Category Archives: Herbs
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Other Names: All-Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Donnerbesen, Druid’s Herb, Golden Bough, Herbe de la Croix, Holy Wood, Lignum Sanctae Crucis, Misseltoe, Mistillteinn, Mystyldyne, Thunderbesem, Witches’ Broom, Wood of the Cross,
Deity: Apollo, Balder, Cerridwen, Freya, Frigga, Odin, Taranis, Thor, Venus
Sphere of Influence: Defense, Dreams, Exorcism, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Invisibility, Locks, Love, and Protection
Symbols: Friendship, Peace
Victorian Language of Flowers: “I surmount difficulties, I send you a thousand kisses.”
What Is It?
Mistletoe is the common name for plant that is parasitic (hemiparasite) in that it grows by attaching itself to the branches of a tree or shrub, taking water and nutrients from the host plant. The mistletoe species, Viscum album is the one referred to in folklore is that is native to Great Britain and most of Europe. It is characterized by having a smooth-edged, oval shaped evergreen leaves set in pairs along the stem and white berries that are known to be poisonous.
There are a variety of other species of mistletoe plants found in other countries of Europe such as Spain and Portugal and on other continents. American Mistletoe is also known as False Mistletoe as the homeopathic remedies and uses are different from the European Mistletoe. Over time, the term mistletoe has come to include other species of parasitic plants. Even plants get parasites…
Despite mistletoe’s parasitic nature, it does have an ecological benefit with being a keystone species in that it provides food for a variety of animals that feed on it as well as providing nesting material for various birds.
There used to be all sorts of folkloric beliefs about how mistletoe would come to grow on various shrubs and trees. By the sixteenth, botanists had it figured out that seeds were passed by the digestive tracts of birds who fed on mistletoe or by the birds rubbing their bills on trees to get rid of the sticky seeds. An early reference to this is in 1532, an Herbal book by Turner.
What’s In A Name
One etymology for mistletoe that seems fairly accurate are the Anglo-Saxon words for “mistel” meaning “dung” and “tan” meaning “twig.” Making the meaning of mistletoe as “dung-on-a-twig.” Which makes sense, people observed that mistletoe grew wherever birds roosted and thus did their business.
The Latin word “viscusas” and the Greek word “ixias” both refer to the white coloration of mistletoe berries and being thought of to resemble sperm. The same words “visand ischu” mean “strength” In the Greek and Roman mindsets, sperm was connected to strength and vitality and thus to fertility for life springing seemingly out of nowhere. Mistletoe berries harvested from Oak trees were believed to have regenerative powers.
Mistletoe is a plant strongly associated with Christmas, Yule and other Winter Celebrations where it is used in decorations for its evergreen leaves that symbolize the promised return of spring.
Hanging Mistletoe – Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe can expect to be kissed. This probably originates in Druidic beliefs where mistletoe is strongly connected with fertility as the white berries of the mistletoe resembled semen. Now, proper etiquette says that when someone is kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry needs to be removed until all have been plucked, at which point, there are no more kisses.
One tradition holds that if any unmarried woman went unkissed after the hanging of the mistletoe, they would not be able to marry for a year.
British farmers would feed a bough of mistletoe to their livestock on January 1st, believing it would ward off any bad luck for the coming year. Alternatively, a farmer feeding mistletoe to the first cow calving in the New Year was what brought good luck.
In some regions of Britain, mistletoe would be burned on the twelfth night after Christmas to ensure any boys or girls who didn’t get kissed could still marry.
Celtic Druidic Mythology & Traditions
In the Celtic language, the name for mistletoe translates to “All-Heal” as they believed this plant to have healing powers that could cure a number of ailments and held the soul of the host tree. By Mistletoe was held the chief of the Druid’s sacred seven herbs. The other sacred plants were: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover and wolf’s bane.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the Druids who held the plant as being sacred. It held a magical virtue and served as a remedy to protect against evil. Mistletoe found growing on Oaks were especially sacred. Ovid’s writings mention how Druids would dance around oak trees with mistletoe growing on them. If mistletoe were to fall to the ground without being cut, it was considered an ill omen.
In Between – Seen as a tree that was not a tree. One of the things making mistletoe sacred was its seeming ability to spring forth out of nowhere. It represented the “in between” or a gateway to other worlds and spirit.
