The Doctrine Of Signatures

As above - so below. To the Ancients this aphorism was not just a metaphor. It represented the centerpiece of mediaeval cosmology. Everything, but everything was governed by the planets and their movements through the heavens. Their inherent qualities were reflected in all animate and inanimate things on earth - stones, minerals, animals, plants and people. As the planets moved along their path through the Zodiac their expressions changed depending on the particular characteristics and elemental quality of the sign through which they were passing. The elements then provided the backdrop to this cosmology. Everything in the Universe was not just ruled by a particular planet but was also perceived as a manifestation of the 5 elements - Spirit (Ether), Fire, Air, Earth and Water - and their respective qualities (i.e. hot and dry, hot and humid, cold and dry, cold and humid). These elements were understood in a spiritual/metaphysical sense, not necessarily in a literal sense.

The basis of this cosmology was formed by the idea that Ether/Spirit permeated everything in existence and was regarded as the prime element, the Chi energy from which all the other elements were formed. The Zodiac then was perceived as a kind of archetypal blue-print through which the elements manifest in the world of matter - which is but a denser reflection of the world of ideas. Thus the nature of a sign was firstly defined by the element it is ruled by, whilst the planets represented the dynamic forces which modify their basic expressions.

To the modern mind these concepts may be archaic and difficult to grasp, but they are essential in trying to understand the context from which the Doctrine of Signatures arose. The human mind has an inherent urge to make sense of the environment, to detect patterns, to classify its impressions and to create order out of chaos. In the pre-rationalistic age the spiritual dimension of our material world still represented a reality which was taken into account by the early scientists and philosophers. Thus their concepts and explanations of the Universe was steeped in mystical symbolism and archetypes, the basis for which can be found amongst the principles of Astrology the oldest science of human history. According to this cosmology the planetary energies reverberated through the spheres and echoed through the four realms of existence leaving their mark or signature in all aspects of the manifest and non-manifest world.

It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate in detail on each planet, element and sign of the Zodiac - and there are plenty of good books on Astrology on the market which will do just that. However, in order to understand the Doctrine of Signatures it is essential to examine some of these basic principles and the way in which they manifest in the different realms of existence:

The Sun represents the life-force in everything. It symbolizes the principles of strength, righteousness, virtue and honor. It rules the domain of logical understanding (left brain) and clarity, consciousness, self-awareness and pride, health, integrity, vigor and creative energy per se. In the world of metals and minerals these qualities found their resonance in the metal Gold, and in diamonds the purest, hardest and most precious metals and stones of them all. In the animal kingdom it was the eagle and the lion and other noble creatures that most appropriately expressed the regal power of the Sun. In the realm of plants the issue becomes more complex as each planet is responsible for a specific part or growing process in all plants as well as giving their signatures to certain plants in particular. Thus, the solar principle draws plants up towards the light and manifests as straight, upright stems and radiating flowers with a color range from white to golden orange. Their tastes are often aromatic and their healing properties are tonic, purifying and strengthening. All like to grow in sunny places and they often respond to the rhythms of the Sun, turning their heads towards the God of light as he travels across the sky. Solar Herbs include Sunflowers, Marigolds and St. Johnswort. In the human physiology the Sun rules the heart, blood, brain and the eyes. (Traditionally, right eye in men, left eye in women). The Sun symbolizes vitality in general as well as the powers of recuperation and resistance to disease in general.

