the book, it is about “exploring the immense variety of customs and traditions with which botanical medicine tinctures our world….” All approaches hold the same strength and healing commitment, though it is almost universally understood that prayer and honoring the earth or ancestors solidifies the intent in nearly all traditions.

The book is divided into five parts, each with interviews and biographies of contemporary women or profiles of historic figures such as Cleopatra and Hildegard von Bingen. Each chapter begins with an overview of the topic.

“Part I: Plant Traditions” (Chapters 1-5) covers “Western Herbal Traditions”; “Native Nations Medicine”; “Polynesian Medicine”; “Folk Medicine, Gypsy, and Bedouin Traditions”; and “Alchemy and Aromatherapy.” “Part II: Body Traditions” (Chapters 6-10) includes chapters on “Ayurveda”; “Eastern Oriental Medicine”; “Midwifery”; “Allopathic (Modern) Medicine”; and “Pharmacology.” “Part III: Spirit Traditions” (Chapters 11-14) encompasses “Flower Essence Therapy”; “Homeopathy”; “Gaelic Pharmacy”; and “Shamanism and Spirit Medicine” (Chapters 11-14). “Part IV: Land Traditions” (Chapters 15-16) covers “Conservation and Gardening” and “Ethnobotany.” “Part V: Handcrafting Traditions” (Chapter 17) includes information on “How to Make Herbal Remedies in Your Kitchen Inspired by World Traditions.”

Names of organizations, a list of resources, and a bibliography are provided to further encourage the reader to continue their herbal quest and learn more about the women spotlighted and their organizations.

This is not your typical herbal where you can search for formulas or learn about body systems. It offers no materia medica, but instead highlights specific plants important to the healer or her native traditions. Interviews reveal details of the lives of 31 women and their unique healing traditions. These interviews include biographical information, life impressions, historical impacts, personal healing methodologies, and a useful timeline.

The book is sprinkled with anecdotes on etymology of Latin names and other word origins, as well as mythology and history, including information on the modern Western herbal renaissance and those who have fostered it. It lends as much credence to other traditional forms of healing as diverse as those interviewed. Each woman is a keeper of their ancestors’ teachings and traditions. This book does a wonderful job of honoring the cross-cultural variety of divergent approaches to the very nature of healing and all that it encompasses — body, mind, and spirit — and all with stories of real-life experience. The chapter on conservation and gardening will enlighten the reader to the importance of protecting endangered plants and fostering their cultivation. The last chapter offers practical guidelines on creating a few kitchen and bath remedies, ointments, extracts, tinctures, and more.

Visually striking, this large, nearly ten-inch square “coffee table book” is an amazing value. What it lacks in depth of scientifically validated botanical research, it makes up for in the broad scope of included healers and the importance of their message: that the mystery and power of healing is important in our global history, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This book is filled with pithy quotes, poetry, mythology, and magic, and it celebrates extraordinary women herbalists. If you want to be inspired by the timeless, honorable, and illustrious history of women healers, this book will open the floodgates. And if you listen carefully, you may hear the plants call your name.

—Mindy Green, MS, RH (AHG), RA
Boulder, Colorado