Harvesting – Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, circa 77 C.E. notes how the Druids revered the mistletoe. Pliny goes on to explain how white-clad Druids would use a golden sickle when harvesting mistletoe; taking great care to make sure that none hit the ground, believing that the plant would lose its potency and sacred powers. The sacrifice of two white bulls would follow. Pliny’s accounts are the most well-known documentation of Druid beliefs regarding the sacredness of mistletoe. Either the Midsummer or the Winter Solstice were the times to harvest and collect mistletoe. Better when done so on the sixth day after a waning moon.
Oak King & Holly King – This is a particularly old folkloric belief. With the Oak King and Holly King being personifications for the cycle of the year. Mistletoe berries found on an Oak tree were thought to be representative of the Oak King’s semen. So when the Oak King’s power waned and gave way to the Holly King, the harvesting of mistletoe and it’s berries off of Oak trees was symbolic of emasculating the Oak King. Hence, why two bulls would be sacrificed, to compensate the Oak King.
The white berries of mistletoe would be made into fertility potions as they were thought to be regenerative as on the Winter Solstice, the Oak King would be reborn, gaining power again as the new year progressed.
Fire & Lightning – It was thought that mistletoe would grow on an Oak tree that had been struck by lightning. For this, mistletoe was believed to be able to stop fires.
French farmers would burn mistletoe in their fields in order to have a successful harvest with the coming year.
Maidens would place a sprig of mistletoe beneath their pillows so they could dream of their future husband.
Herbe de la Croix – In Brittany, there is a legend how the cross that Jesus is to have been hung on was made from the wood of mistletoe. After Christ’s death, mistletoe is said to have been cursed or degraded to become a parasitic plant. Now days, thanks to 16th century Botanists discoveries, it’s better understood how the seeds of mistletoe or spread.
Immortality – Asclepius, the son of Apollo and god of medicine was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead. This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called onto the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
This herb is said to have been mistletoe. Now armed with this knowledge, Asclepius brought Glaucus back to life. Later, he would bring Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
This angered Hades enough that he complained to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be anyone entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Golden Bough or Mistletoe is the plant Aeneas uses to enter the Underworld to Hades’ realm.
Saturnalia – Many traditions regarding mistletoe and the Christmas traditions are believed to trace their origins to this ancient Roman festival once held on December 17th of the old Julian calendar.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg, the goddess of Love had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death, who was the most beloved of all the gods. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg got an oath from all living things that they wouldn’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small and inconsequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this oversight and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
Some variations to this legend have mistletoe becoming the symbol of peace and friendship to make-up for it’s part in Balder’s death.
In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
The white berries of mistletoe are to have formed from Frigg’s tears when she mourned Balder’s death. Shakespeare makes an allusion to the story of Balder’s death by referring to mistletoe as “baleful.”
Peace & Love
Due to the above story, the Norse held the belief that hanging the mistletoe would be a symbol of peace, indicating that any past hurts and anger would be forgiven. Enemies would cease fighting each other for the day.
Under the incoming Christian religion as it spread throughout Europe, the symbolism of the mistletoe would be converted to have Christian meanings as older pagan beliefs and traditions would get adapted and changed.
For example, in the Norse story with the death of Balder, mistletoe would keep its meanings as a symbol of life and fertility.
Wearing sprigs of mistletoe is believed to help conceive, attract love and for protection.
During Medieval times or Antiquity, branches of mistletoe would be hung to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe would be hung over the house and stable doors to protect from witches and keep them from entering.
Mistletoe could also be worn in amulets, bracelets, and rings for its magical qualities of protecting from evil, witches, poisoning and even werewolves!
Yes, there are medical uses for mistletoe. However, the white berries are poisonous as they do cause epileptic type seizures and convulsions. Keep the white berries away from small children and pets who might decide to try and eat them.
Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some information has changed.
Homeopathic Remedies – Due to the nature of the poisonous berries, it causes many cultures such as the ancient Celts to use mistletoe berries in remedies for treating convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and heart conditions. Some Native American tribes used a tea wash for bathing the head to treat headaches and infusions for lowering blood pressure and treating lung problems.
Warning – Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some medical experts disagree about the applications of homeopathic remedies and information is likely to change with better data and research.
Mistletoe is seen as an all-purpose plant and has been attributed a wide variety of magical uses and even a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies. A lot of it ending up very contradictory and suspect as to which to see as accurate. Further, you want to make sure you have the right mistletoe species.
Etymology: Yang – “goat,” “sheep,” “sun” or “Aspen”, Jing – “essence” or “clean”
Here’s another entity that caught my interest. Once I sat down to try and find more on them, I found the information to be rather sparse.