The Moon on the other hand represents the yin principle, receptivity, sensitivity and yielding. It has an affinity with water, and rules the domain of the night, the unconscious mind, the world of dreams, fantasies and imagination (right brain). Its expression is through empathy, intuition and nurturing. The corresponding metal is the reflective Silver whilst in the realm of stones it rules those that reflect faint shimmers of light or are of an iridescent quality, such as Moonstones and Labradorite. Animals governed by the Moon are night creatures such as owls or those that embody the nurturing principle. Cows, for example, with their docile nature, who not only provide us with milk but even carry a symbolic Moon in the shape of their horns on their heads are a perfect representation of the lunar archetype. Other animals associated with the Moon are those that live in or near water and are affected by the tides, such as all manner of fish and crabs. In the realm of plants the Moons signature manifests along the same guidelines. Luna rules all sprouting and germination processes. She also governs the roots of all plants which represent the mouths in the vegetable kingdom. The Moons signature is found in fleshy, watery leaves and fruits like Pumpkins and Cucumbers, and in plants that flower at night or grow in or near water and in marshy environments such as Waterlilies and Willows. A milky juice (latex) is also a signature of the Moon. Lunar Herbs are often soothing, pain- killing, tranquilizing and sometimes even hypnotic or narcotic . The flower coloration varies from pastel colors of all shades to lilac and purple. In the human body the Moon rules the womb, fertility and the child-bearing functions, along with the breasts, stomach and body fluids. She also governs the astral or dream body and the subconscious mind.

Mercury, the messenger of the Gods signifies the qualities of rapid change, transmutation, learning and growing. and By this virtue of his adaptable and changeable character he is capable of traveling in-between the worlds. In mythology he is the messenger who relays messages from the realm of the Gods to the world of humans. He can even enter into the Underworld and return unscathed in his role of the psychopomp who accompanies the souls of the dead on their last journey. Furthermore, he is associated with commerce (exchange), travel, trickery and healing. His metal is quicksilver/mercury the most liquid and changeable metal of all. His stones are multicolored and patterned ones such as Agates. In the realm of animals he rules swift and clever creatures. Monkeys and Dogs have frequently been associated with Mercury, though he also rules those that are not bound by one particular environment, such as birds, who can fly as well as hop and often travel long distances. In the realm of plants Mercury signifies the rapid growth process in the metamorphic development of young plants. He rules fast growing or winding plants such as Morning Glory, as well as other climbers, creepers and vines. The stems are rarely upright but rather flexible and bendy - they hardly ever become solidified in a woody form. Flower coloration is non-specific and encompasses all shades of the rainbow-spectrum though the flowers tend to be rather small. His signature is also present in feathery leaves and in seeds with wings. The healing properties associated with mercurial plants are equally divers and difficult to pin down. They are often demulcent and have a somewhat slimy quality. They may be purgative or alterative, aid digestion (especially in the passing of winds!), act as demulcents for the respiratory system or have a stimulating or balancing effect on the nervous system and the mind. Mercurial Herbs include Lavender, Fennel, Speedwell, Valerian and Elecampane. In human physiology Mercury rules the intellectual faculties of the mind, the nervous system, and the intestines.

Venus, the Goddess of love and beauty symbolizes the pleasure principle. All things bright and beautiful are under her domain. Peacefulness, harmony and balance are her characteristics. Her metal is copper and her stones are generally either green as are Malachite and Emerald or pink ones, such as Rose-Quartz. Watermelon Tourmaline combines both ends of her spectrum. Her sacred animals are of a peaceful nature. The dove for example has become a universal symbol of peace. Deer, antelopes, swans, cats, rabbits and other graceful animals are all under her domain. In the realm of plants Venus is responsible for the soothing green colour of mother nature cloak. She rules the leaves and flowers of plants in general. Many healing herbs come under her domain. Their qualities are often cooling, cleansing, balancing and soothing and may have diaphoretic or diuretic properties. The color variation of the petals ranges from green-white to pink. Most have a delicious fragrance and provide us with a sensory delight. Most fruit blossoms come under her domain (Apples, Cherries). Other plants that carry her signature are Yarrow, Geranium, Roses, Orchids and Mallows. In the human body Venus rules the reproductive systems and the kidneys who are responsible for inner cleansing and fluid balance.

