Enlightened Women Healers — Hildegard of Bingen

Why is so little known about women healers and women practicing medicine? The sad answer is that women were consistently squelched over the last 2,000 years simply by not being permitted into the educational systems. All higher learning was male privilege. However there were places of the world where women stood out. In abbeys and cloistered institutions for religious women, some women were allowed to develop intellectual skill.

One such outstanding woman was Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century (1098-1179). Some theologians call her one of the greatest mystics of all times.

Her medical writings were scientifically correct and author Jeanne Achterberg writes in Woman as Healer that she had vast intellect, nerve and exceptional intuition. Hildegard’s ideas were advanced for her time. She wrote about the medicinal qualities and properties of plants, yet she did not clinically practice. However, she may have treated and helped her sisters in the abbey. In the latter part of her life, Hildegard went about the country side and with her charisma gathered large crowds preaching about the medicaments she studied. The church hierarchy did allow her work to proceed after they examined and approved it.

Hildegard is credited with three major works, two theological and one medicinal. She wrote chants and music that are stunning works of art. Listen here.

The standard medical schools of that medieval time largely ignored her medical work, but subsequent study reveals her depth of understanding of the body that likely came from an enlightened source.

To read further on Hildegards work read: Woman As Healer by Jeanne Achterberg Shambhala Publications, Boston MA 1990

Egyptian Healing

The art of healing in the ancient world has been recorded and archeologists have been uncovering more facts of the work of ancient women healers. Archaeological finds have revealed high levels of civilization among people of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece as far back as the second millennium BC, including evidence that women were respected practitioners of medicine. In the grave of Queen Shubad of Ur (3500 BC), prescriptions for easing pain were found along with surgical instruments of flint and bronze. Several Egyptian queens were renowned for healing, including Queen Mentuhutep (2300BC), whose grave held a large cedar chest containing alabaster jars of ointments, tinctures, measuring spoons and dried herbs.

More specifically, people of Egypt relied on both male and female physicians and worshipped the goddess Sekhmet, an important icon of power; her name translates to “might and terror.” Sekhmet was seen as a bringer of disease as well as the provider of cures to those ills. Thus she was considered the Avenger of Wrongs, and the Scarlet Lady, a reference to blood. She also was seen as a special goddess for women, ruling over menstruation. During the Middle Kingdom, she became synonymous with physicians and surgeons. At that time, many members of Sekhmet’s priesthood often were considered to be on the same level as physicians.

Many of the prescriptions and healing methods of those ancient times were shared by male and female healers. Over time however, only male healers were able to lay claim to the rights of healing. Women’s healing work continued…. underground.

Old Wives Tales

While there are some specific accounts of women healers the fabled village wise woman—sometimes referred to as a witch—held a place of honor among her people. She carried the traditions of her ancestors (mothers and grandmothers) and passed them onto her daughters and granddaughters. From birth to death she was revered for her skill, wisdom and knowledge. Women in small pockets throughout the world and in different time periods held various power positions and were educated if they were either part of the aristocratic class or lived and were schooled in convents or abbeys. However, these numbers were very small.

Peasants and villagers used common remedies, including charms, spells and potions with great—and recorded—success. Meanwhile, the privileged classes had access to the scientific information of their time, medical terminology and practices that increasingly encroached on traditional healing methods. The interesting paradox of higher learning is that many empirical treatments often originated from the peasant population doing “experimentation.” The scientific community had disdain for empirical methods of lay people and healers. The irony is that trial and error experimentation is empirical and is used by science even today. Early healers learned what did or did not work well for those under their care. What did not work was discarded and what did work was passed down, generation to generation. The female healer instinctively knew and practiced what worked.

Women collected herbs and created recipes for healing diseases. “Old Wives Tales” were stories of the use of herbal potions by the old wives. These herbs did become part of the early medicines and drugs used by the educated doctors and eventually a pharmacopoeia was created listing the uses and actions of herbs. To gain control of the use of herbal potions, medical orthodoxy discredited old wives’ tales.

While evidence of women healers in history books or current medical texts and education is scant, at best, there is plenty of reverence for feminine power in ancient cultures, right down to the essential words and names. The word “hygiene,” for example, comes from Hygeia, the Goddess of Good Health, one of the daughters of the Earth mother Rhea. (She comes from the Asclepius family in Greek mythology) We know a panacea as a “cure all,” but it was first the name of Rhea’s twin sister. The Hippocratic Oath, to which all doctors must pledge themselves, uses both of those terms.

Women have innate wisdom that has been carried down through time often underground. In some cultures today outside of western medical practice these traditions are still carried out today and have value in that culture.