Per the few sources I can find, Yang Jing is a Chinese Goat God who is often described as wearing a goatskin and a goat’s head like a hood. He may have been viewed as a fertility god possessing a great sexual potency.
The local villagers in the mountainous areas would offer up sacrifices to Yang Jing to gain his protection of themselves, their harvest and livestock from wild animals.
That would have been it, except I found a couple other tidbits of interest in connection to the name Yang Jing that very likely cast some doubt to the authenticity of a Chinese Goat God.
Horny Goat Weed
Also, known as Epimedium, I found the name Yang Jing in connection to this herb for an herbal tonic used for restoring a person’s overall energy and for men. An alternative to using Viagra!
Any herb used for restoring male sexual energy is referred to as a Yang Jing herb.
The name Yang is the sixth most popular surname found in Mainland China. There’s a number origins for the Yang clan in China. The first family this name are the descendants of Huang Di during the Xia Dynasty. More families and Emperors from the Zhou, Song, Sui, Ji and Tang dynasties have all claimed or changed names to the Yang surname. Often this seems an effort to lay claim to the dynasty aristocracies.
Etymology – Greek – ophis (serpent), ekhein or okhos (holder), “Serpent-Bearer”
Also known as: Ὀφιοῦχος (Greek), Anguitenens, Serpentarius, Hebitsukai-Za (Japanese, “Serpent Bearer”, the Serpent-holder, the Serpent Bearer, the Serpent Wrestler, or the Snake Charmer
The constellation of Ophiuchus is represented as a man holding a snake, seen in the constellation of Serpens. The body of Ophiuchus divides the Serpens constellation in half to Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle. Many others have seen various legendary healers from Joseph and Aaron from the Bible, Imhotep and Asclepius in this constellation.
Astronomy & Astrology
Much of the foundations of Western knowledge regarding the fields of Astronomy and Astrology owe its roots to Ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Many ancient cultures studied the stars, seeing in them patterns that are called constellations. These ancient astronomers could make predictable, annual turnings of the heavens that they could divide and mark for the passing of the Seasons and time. For the ancients, Astrology served as a precursor to Astronomy and they believed that by studying the heavens, they could foretell future events and even a person’s life path.
These ancient cultures would also meet and exchange ideas frequently and in this fashion, when the Greeks encountered the Persians, there was an exchange of knowledge regarding Astronomy that becomes the constellations and zodiacs so many know today. Eventually, there is no clear distinction between what ancient Mesopotamian Astronomers and Greeks Philosophers knew. Even in current, modern times, the influence of these ancients is still known.
The constellation known as Ophiuchus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 11th in size and located near the celestial equator. Ophiuchus was previously known as Anguitenens and Serpentarius; which in Latin has the same meaning as the modern name.
Constellations bordering with Ophiuchus are: Aquila, Libra, Scorpius, Serpens and Hercules. If you know where in the night sky that Orion is, Ophiuchus on the opposite. The best time to spot Ophiuchus is during the month of July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The ancient Babylonians have a constellation known as the “Sitting Gods” that might have been in the same location of the night sky that Ophiuchus is found.
The Sumerian god, Enki has also been suggested as who the constellation is based on.
In his book, Babylonian Star-lore, Gavin White suggests that Ophiuchus has a connection to the ancient snake god, Nirah, who is sometimes depicted having the upper body of a man and snakes for legs. This idea seems a bit farfetched as there aren’t too many other scholarly works to validate or refute it.
Ophiuchus, combined with Serpens was known as Nu-tsir-da.
Arabic & Islamic Astronomy
According to 10th century C.E., Azophi’s Uranometry, the constellation of Ophiuchus is known by the name of Al-Hawwa’, the Snake-Charmer.
An Arabic title for Ophiuchus is Suille. Herodotus mentions a tribe of snake-charmers known as Psylli in North Africa. This part offered up some confusion keeping this straight. Again, as there’s some conflicting information and research. I found a “le Psylle” that refers to an insect. This may be to a lot of confusion with languages and translations.
To the ancient Chinese astronomers, Alpha Ophiuchi is known as Hou, a senior assistant to the Emperor. The Emperor’s thrown, Dizuo is located directly north in the Hercules constellation where it corresponds with the star Alpha Herculis. What exactly Hou’s role is, is rather unclear. Some have referred to him as an overseer, an usher bringing in guests and possibly an astrologer.
The stars Iota and Kappa Ophiuchi formed Hu, a measuring cup for liquids, this constellation is found further in the Hercules constellation.