Mars, the reckless warrior God signifies courage, strength ambition and drive. Without the get-up-and-go principle embodied by Mars, nothing would ever get done. But Mars does not go gently about his business, whatever it may be. His signature is rashness, defensiveness, sharpness and an aggressive drive. His metal is the unyielding iron, whilst his stones are usually red and glowing such as rubies and garnets. In the animal kingdom his allies are fierce and aggressive like sharks and Hyenas. In the world of plants Mars manifests as the stamens (sexual organs) of all flowers in general. His signature can also be found in sharp thorns and the stinging quality of some plants such as Poison Ivy and Nettles. The flowers are usually red and the smell and taste are peppery and hot. Many pioneer plants are ruled by Mars as their role is to defend disturbed grounds against further intrusion. The healing properties of Marsian plants are often styptic or stimulating for the circulatory system of the blood. In the human body Mars rules the gallbladder, muscles, the reproductive organs and the adrenal glands. Jupiter, king of the Gods embodies the principle of generosity, expansiveness, justice and the process of maturation. His characteristics are grandeur, honor and wisdom. He is the philosopher and seeker of spiritual wisdom and symbolizes faith and hope as well as ethics and morals. His metal is tin and his stones are purple in color, such as Lovulites and Amethysts. Jupiters animals are large and powerful like the bear or the elephant for example. In the world of vegetation Jupiter is responsible for the maturation process and thus governs the fruits and nuts of the harvest which represent an aspect of his generosity. Herbs under his domain are often bitter-aromatic and rich in essential oils. The coloration of the flowers tend to be either bright yellow or purple. Their healing properties are tonic, hepatic and purifying through their action on the liver, the main organ of the human body under Jupiters rule. He is also responsible for sugar-metabolism as he governs the pancreas and for spiritual well-being by governing the pineal gland. Some of his herbs also act as anti-depressants. Some of Jupiters herbs are Blessed Thistle, Sandalwood, Sage Dandelion and Loosestrive. Many regal trees such as Oaks and Maple are also ruled by Jupiter.

Saturn, the grim reaper and lord of time embodies solidification, concentration and hardiness. He is the merciless teacher of duty and responsibility. He governs the aging and dying process and his character is inflexible, rigid, dry and cold. His metal is lead, the heaviest metal of them all. His stones are black like Obsidians and Jet. In the animal kingdom his signature can be found amongst the cold-blooded reptilians and amongst certain insects such as the workaholic-seeming ants. In the world of vegetation Saturn governs the drying and wilting process that concludes the growing cycle of a plant. He is also responsible for the formation of seeds which in concentrated form contain all the potential growing power for the next season. His herbs are often straggly looking plants such as Horsetails, and frequently are grayish- blue in appearance or are marked by blue flowers. Their taste often is acrid, pungent and bitter. Their healing properties are styptic, astringent and sometimes even anesthetic. Saturn rules a number of deadly poisonous plants as well, which in the right dosage can be powerful healers but administered in the wrong proportions have the power to kill. Some of Saturns herbs are Chicory, Comfrey, Woad, Aconite and Belladonna. In the human body Saturn rules the skin, bones and teeth. Many of his Herbs are used to heal strains, sprains, bruises and broken bones.

From the above description of the planetary influences in the different realms of existence it can be seen that the Doctrine of Signature lies far from our modern concept of a system of classification. Instead of a structured approach that takes into account measurable and countable units it presents us with images and archetypal symbols that require a highly intuitive mode of observation in order to make any sense. As we have seen, each plant not only bears the signature of one planet, instead different planets are represented in different parts of the plant or manifest at different stages of their growth cycle. Thus it is not an easy matter to apply this system in a practical way. It requires very thorough understanding of each Planets inherent qualities. Nevertheless, once upon a time this highly symbolic system was used by many physicians who took themselves quite seriously. The 16th century physician Nicholas Culpeper is perhaps the most widely known personality amongst these physicians, though in no way was his practice exceptional (only in as much as he encouraged ordinary people to take responsibility for their own health, by pointing out that cures for many common illnesses may be found amongst the herbs in ones backyard).