Agnodice – The First Woman Gynecologist

Everyone has heard of Hippocrates known as the Father of Western Medicine. By law only males practiced medicine around 400 BC. Historical tales are predominantly about what men did in ancient times but I want to refresh our consciousness about what women were doing all those years ago and reveal some phenomenal women of that time period .

Women were not just sitting around making babies and cooking over the camp fire. Because history has not recorded her activities should not discount her value. Digging around history books and online I have discovered some cool, feisty and powerful women. Agnodice, a contemporary of Hippocrates is a supreme example. As a Greek citizen she was struck by the fact that women did not like being treated by a male physician especially for female reproductive and genital issues. Agnodice witnessed women dying rather than have an unfamiliar man handle her medical needs. This is supported by a higher female death rate due to women refusing care from male doctors during this time period.
In the fourth century BC women were barred from entering medical schools. What did Agnodice do? She cut off her hair and disguised herself as a man, attended the Medical University in Alexandria , studied medicine and subsequently set up medical practice in Athens.

This is where is gets real interesting. Within no time her medical practice was teeming with patients – women of course. She could understand, treat and help her patients with the care they desperately needed and wanted (remember the times). When male practitioners got wise to her incognito ways, they reported her to the legal authorities.

Subsequently, she was arrested and sentenced to death (a common event) for practicing her craft of medicine. The conclusion of this story is by far the best yet. The women of her community were outraged by her arrest. Many of her clients were the wives and daughters of the judges and law makers who convicted and sentenced Agnodice. These brave women gathered together, protested and en mass threatened as a group to commit suicide if Agnodice were not released.

Fortunately it worked. Agnodice was released and was allowed to continue her practice of medicine but only for women and children. What a relief! She set a precedent that continued to have a ripple effect for that era of time.

The stories of women healers and their arduous journeys of practicing medicine through time is intriguing, yet often filled with truths, half truths or worse yet no recording of her work at all. Stories however factual, reveal the character and fortitude of some incredibly courageous women who have made such a difference. The “Old Wives Tales” so often discounted by scholars and historians really do hold truths of her endeavors.

Roots of yin medicine

Feminine contributions in medicine throughout time must also include the significant advances women have made in academia, industrial, community and environmental health settings. Women have made indelible contributions to the advancement of human care. Because much of history left her out does not mean it is forgotten.

In the beginning of humankind the great mother Goddess was the composite image of the giver of all life – Venus of Willendorf.

Her large breasts and belly signified plentitude and she reigned in the hearts and minds of peoples throughout the world. The female for many millennia was held in high regard because of her reproductive abilities – she was the giver of life. Her survival meant the survival of the tribe. She was worshipped, honored for her gift of life and held in the highest esteem in most ancient cultures.

Because women were raising and nurturing the children and family she became the natural protectress of the weak, the sick, the wounded and the vulnerable. Her role was vital all over the globe in the small tribes and enclaves found throughout ancient times. Pictures, drawings and writings depicted women invoking healing rituals and using her power to heal disease.

For an example we can look at times in ancient Egypt where women held high status; they were high priestesses and prescribed herbal natural potions. Records have been found that tell of an Egyptian queen dynasty which began 4000 B.C.E. where the queens themselves were physicians.[Brooke, 1995]

Hygeia the Greek goddess of healing in the 4th century B.C. was a goddess way before her time. Hygeia and Panacea have symbolized prevention and cure. Each woman came from the Aesculapius family of healers (900 BCE). There have been numerous statues found of Hygeia with a snake coiled at her side – a symbol of feminine healing energy. [Brooke, 1995]

Agnodice was a Greek woman in Athens, who started a revolution by healing women. Because women were barred from medical schools, Agnodice disguised herself as a man and became educated. Her drive to become a trained physician was due to the fact that women were dying simply because they refused to be treated by a male practitioner. When she set up her practice and became successful, her male peers revealed her female identity. As a result she was jailed and sentenced to death for practicing medicine. Fortunately her female patients rallied and threatened mass suicide if she was killed. Agnodice was released and was permitted to practice with her limits set to help only women and children. This story is likely not an isolated one in ancient history and elicits the imbalance which inevitably occurs when domination prevails.

Venus of Willendorf image by Matthias Kabel

The Meaning of Yin

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Jeanne’s upcoming book, The Yin of Medicine.