For the ancient Chinese, the southern part of Hercules, most of Serpens and Ophiuchus were viewed as a celestial market place, Tianshi. To the left of Tianshi, there is an eastern wall that starts in the constellation of Hercules and heads south through Serpens Cauda and ending in Ophiuchus at Eta Ophiuchi. To the right of Tianshi, a western wall runs southward from Hercules, through Serpens Caput and ends in Ophiuchus with stars Delta, Epsilon and Zeta Ophiuchi. The stars 20 Ophiuchi and Chesi are seen as market stalls along the right wall. The stars Lambda Ophiuchi and Sigma Serpentis made up Liesi, an arcade where jewelers shops could be found.
Comprised of stars Mu, 47, 30 and a much fainter star formed a six-star loop that represents a hall or a tower housing the trading standards office. Finishing out this shape are the stars Omicron and Nu in Serpens Cauda.
Zongzheng, Zongren, and Zong
These three constellations are found to the south of Hou. Zongzheng is noted by the stars Beta and Gamma Ophiuchi and Zongren is noted by the stars 66, 67, 68 and 70 Ophiuchi. These two constellations are seen to represent a governor and his aides who are supervising the younger members of the royal family. Zong is noted by the stars 71 and 72 Ophiuchi and is seen to represent a revered ancestor to the royal family.
The stars Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega Ophiuchi formed Dongxian found outside the market walls. Dongxian is the western door to the steward’s room, used for investigating on any trade infractions. The eastern door, Xixian is found in Scorpius and Libra.
Marked by Theta Ophiuchi and three other stars, this constellation is a celestial river, located in the Milky Way and thought to control the waterways.
Lying next to Tianjiang, this constellation is composed of eight faint stars found in Ophiuchus and Sagittarius. It is thought that Tianyue lays directly on the ecliptic and represents a keyhole or lock that the Sun must thread itself through every year. It lays directly across the heavens from Tiangun, a gate found on the ecliptic within the Taurus constellation.
In later symbolic literature for Christianity, the imagery of Ophiuchus and the serpent is used in the story of the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, John Milton uses Ophiuchus as a major simile where he compares Satan to a comet that burns through the length of the constellation.
Again, with the strong imagery of the figure holding a serpent, some astrologists have connected the story of Joseph from the Biblical Book of Genesis and his interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh. Another story connecting Ophiuchus to the bible is that of Aaron and his casting down his rod to become a snake.
Due to the rise of interest in Ophiuchus as a 13th Astrological sign, many have been quick to identify the Greek physician Asclepius in this constellation. In turn, discussion extends to an earlier Egyptian healer, Imhotep that Asclepius is based on.
The 4th century B.C.E. Greek poet, Aratus has the earliest mention of Ophiuchus in his Phaenomena, which in turn is based on earlier works by Eudoxus of Cnidus. While Aratus didn’t know much about astronomy by Greek standards of the day, he was very well known for his poetry and descriptive imagery for the constellations.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle.
The son of the god Apollo, Asclepius is the figure most often seen and identified in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Elevated to the status of a demi or lesser god, Asclepius was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead.
This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called into the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
Another story of Asclepius bringing people back to life is the resurrection of Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
Asclepius had been raised by Chiron, the immortal centaur and god in his own right. From Chiron, Asclepius learned the art of healing and in one story, Asclepius received the blood of the slain gorgon Medusa from the goddess Athena. The gorgon’s blood reportedly held some mystical qualities. The blood taken from the left side of Medusa’s body was a poison while the blood taken from the right side would be able to resurrect people, bringing them back from the dead.
This caused enough of a complaint from Hades to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be any one entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Ophiuchus is part of the Hercules Family of constellations. The myth I found making this connection, has the famous hero Hercules kill Kaikias, the Blinding One. Kaikias or Caecius is the god of the North East Wind who is shown carrying a large shield that scatters hailstones upon the earth.
Other Greek myths see the figure of Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Poseidon. Laocoön had tried to warn the other Trojans about the Trojan Horse and the fact that the Greeks were hiding within it. He would later be killed by a pair of sea serpents sent by the gods to punish Laocoön.
Another Greek myth links Phorbos with the constellation of Ophiuchus. The son of Triopas and Hiscilla, Phorbas became the hero of the island of Rhodes when he saved the people from a plague of serpents. Sometimes this is interpreted to have been dragons, but snakes is often referred to or meant in the story. An oracle had told the people to call on Phorbas who came and rid the island of snakes.
