The Welsh Healing Tradition
Wales is famous for its great rugby players, singers, bards and of course its healers. There has been a long tradition in the use of medicine in Wales using traditional and local plants and its ancestry contains fine healers both mortal and mythical. The Druids were revered for their healer priests, who used magic and herbal medicines in aiding the population’s health. In these early times the priests were considered part of the chief sources of wisdom of the land combined work of spiritual teaching with the healing of the body.
Medicine, meddyginiaeth , was included in the nine rural arts known and practiced by the ancient Welsh in as far back as 1,000 B.C. The early knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants developed alongside an understanding of the conditions of disease.
There is evidence that even before the time of the Greek ‘Father of Medicine’, Hippocrates in 430 B.C., that the art of medicine was protected and promoted by the state which can be seen in the manuscript ‘The Laws of Dynwal Moelmud’. During this time the physician was directed by rules of conduct, payment guidelines and was also awarded privileges.
In the Middle Ages the Welsh knowledge of healing was in advance of England and Europe. In the early part of the 13th century, a son of a prince and warrior Rhys Gryg of South Wales employed a physician called Rhiwallon, who lived in the village of Myddfai in Carmarthenshire, and was assisted by his three sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einion. This family of physicians recorded the medicinal recipes and methods that they used in their practice, many of which may be very ancient in origin. The original text is now in the British Museum as this is the first written account of medical knowledge in Wales. The manuscript consists of work on anatomy, physiology, medicine, surgery, pathology, materia medica and therapeutics. As Wales traded with the Phoenicians the Physicians of Myddfai were also familiar with Greek medicine, and interested in the work of Hippocrates.
The Physicians of Myddfai have become surrounded in myth and legend. In the ninetieth century the story of their origins was also written down, interestingly attributing their knowledge to their mother, who was said to be a magical being that came from and eventually returned to the waters of the lake Llyn-y-Fan-Fach. It was said that she taught her Physician sons all she knew about the medical properties and virtues of plants, acknowledging the spirit of the land as the true healer. It is rare there are tributes to the healing knowledge and abilities of women, and it is empowering to see this within the psyche of Welsh culture.
The Physicians of Myddfai have an early holistic overview to health, when the person is viewed through the whole of her or his lifestyle as seen in these examples of medical maxims.
Better is appetite than gluttony
The three medicines of the Physicians of Myddfai: water, honey and labour.
The three victuals of sickness: flesh meat, ale and vinegar.
A light dinner, a less supper, sound sleep, long life.
The qualities of water: it will produce no sickness, no debt, and no widowhood.
The Myddfai record contains a materia medica , which mentions 175 plants, including peppermint, iris, fennel, sage, rosemary, which are still used aromatherapy today. The plants were used through infusions, decoctions, pills or ointments with the properties of plants being tested, prepared with great care and the diseases analysed before the treatment started, which is also reflected in modern herbal and aromatherapy practice.
The last living descendent of the Physician of Myddfai in Wales died in Aberystwyth in 1842, showing the long lineage of Welsh healing. During the ‘Aromatherapy for Use in the Home’ classes in Gwynedd, barely remembered family traditional remedies are still sometimes shared and these ‘old wives tales’ all hold a gem of traditional knowledge. For example in North Wales there is a tradition of taking rosemary to funerals. Rosemary promotes the health mental processes including the memory; this knowledge is reflected in the saying “Rosemary is for Remembrance” which is so apt during the Service of Remembrance. Rosemary however is also an antiseptic and a particularly effective as an aerial antiseptic, protecting the mourners from disease.
Now, in North Wales, Welsh traditional healing and plant lore is brought into a modern context. The art and science naturally meet in this professional level training course that fulfils present day needs of healing and health and presents the future with sensitive well-trained aromatherapists.
Welsh Herbal Medicine , David Hoffmann, Abercastle Publications, 1988
The Physicians of Myddfai , A facsimile reprint, Llanerch Publishers, Dyfed