The monthly musings of a Druid Herbalist living in New England.
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Bee Medicine – The Splendors of Honey
In a time when bees are threatened by the use of nicotine based pesticides and fungicides we need to learn all we can to protect them. For thousands of years humanity has relied on bees and their honey for food, medicine, and to pollinate crops. Before you buy any plant be sure to ask if it has been pre-treated with bee killing pesticides, and never spray poisons on your own garden!
Images of bees, of foraging for honey, and of bee keeping have come down to us from the Mesolithic. The Cuevas de la Arana (Spider Caves) in Valencia, Spain, have an 8000 year old painted image of a person climbing a vine to gather wild honey.
Ancient Egyptian images of bees and bee hives appear on obelisks, on the “Rosetta Stone”, on the pillars of the Temple of Karnak and on an obelisk of Luxor. The sarcophagi of Rameses II and of other nobles bear bee and honey related images. King Menes (4000-5000 BCE) who was the founder of the first Egyptian dynasty of kings was called “The Beekeeper”. Bees are depicted on the walls of tombs and jars of honey, cakes made with honey, and honey combs were among the funeral gifts for the dead. Honey was also added to embalming fluids and the tomb builders were once paid with honey.
Honey was regarded as a sacred substance – each bee was said to have been formed from the tears of the Sun God Ra. Considered a worthy sacrificial offering to the Gods, Min, a Fertility God, was given offerings of honey.
The ancient Egyptians ate honey and drank a type of beer made with wheat, honey and barley.
Egyptian papyri refer to bees, honey and its medicinal powers. Egyptian medicines were most often made with some combination of honey, wine and milk. Egyptian healers applied honey to wounds and burns and prescribed it orally for stomach problems such as ulcers and as a general tonic to promote health.
Applied to an injury, honey creates and environment where bacteria cannot survive as it simultaneously helps the body to dissolve dead tissue and promote new cell growth. Honey has a highly acid PH level and enzymes that create free radicals that kill off bacteria. It creates an anaerobic seal over and injury, keeping out bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Honey found in Egyptian tombs was tested and thousands of years later it still had anti-bacterial qualities.
“Kyphi” or “Kapet” was an Egyptian temple incense and medicine sacred to the Goddess Isis. The earliest mention of it is in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom (2400-2300 BCE). Recipes also appear in the Kyphi Ebers Papyrus (1500 BCE) and in the Papyrus Harris I. Plutarch mentions a first century BCE text by Manetho (third century CE) called “Preparation of Kyphi-Recipes”. Manetho states that the ingredients were added one at a time as magical chants were sung over them.
Kyphi was burned as incense by temple priests at dusk while Frankincense (Boswellia spp.) was burned at dawn and Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) at mid-day. Egyptian healers prescribed Kyphi as a drink to purify the body and to ease insomnia while also enhancing dreams.
Several recipes for Kyphi have been found including references inscribed on the walls of the Edfu Temple and the Temple of Philae. One method was to grind mastic, pine resin, sweet flag (Acorus calamus), Aspalathos (the species is not yet known, it could have been Alhagi maurorum, Convolvulus scoparius, Calicotome villosa, Genista acanthoclada or Capparis spinosa), Camel Grass (Cymbopogon schoenanthus), mint and cinnamon with a mortar and pestle.
Next Cyperus grass (Papyrus grass, Cyperus spp.), Juniper berries (Juniperus phoenicea and Juniperus oxycedrus), pine kernels and Peker (an as yet unidentified species) were ground to a powder and mixed in. The resulting paste was moistened with a little wine and left to soak overnight.
Wine soaked raisins were then added and the mixture was allowed to sit again for another five days, and then boiled down until the liquid was reduced by one fifth.
In a separate process honey and Frankincense were boiled and reduced by one fifth and then the two mixtures were combined. Ground Myrrh was added so the substance could be rolled into pellets and burned.
Dioscorides (100 CE) was the first Greek to mention Kyphi which he said was burned and also taken as a drink for asthma. In 200 CE a Syriac recipe for “Kupar” most likely a version of Kyphi, was described as incense and also a remedy for liver disease, coughs, and other lung conditions.
(For a modern interpretation of Kyphi and easy step by step instructions for how to make it visit Egyptian Temple Incense – Kyphi; http://magickwyrd.wordpress.com/how-to-topics/ritual-incense-recipes/egyptian-temple-incense-kyphi/)
Ancient Georgians also placed honey in tombs circa 4,700-5,500 years ago, to aid the deceased in their afterlife.
In ancient Rome honey was used to pay taxes. Cupid’s arrows were said to be dipped in honey before being fired.
For Hindus honey (Madhu) is an elixir of immortality that is poured over statues of Gods and Goddesses.
In Jewish religion honey is part of the Rosh Hashanah New Year’s meal where apple slices are dipped into honey.
For Buddhists, Madhu Purnima is a holy day commemorating the Buddha’s retreat into the wilderness to preserve peace among his followers. While in the forest a monkey brought honey for him to eat.