Renaissance And Early Modern Depictions
Inspired by Aratus’ description of Ophiuchus stepping on the constellation of Scorpio with his feet, others such as Renaissance artist such as Albrecht Dürer and astronomer Johannes Kepler continued this idea.
For the Romans, the legendary healer, Asclepius is Romanized to the Latin spelling of Aesculapius. The Ophiuchus constellation is known by the Latin name of Serpentarius.
The constellation of Ophiuchus, along with 18 other constellations of: Cygnus, Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
These constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
The connection extends from Donald H. Menzel, the director of the Harvard Observatory, who in his A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, takes groups of constellations based on where in the night sky they are located and grouping them by the very same location.
Stars Of Ophiuchus
Alpha Ophiuchi – Also known as Rasalhagues or Ras Alhague, meaning “Head of the Snake Charmer” or “Snake Collector” in Arabic, is the brightest star in the Ophiuchus constellation. It marks the head of Ophiuchus.
Beta Ophiuchi – Also known as Celbalrai. Cheleb and Kelb Alrai, it comes from the Arabic word kalb al-rā‘ī, meaning “the shepherd dog.” Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Gamma Ophiuchi.
The Arabs saw a Shepherd in the star Alpha Ophiuchi with his dog, the star Beta Ophiuchi guarding sheep in the area.
Delta Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Prior, the word “yed” comes from the Arabic language meaning “the hand.” Along with the star Epsilon Ophiuchi, these two stars mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer, holding the head of the snake.
Epsilon Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Posterior, this star along with Delta Ophiuchi mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer.
Eta Ophiuchi – Also known as Sabik is the second brightest star in Ophiuchus.
Gamma Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Beta Ophiuchi.
Iota Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Kappa Ophiuchi.
Kappa Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Iota Ophiuchi.
Barnard’s Star – This is the second or third closest star to our own sun about 6 light-years away. The only other stars that are closer are those found in the Alpha Centauri binary star system and Proxima Centauri. Banard’s Star is located just north of a V-shaped group of stars that form a now obsolete constellation known as Taurus Poniatovii or Poniatowski’s Bull, specifically 66 Ophiuchi.
Taurus Poniatovii – Obsolete Constellation
According to Ptolemy’s The Almagest, the stars 66, 67, 68, 70, and 72 Ophiuchi made a short-lived constellation that formed a bull. The constellation has since then been combined wiwth Ophiuchus to form the right shoulder and tail of the serpent.
First off, what is a Superbubble? It’s an astronomical event that happens when area of space, often hundreds of light years in distance has been created by several stars going supernovae and stellar winds blowing in interstellar gas. It’s basically what’s left over after the star or stars have finished going nova.
2005 saw a group of astronomers using information from the Green Bank Telescope to discover and identify one such Superbubble or Supershell. This particular superbubble is so large it reaches out beyond the furthest edges of the galaxy.
Also, known as Keplar’s Star. On October 9th, 1604, Johannes Kepler observed a supernova near the star Ophiuchi. Johannes would study this nova so extensively that it would eventually be named after him. The book, De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus’ Foot) contains all of Johannes’ studies and finding on this nova.
Galileo used this nova’s brief appearance when countering Aristotelian dogma and beliefs that the heavens were unchangeable.
Little Ghost Nebula
This is a planetary nebula found in Ophiuchus by William Herschel. It is about 2,000 light years away from the Earth.
Dark Horse Nebula
Also, known as the Great Dark Horse is a nebula found in Ophiuchus. This nebular is so named as its shape looks like the profile of a horse. It lays near the border with the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. The Dark Horse Nebula is one of the largest and with the right conditions, it can be seen without the aid of binoculars.
This nebula is part of the larger Dark Horse Nebula and is considered to form the hind legs or quarters of the Dark Horse. Like the Dark Horse, the Pipe can be seen without any aid from telescopes or binoculars, but its still helpful to use them.
Yet another nebula found in Ophiuchus. Like the Pipe Nebula, the Snake Nebula is also part of the much larger Dark Horse Nebula. It is about 650 light years from the Earth. While small, the snake is easily found for its distinctive s-shape near the bowl part of the Pipe Nebula.
Twin Jet Nebula
Also, known as Minkowski’s Butterfly or the Butterfly Nebula, it was first discovered by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski in 1947. The nebula is so named as it appears like either a butterfly or a pair of exhaust pipes on a jet.
There are four meteor shows associated with the constellation of Ophiuchus. They are the Ophiuchids, the Northern May Ophiuchids, Southern May Ophiuchids and Theta Ophiuchids.
Ophiuchus In Astrology?