Yin and Yang is unfamiliar in western cultures and a common philosophy in many eastern countries. It is a concept of how life flows. In Chinese society it is the root understanding of health and disease. In fact all of life in the orient is based in the understanding of opposites. It somewhat comparable to a scientific principle “For every action there is a reaction”. Dating back to third century BCE the Yellow Emperor said ”The principle of Yin and Yang is the foundation of the entire universe. It underlies everything in creation. It brings about the development of parenthood; it is the root and source of life and death. It is found with the temples of the gods. In order to treat and cure diseases one must search for their origins. (Source)

This yin can be equated to feminine but she does not exist without balance of yang. The same holds true for yang as it cannot exist without the yin. In matters of health this balance is very important.

Homeostasis is the a term used to denote a balance in physiology within the human body.

Can we have homeostasis without knowing the yin or yang? Yes and no. A simple rhetoric to this is: can we have warm water without hot and cold? Can we have fever without chills? These are truly simple comparisons to make a point. Achieving homeostasis in the body is quite complex; much more complex than the simple hot and cold principle, but more comparable to fever and chills of an illness. Furthering this point is to say yin and yang is essential for balance in healing.

When the body is imbalanced what factors are in play? Our immune system gets very involved in acute illnesses but so does the mind and emotions. Our minds play into the state of affairs with worry – will I get well? The “what if’s” can plague our mind.

So in the balance picture it is not just a matter of hot and cold makes warm, but a complex interplay of the physical activity of what each cell is experiencing. When illness sets in all the factors of getting well get into the mix. These include feelings about being taken care of (or not wanting to), pain (control of and relief from), fatigue, loss of mind clarity, anxiousness of being a burden, feeling hopeless of ever being well, etc. All these factors serve to help in the healing process but can hinder the return to a state of health.

Returning to a state of health: what does that imply? Are we ever in a pure state of health? More likely we are in a constant search of the body’s innate ability to seek balance. That search can be conscious or we may not be aware at all. But it is still occurring. We are continually moving toward or retracting back from that balanced position. The action of yin and the response with yang (or yang in response to yin) occurs quite naturally almost silently.

Yin and yang are the contrasting and complementary opposites that flow in and out of each other. They symbolize the duality of life is all aspects. One set of qualities is not more important; each supports the other. When expansion occurs there must be contraction; darkness gives way to the light. Heat needs coolness to keep the balance or we would be exhausted by too much heat rising and expanding. Even the starkest places on the planet have a contrast of yin and yang. The time frame may be different but the contrasting continues.

Yin represents feminine qualities. The feminine is the container, the holder of life. She sits quietly contemplating the unknown. She is the mystery and contraction; the going within for answers. The container is symbolized by the womb. This deeply embedded organ holds all life’s possibilities. The embryo grows and is nurtured by the female body. She then brings forth life for the continuation of the human species.

Without the yin the yang would be out of balance and could not survive but rather would explode and dissipate. In studying table 1 the contrast is striking. Neither yin nor yang is good or bad. Each holds an important role in universal life in matters that matter.

Know the goodness of each quality as they weave through life seeking its own balance.

Table 1.

Yin Yang
Feminine Masculine
Contraction Expansion
Moon Sun
Small Large
Black White
Cold Heat
Darkness Light
Imperfect Perfect
Bad Good
North South
Negative Positive
Downward seeking Upward seeking
Consuming Producing
Night time Day time
Water Air
Earth Sky
Intuition Intelligence


How does balance affect health?

The word balance brings the mind to a place of equal status with each side containing equal parts or amounts.. Balance has many definitions and meanings in the world. Balance sheets in finance, balance scales, a balance watch or a wheel and balance board are a few examples of this important word in our common experience. Homeostasis is a scientific example for balance as it applies to the body and its ability to function moment to moment. In chemistry and in the physical world equilibrium is balance. All chemical and biochemical reactions seek balance (equilibrium) in nature whether it is in the human body or in the plant and animal kingdoms. It’s the natural order of things. From the microcosm of each cell’s function of any living being to the macrocosm of the universe, balance, equilibrium and homeostasis is the common denominator.

The practice of contemporary medicine reveals an imbalanced yin. This is what needs to be righted. Everyday our energy moves us about our day. Some days we are calm, content and settled then some days we are frantic, excited, adventuresome, overworked. This is an example of more yin in our day or more yang playing out.
At the end of our day we must rest and sleep, which often inadequate. In western cultures the belief of hard work numbs out our sense of balance. How many of our days are spent in happy hours of laughter, rest and relaxation? At the end of a work week do we take off days to spend in pure rest and enjoyment? In this 21st century, the common pattern is to do more and more and have less and less down time. More yin is needed to balance the yang energy.

Next…. How women practice yin medicine.

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