However, the doctrine with its highly subjective parameters, left much room for argument and disagreement amongst the medical profession - though the rulership over certain plants was generally accepted, others left much room for ambiguity and dispute. How then was this system applied in practical terms? Lets hear Culpepers advice:
" ...And therein let me premise a word or two, The Herbs, Plants, etc. are now in the book appropriated to their proper planets. Therefore, First, Consider what planet causeth the disease; that thou mayest find it in my aforesaid Judgment of Diseases.
Secondly, Consider what part of thebody is afflicted by the disease and whether it lies in the flesh, or blood, or bones, or ventricles.
Thirdly, Consider by what planet the afflicted part of the body is governed: that my Judgment of Diseases will inform you also.
Fourthly, You may oppose diseases by Herbs of the planet opposite to the planet that causes them as diseases of Jupiter by Herbs of Mercury, and the contrary; diseases of the Luminaries by the Herbs of Saturn and the contrary; diseases of Mars by Herbs of Venus and the contrary.
Fifthly, There is a way to cure diseases sometimes by Sympathy, and so every plant cures his own disease; as the Sun and the Moon by their Herbs cure the eyes, Saturn the spleen, Jupiter the Liver, Mars the gall and diseases of choler, and Venus diseases in the instruments of Generation."

Essentially, in order to find the right remedy for a person, a horoscope was cast for the time of the onset of the disease. From this horoscope the nature of the disease was judged along with its possible duration and final outcome. Furthermore, the actual affected body part and its planetary rulership also had to be considered. Once these factors were known the real skill of the physician was to determine whether a disease should by treated by sympathy i.e. homeopathically or by antipathy, i.e. allopathically. Next he had to find an appropriate herb under the rulership of the planet which he had figured should cure the disease. For example, a fever that affects the whole body is ruled by Mars. The best way to treat it would most likely be allopathically, by giving a herb of Venus such as Meadowsweet or Yarrow. On the other hand a broken bone is ruled by Saturn and would probably best be treated sympathetically by applying poultices of Comfrey.

Though these examples make the process appear rather oversimplified, in truth it was not always so easy to find the right remedy. Obviously there are many different herbs with different specific properties under the rulership of each planet. To find the appropriate one for each case not only required a good understanding of the astrological symbolism involved in determining the nature of the disease and the affected body part, but also demanded a very thorough knowledge of the plants themselves. The symbolism then was more of a way of gaining an insight into the underlying principles and forces at work. This mode of applying the Doctrine was particularly useful in the approach to more psychosomatic symptoms.

Astrological symbolism works itself out not just through the physical levels of reality, but also through the psychological dimension and thus can provide insights into the relationship between the mental/emotional body and its effects on the physical well-being of a person. This is a very holistic approach to dealing with dis-eases, and one, perhaps modern physicians should reconsider in their practices. Whilst in the pre-rationalistic age the body-mind-soul connection was a given fact that was prevalent everywhere, the connection has become dissected since the arrival of Descartean thinking. Suddenly physical problems had become mechanical dysfunctions, divorced from their psycho-spiritual connection. The beauty of the Doctrine of Signatures then lies in the fact that it opens the observers inner eye in the process of determining the planetary interplay at work. It provides an insight into the archetypes that manifest within and without and help one understand the processes by which they are woven into the rich tapestry of life. In todays age of alienation it may serve our souls and spirits well to once again seek such a symbolic understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. To gain a truly holistic perspective we need to go beyond the physical cause and effect theories prevalent in modern scientific thinking. What the Doctrine teaches us is to observe our environment from an inner perspective that lets us glimpse the nature of the archetypes and their echoes which resonate throughout the manifest and non-manifest realms of existence.

As above : so below 
 As within : so without

"The Doctrine Of Signatures, a mediaeval system of classification"
was written by
Kay Morgenstern
SacredEarth Website

Web presentation designed by Matthew Sleigh
The Doctrine Of Signatures at Ishtar’s Gate


Von Heilkräutern und Pflanzengottheiten, Wolf-Dieter Storl, Aurum Verlag Gmbh, Braunschweig 1993
The Mystery and Magic of Trees and Flowers, Lesley Gordon, Grange Books, London 1993
(excerpt from: Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpeper, Manchester 1826)

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