The 13th Sign of the Zodiac!
Not so fast there! It may sound great and exciting, but such is not the case.
The idea of a 13th Sign for the Zodiac quickly caught fire in the imaginations of many aspiring astrologers, New Agers and assorted others.
Even from the expert astrologers, it must be remembered that Ophiuchus is a constellation, not a new Zodiac Sign. You don’t have to worry about going to bed, believing you were a Scorpio or Sagittarius and suddenly, everything has changed and you’re now an Ophiuchus. Nothing of the sort.
Yes, Ophiuchus is one of thirteen constellations that crosses the ecliptic as the earth makes it monthly journey around the sun and appears to move from one Zodiac Sign to the next. There is a huge difference though between a constellation and a Sign within the Zodiac. Traditionally the classical Greek Zodiac is set up into twelve Signs that stretch along the earth’s ecliptic path with each sign having roughly a month’s time. Especially in the Western traditions. The set up for the for the Signs also follow the changes of the seasons so that the March equinox will fall on the day when the celestial boundary is between Aries and Pisces.
Constellations on the other hand, vary in size and are based on the positions of the stars. Due to the precession of the equinoxes over the millennia, a Sign and constellation no longer directly line up and correlate to which Zodiac is in the heavens.
A History Lesson
Ptolemy, in his book Tetrabiblos, 170 C.E., mentions only 12 Signs. Yes Ophiuchus and some of the fixed stars got used by some of the ancient astrologers for the more significant celestial events. The 1st C.E. poet Manilius for example, in his Astronomica, describes Ohiuchus in an astrological poem. Later, Manilus goes on to discuss the astrological influence of Ophiuchus, commenting that when this constellation is rising, a person will have an affinity for snakes and be protected from their poison. Of course, a later 4th century astrologer known as Anonymous of 379 will make the association of Ras Alhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus, as the star of doctors, healers and physicians.
Alright, so I can see where some people will jump up and down getting excited for: “See! It is the 13th Sign!”
In more modern 20th and 21st century, the IAU (International Astronomy Union) in 1930 came up with the idea of 13 astrological Signs due to “the Sun is in the sign of Ophiuchus” between November 29th and December 17th with where the constellation boundaries lay. This continues with Stephen Schmidt in 1970, when he suggested a 14-Sign Zodiac, which includes Cetus as a Sign. Later, in 1995, the 13-Sign Zodiac is put forward by Walter Berg in his “The 13 Signs of the Zodiac” and Mark Yazaki in Japan. There, the concept of Ophiuchus took off in Japanese pop culture appearing in a number of video games, notably Final Fantasy and the anime and manga series known as Fairy Tail.
People’s imaginations got fired up for a 13th Sign when an astronomy professor Parke Kunkle from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College explained to his local paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about the precession of stars over time and that eventually, old markers for time with the changes of the season altered.
The specific quote is this – “Two thousand years ago the Sun was ‘in’ whatever it was in. Now it’s about a whole constellation off from that.” It’s a quote that went viral and got picked up by various media news sites. And for the lay person who first gets into Astrology or doesn’t know anything at all, there’s the assumption that it’s all based on the constellations and not the Signs.
But It Must Be A Sign!
If you’re insisting it must be a new Zodiac Sign, here we go –
The time for Ophiuchus is from November 29th to December 17th. This takes up a good chunk of the time that’s for Sagittarius that typically runs from November 23rd to December 21st. Perhaps you can see why this is problematic.
As a 13th Sign, Ophiuchus doesn’t have an opposite Sign like all the others do. Adding Ophiuchus makes the use of the Zodiacs more Constellation based or sidereal. The use of sidereal astrology is more typical of the Vedic Astrology. Walter Berg states that the Sun is the Planet associated for this Sign. Many also place a strong emphasis on Ophiuchus’ role and affinity with healing through the use of imagery with Asclepius, Imhotep and to a lesser degree others like Joseph of Biblical fame for his interpretation of dreams and the Babylonian god Enki.
Ophiuchans are described as: seekers of wisdom and knowledge, they’re known for having a flamboyant or brightly colored wardrobe, they get along will with authority and supervisors, a seeker of peace and harmony, dream interpretation, premonitions, medical affinity, likely to have a large family though possibly have left their own home at an early age and have an eye for design and construction. The number 12 is considered an Ophiuchan’s lucky number and people may or may not be a bit envious for their progress and advances in life.