John the Baptist is a Christian figure said to have survived on wild honey and locusts.
The Prophet Muhammad is said to have advised taking honey for health. The Qur’an mentions honey as a healing food.
Among the ancient Maya, honey was collected from stingless bees which they regarded as sacred (and still do today).
Ancient Vedic texts describe honey as “Nectar of the Sun”, a blend of the nectar of all flowers that represents the oneness of everything. Ayurvedic medicines have been made with honey for at least four thousand years. More than six hundred thirty four Ayurvedic remedies are made with honey.
The ancient Greeks believed that honey increased both virility and longevity.
Traditional Chinese Medicine regards honey as a cure for insomnia.
The Saxons (circa 1000 CE) used honey to treat wounds, sties and amputations.
The Iron Age Celts ate salmon baked with herbs and honey. Honey was given as a thanks offering to the Earth when valuable medicinal plants were harvested. Honey mead was a favorite drink and healing stones and stone circles were ritually purified by pouring a mixture of milk and honey over them at Lughnasad (the festival of the beginning of the harvest usually observed in the first weeks of August).
Medicinal Uses of Honey
First some cautions: never feed honey to an infant less than one year of age. Honey contains spores of botulinum that could prove fatal. If bees forage on Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), the Tutu plant of New Zealand (Coriaria spp.), Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), or Azaleas (subgenera of the genus Rhododendron) the honey could produce a type of intoxication or poisoning. (From what I have read this is only a problem if the bees feed exclusively on those plants).
Honey when taken internally can help lower insulin levels, C-reactive protein and homocysteine. Taken alone in teaspoon doses honey will soothe a sore throat while adding vitamins and minerals to your system. Apply honey to skin ulcers and bed sores, burns, cuts and abrasions.
When heating honey simmer gently (do not boil). Honey preparations can be kept for about two months when refrigerated.
Try to locate a local apiary where you can purchase raw honey, bee pollens and bees wax. Ingesting local pollens and raw honey can help build resistance to allergies over time.
Honey Flu and Bronchitis Remedy
Slice a fresh ginger root (use about 3 cups of water per 6 inch root) and simmer in water for about 20 minutes in a non-aluminum pot with a tight lid. Remove from the stove and add a pinch of cayenne pepper, raw honey to taste, and the juice of half a lemon. This tea breaks up stubborn chest congestion and is warming to the body.
Honey Throat Syrup
Blend a few peeled cloves of fresh old fashioned (not genetically modified or “odorless”) garlic with the juice of half a lemon until smooth. Add 1 cup raw honey and blend again. Take in teaspoon doses for a sore throat. (Strain any left overs through a cheese cloth and bottle for later use).
Garlic and Honey Wound Dressing
Chop finely or mash some fresh garlic and mix with honey. Spread the mixture on a bandage or clean cloth. Wash the wound carefully and apply.
Roasted Garlic Sore Throat Remedy
Place unpeeled cloves of raw garlic in a pan and dry roast until the cloves are soft to the touch. Remove from the pan and cool. Peel and eat the resulting soft garlic paste. (It is also excellent any time when spread on toast or crackers). Follow with a teaspoon of raw honey and to sweeten the breath, a sprig of fresh parsley.
This is a tasty beverage that is also good for stomach flu. Slice a large, fresh ginger root, put in the pan and cover with several cups of cold water. Simmer with a tight lid for about 20 minutes. Remove from the flame and while the liquid is still hot and add honey to make syrup. When you want the Ginger Ale just place a few inches of the syrup in a glass and then fill the glass to the top with sparkling spring water.
An Old Fashioned Cough Remedy for Bronchitis and Whooping Cough
Mix the juice of one lemon (or a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar) with 2 tbsp. honey. Add 1 tsp. Cod Liver Oil and mix well. If the person taking this is elderly add a teaspoon of whisky and if the Cod liver Oil is rejected just add more honey as a substitute.
Scottish Highland Remedies That Used Honey
I am something of an expert in this area so I have chosen to include a small Highland Medicine section. If you want more details on Scottish Highland medicines please see my book Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore, Pendraig Publishing, Los Angeles, 2010. You can buy it from me at www.elleneverthopman.com or in all the usual places. All these Highland plants grow in the North Eastern US, the area where I live.
Agrimony Leaf Tea
Agrimonia eupatoria was drunk for liver ailments, fever and ague, sweetened with honey.
Carrot Face Mask
Daucus carrota or carrots were simmered until soft with a little honey and then applied to the face (or any area of damaged skin) as a skin conditioner.
Daisy Cough Remedy
Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, Ox-eye Daisy flowers, were simmered with honey and taken as an asthma tea and cough remedy.
Germander Speedwell for Asthma and Cough
Veronica chamaedrys was made into syrup with honey and taken for wet asthmatic conditions and wet coughs (ones that produce phlegm).
Ground Ivy Cough and Headache Remedy
Nepeta glechoma was taken with tea for coughs and headaches.