Alternate Spellings: Shen-Nung
Also known as: 神農 (Traditional Chinese), 神农 (Simplified Chinese), Thần Nông
(Vietnamese), Hangul (신농 Korean), 神農 (Japanese), The Emperor of the Five Grains (Wǔgǔxiāndì), Shen-Nung, Sheng-Nong, Shen-Nong-Shi, Yan-Di, Yandi, Flame Emperor, Lord of the Burning Wind, Holy Plowman King
Pronunciation: shin nung
Etymology: Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman
In Chinese mythology, Shennong is one of several important deities who introduced and brought agriculture to the Chinese people. Shennong is one of the three noble ones known as the San-huang. In art, Shennong is sometimes depicted with the head of an ox or bull.
Shennong is credited with having invented the plow and teaching people agriculture and the cultivation of forests. In addition, Shennong also introduced the use of medicines and herbs.
Shennong is the second of three legendary Emperors of China and an important cultural hero. Tradition has him being born in the 28th century B.C.E. with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
What makes Shennong such an important hero is not only his introduction and use of agriculture but his identifying the use of hundreds of medical and poisonous plants that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He went about this by testing the effects of these plants on himself.
Chinese legends tell how Shennong had a transparent body that allowed him to see the effects that different plants and substances had on him. Another legend tells how during his research, Shennong poisoned himself a total of seventy-two times during the course of a single day. Fortunately, and Shennong credited his anecdotal tea preventing him from suffering any long-term complications or side-effects.
Tea, a discovery attributed to Shennong, was believed to act as an antidote to some seventy different herbs. Shennong traditionally held to have discovered tea and to have first tasted it sometime around 2437 B.C.E. when the burning leaves of a tea tree were lifted up by the hot air from a fire and fell into a cauldron of boiling water.
Another discovery attributed to Shennong is that of acupuncture. Further, stories of Shennong’s youth have him speaking after three days, walking within the week and that he could plow a field by the time he was three.
Depending on the version of the story told and the accounts given, Shennong died as a result of his testing the effects of plants on himself. One of his experiments didn’t agree with him when he ate a yellow flower from a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before Shennong had time to take his anecdotal tea.
This wouldn’t be the end for Shennong as he was given special honors and worshiped as the Medicine King and Father of Chinese Medicine.
God Of Agriculture & Medicine
When Shennong is worshipped and mentioned as a deity, he is the god of the burning wind and the patron of farmers, pharmacists, rice traders and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
As a god of agriculture, Shennong is one of many cultural heroes and deities credited with different, various inventions such as the axe, the hoe, the plow (both leisi and the plowshare), digging wells, irrigations, the use of boiled horse urine to store seeds, weekly farmers’ markets, the Chinese calendar, acupuncture, therapeutic use of taking pulse measurements, moxibustion and instituting the harvest thanksgiving ceremony of Zhaji Sacrificial Rite, later known as the Laji Rite.
Burning Wind – This term refers to the type of agriculture that is slash and burn. The ash from the resulting fire is then used to fertilize the fields.
Worship – As Shennong is often depicted as being ox-headed, the sacrifice and offerings of cattle is never acceptable. However, the sacrifice of pigs and sheep is acceptable. In addition, the use and offerings of fireworks and incense is used at Shennong’s statues, particularly on the lunar calendar for April 26th for his birthday. There are a number of temples and places dedicated to the commemoration of Shennong.
Divine Family – This part is rather tentative and relies on accepting Shennong as a defied human. A couple sources will list Shennong as having married a Sien-Tsang, the goddess of Weaving and Crafts. They had a son, Qi-Yu (alternatively Chi-Yu) a rain god and who is half bull like his father.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of pseudo-mythological and sage-like emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Shennong is counted as being part of this group and the second of their number to have once ruled over China.
The Flame Emperor
Or Yan di, the Chinese accounts can sometimes get confused as to who exactly the Yan Emperor is or was.
Some accounts of Shennong’s legend place him as a relative to the Yan Emperor. Other accounts place him as the first Yan Emperor and that Shennong appointed one of his ministers, Chi You who was also ox-headed with sharp horns, bronze forehead and iron skulled.
Another account has posited that the Flame Emperor was a title, held by the dynastic succession with Shennong holding the title of Yandi posthumously. The last Yan Emperor was defeated by Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) about 500 years later.
The Yan di were regarded as masters of fire and thus used fire in their names. The Yan di was also known as the Emperor of the South. With the Yan di defeat by the Huangdi, the title of Yan passed out of usage. Their descendants though intermarried with the Huangdi.
Shennong, along with Fuxi and the Yellow Emperor are credited with the creation of the Gugin.
The Yellow Emperor
Huangdi – Also known as “The Yellow Emperor,” was known to be a friend and fellow scholar with Shennong despite there being some 500 years’ distance between the two. Both Huangdi and Shennong are said to have shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality and making gold.
Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) – By the 8th Century C.E. historian Sima Zhen, Shennong is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and the ancestor or patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regard both Shennong and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors.
Aside from the Han, the Song Dynasty General Yue Fei also traced his lineage to Shennong.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is fairly difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty, a successor to Shennong is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologist trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Despite a lack of hard evidence, Shennong remains an important individual and even his clan share a prominent place in the history of China’s culture for mythology, popular culture and historical literature.
Shennong-shi – Shennong’s name can also refer to his people. The “shi” can mean both “clan” and “surname” as well as an honorific like “sir” or “mister.”
Sima Qian comments how the rulers directly following the Yellow Emperor were all of Shennong’s house or social group. Sima Zhen in his prologue for his Shiji says that Shennong’s surname was Jiang before going on to list all of his successors.
Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Remedies
The Chinese have a rich history and use of traditional remedies and herbs that dates back more than 5,000 years. With the use of oral history and stories by word of mouth, many of the stories attribute Shennong as the father of medicine. Like Shennong, Chinese people have tested the effects of different plants and herbs on themselves for their medicinal values over the millennia. These years of experimentation allowed for an increased understanding of pharmacology for the uses, dosages and toxicity of different herbal medicines.
Huainanzi – This is an older and more famous reference document. In it, before Shennong came along, people were constantly sick, starving, diseased and always suffering. When Shennong came along, he taught the people the art of agriculture and through his own research, the use of plants for medicine. Shennong did this feat by consuming hundreds of plants, testing them on himself. He is even said to have eaten some seventy poisons in one day.
Huang Ti Nei Ching – The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine – This book comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Ti who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Ti and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
I Ching – The Book of Changes, Shennong is mentioned in this book coming into power after the end of the house or reigning period of Paoxi (Fu Xi). He is mentioned here as having invented the bent-wood plow, a cut-wood rake and having taught these skills to other people. Shennong is also credited with establishing of noonday markets.
Lüshi Chunqiu – This document mentions the violence of the rise of Shennong’s house and its lasting for seventeen generations.
Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng – Also called: “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” or “The Classic of Herbal Medicine” and “Shen-nung Pen-tsao Ching.” This book on agriculture and medicinal plants is the most well-known work attributed to Shennong. Research has found and suggested that this book is a compilation of oral traditions dating to between 200 and 250 C.E. during the end of the Western Han Dynasty.
Unfortunately, the original book no longer exists, but it believed it was written in three volumes with some 365 entries. The books list numerous, different herbs said to be discovered by Shennong. As the earliest pharmacopoeia reference, there are hundreds of different medicines derived from various animals, minerals and plants.
The first volume included 120 herbs and drugs deemed to be harmless to humans as they were stimulants such as reishi, ginseng, jujube, the orange, Chinese cinnamon, Eucommia bark and liquorice root. All of these herbs were regarded as “noble” or “upper herbs.”
The second volume has 120 therapeutic entries intended to treat the sick. All of them though have toxic or potentially toxic effects. Entries include cucumber, ginger and peonies. All of these entries were considered to be “human,” “commoner” or “middle herbs.”
The last volume has 125 entries for those herbs and substances that have strong or violent effects on physiological functions and seen as poisonous. Entries in this volume include rhubarb, various pitted fruits and peaches. All of these herbs are considered “low herbs.”
Wu Shi Er Bing Fang – Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Diseases, this book is ultimately the first written treatise on herbal medicine that dates to between 1065-771 B.C.E. It was discovered in 1973 during that excavation of Ma Wang Dui’s tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. It beats out the Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng which is figured to have been written between 200 and 250 C.E.
Many places in China have connections to Shennong.
Shennongjia – This mountain range located in Hubei is where Shennong is to have climbed up a rattan ladder that turns into a vast forest.
Shennongding – “Shennong’s Peak” – This is the specific mountain that Shennong climbed up and down with his ladder.
Shennong Stream – Named for Shennong, this stream flows into the Yangtze River.
Shennong Temple – Located in Taiwan, Shennong is worshiped here under a number of different names such as King Yan, the God of Five Grains, Shennong the Great Emperor, the Ancestor of Farming, Great Emperor of Medicine, God of Earth, and the God of Fields.