Hazel Nut Cough Remedy
Corylus avellana nuts were powdered and mixed with Honey Mead or honey water for chronic coughs. The ancient Celts mixed chopped Hazel nuts into their oatmeal as a strengthening food for convalescents. The oatmeal was served with honey, butter, or cream.
Honeysuckle Flowers for Coughs and Asthma
Lonicera periclymenum leaves and flowers were used in honey syrup for asthma and coughs.
Houseleek for Thrush
Sempervirum tectorum leaves and juice were mixed with honey and applied to thrush and mouth ulcers.
Maidenhair Fern Cough Remedy
Asplenium spp. were infused and then honey was added to make a cough remedy.
Oats for Cough, Colds, and Fever
Avena sativa was eaten as gruel with honey for coughs, colds and fevers. In ancient times chopped Hazel nuts (Corylus avellana) or Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) were mixed in to make a strengthening food for the sick.
Onion Cough Remedy
Allium cepa juice was mixed with honey for coughs.
Vinca minor flowers were simmered in honey to make a gentle laxative syrup.
Plantain for Thrush
Plantago spp. seeds were used as a thrush remedy; simmer 1 ounce of seeds in 1 ½ pint water until 1 pint of liquid remains. Sweeten with honey and take in tablespoon doses, 4 times a day.
Rose Sore Throat Syrup
Rosa spp. petals and hips were simmered in honey for this purpose. To make the syrup you will need to gather very fragrant, old fashioned red rose petals. The hips should be collected after the first frost when they are bright red. Split open the hips and remove the seeds and hairs before use.
Rowan Berry Cough Syrup
Sorbus aucuparia or Rowan berries were picked just after the first frost when bright red, and simmered with honey and apple slices to make a syrup for colds and chest complaints. (The American variety has orange berries and they can be used the same way). Rowan berry jam was taken for diarrhea in adults and children. To make the jam use 1 part berries, ¼ part honey and 1 part apples.
Violet Flower Syrup
The flowers of Viola odorata and Viola canina were made into a syrup that was laxative and lowered fever. It was also taken for epilepsy, insomnia, jaundice, sore throat and headache. To make the syrup;
Pour freshly boiled water over an equal volume of flowers
Steep 10 hours and then strain out the flowers
Reheat the liquid adding an equal portion of fresh flowers
Let stand for 10 hours
Do this several more times then bring to a simmer, cool slightly, and add honey until a syrup consistency is reached.
Wild Thyme Tonic
Thymus serpyllum was taken as a tea with honey mixed in for coughs, heart troubles, painful menstruation, diarrhea, gastritis, anemia, headaches and hangovers.
Medicinal Honey Syrup for Coughs
Put fresh onion slices into a jar and cover with honey. Let it sit for about 4 hours then strain and refrigerate for up to 2 months. Honey is a natural anti-inflammatory and the syrup may also be helpful to asthmatics.
Other Medicinal Syrups
Think of herbs that you would use for a virus such as Ginger root or Elderberries, for colds such as Echinacea, for stomach complaints such as Elderflower, Yarrow and Peppermint, or for fever, such as Willow Bark, Elderflower and Mint. Make syrup as above with raw honey and fresh herbs (allow to steep longer for stronger flavor).
Herb Infused Honey
Fill a very clean glass jar half full of fresh herbs, or one quarter full of dried herbs. Top off the jar with local raw honey, close tightly and place in a sunny window for about a week (or longer if a stronger taste is desired). Turn the jar daily to distribute the plant matter. Refrigerate for up to two months.
Use Lavender blossoms (Lavandula vera, L. officinalis), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita, (synonym: Matricaria chamomilla), Basil (Ocymum Basilium), Sage (Salvia spp.), Mints (Mentha spp.), Star Anise (Illicium verum), Thyme (Thymus serpyllum), Vanilla beans (V. planifolia) etc.
Add to herbal or black tea, pour over vanilla ice cream, on oatmeal, on yoghurt, mix into lemonade, sparkling water, etc.
Beith, Mary, Healing Threads, Polygon, Edinburgh, 1995
Hopman, Ellen Evert, Scottish Herbs and Fairy Lore, Pendraig Publishing, Los Angeles, 2010
Ancient Egypt Online, Ancient Egyptian Incense: Kyphi (Kapet) in Ancient Egypt
http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/kyphi.html accessed 11/1/2013
Argent, Gemma, Egyptian Medicine: the Use of Honey as an anti-bacterial http://voices.yahoo.com/egyptian-medicine-honey-as-anti-bacterial-282609.html accessed 11/1/2013
Cuevas de la Arana en Bicorp, Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuevas_de_la_Ara%C3%B1a_en_Bicorp accessed 11/1/2013
Egyptian Temple Incense – Kyphi http://magickwyrd.wordpress.com/how-to-topics/ritual-incense-recipes/egyptian-temple-incense-kyphi/ accessed 11/01/2013
Honey by Country http://www.honey-health.com/honey-egypt/ accessed 11/1/2013
Honey-History, Healing Honey History http://www.petroglyphhealing.com/Honey-History.html accessed 11/1/2013
Honey – Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey accessed 11/1/2013
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