The Lady From The Lake

Herbs, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
Date: March 1, 2014 Posted by: Dafydd Monks
Medieval Wales had a tradition of medicine equal to any other in Europe: this formed the basis of a line of forward thinking medical practice and education that lasted almost a thousand years. However, the origins of this tradition are attributed to the apparition of the Lady of the Lake – a ‘fairy’ being from the ‘otherworld’ so pervasive in Celtic mythology. This article aims to look at the subconscious, the collective unconscious, archetypes of physical health and the archetypes of agents of healing and how through the interface between consciousness and unconsciousness with mind and body, Herbs can talk directly to the human being as a holistic organism, speaking in the language of the soul: Archetypes.

From the Waters of the Unconscious – the Lady of the Lake

The birth of recorded medicine in Wales occurs in the 14th Century Red Book of Hergest. In the book, we learn of Rhiwallon, physician to the ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth in South Wales. He, and his sons, formed the start of a long tradition of medicine in the Brecon Beacons area, that was being passed on to pupils until the early 1800s. In its self this is of interest, as is the fact that the treatments, and more importantly the medical philosophy of the Physicians of Myddfai, were written down. Rhiwallon was keen to make his kingdom a centre of learning and sponsored the creation of books and libraries. For instance, he donated heavily to the foundation of the abbeys of Talley and Strata Florida. He also sponsored his physicians to write down their knowledge, and this laid the foundation of a medical school. It is likely that a lot of the medical knowledge used by Rhiwallon and his sons was of a much older Celtic lineage, and this certainly re-enforced by the myth of the origins of the Physicians of Myddfai.

One day, a young man from Blaen Sawdde was grazing his mother's cattle near a lake - Llyn y Fan Fach. He saw a beautiful maiden arising from the waters of the lake and in an attempt to woo her, he offered to share his lunch. She rebuked him, slipping below the waters of the lake once more. Twice more he tried, until on the third attempt, she agreed to marry him. However, there was a condition on the marriage: If he hit the maiden three times without cause, she would return to her father's kingdom under the lake. The couple were very happy, and had three handsome and healthy sons; however over the years three careless 'blows' - taps on the shoulder and an accident while restraining an animal - resulted in the lady having to return to the lake. However, she returned at night, to educate her children. One of them was Rhiwallon.

The importance of this myth cannot be overstated. Even if Rhiwallon's mother was quite normal, and had nothing to do with any lake, the symbolism of the story of the lady of the lake is huge. From the waters of the subconscious comes intuition: the subconscious processes of thought that speak in symbols, emotions, and archetypes. And in the symbols of the subconscious, the story of the lady of the lake says 'From the subconscious, an archetypal, intuitive process brings about healing and a knowledge of how to heal'.

Healing and the Otherworld

The Celts were firm believers in the Otherworld - a realm that existed not in some other plane of manifestation, but intertwined with our own, though usually inaccessible. Thus is can be seen as the un-manifest subconscious of our world... its emotional body if you will. Therefore, the Otherworld can be seen as a subconscious realm, that occasionally breaks through to our conscious existence. Carl Jung believed firmly in a collective unconscious, and this is a modern interpretation of the Otherworld. So how is this related to healing? Well, our subconscious mind is where we tend to store away our past mental and emotional injuries. It is also the area that must be addressed in order to heal those injuries. Fortunately, the tools of healing these injuries exist in the subconscious itself, for the subconscious is a world of archetypes, imagery and symbols rather than one of reason. Yet, true to form, the Otherworld breaks through into our realm. The subconscious can affect our mental and emotional processes, and this can result in huge changes to the way we perceive and interact with the world: A lot of conscious mental illnesses arise from the subconscious, usually from the way the subconscious deals with fear, pain, and uncertainty.

The Limbic System, the Subconscious and Health

The involvement of the subconscious in our function as balanced organisms does not stop in the mind, thoughts and emotions though. The subconscious can exert a large effect on the function and structure of the body's tissues via a process called somatisation. While often dismissed by medics as 'psychological' conditions with no impact on the body, somatisation of subconscious activity can have a huge effect on bodily health. For instance, if a longstanding fear has somatised to the gastro-enteric region, an overproduction and reflux of gastric juices can change the types of cells in the upper gastric tract and change the structure of those tissues. Which will intrinsically change their function. A subconscious disorder has lead to the formation of a very real physical problem, which may persist even after the original subconscious issue has been addressed. This is just one of many examples of the subconscious physically changing our bodily function.

So where is the interface between the Otherworld, Mind, and Body? The short answer is in the limbic system. This system is the brain's direct interface with the body's organs at the level of the tissues themselves. The limbic system exerts this effect by influencing the endocrine system and autonomic nervous system through chemical messengers and nervous tone.

Agents of Healing – Herbs as Archetypes

Herbs come into this equation from several sides. They are often used as physical medicines which exert a direct physical effect on the body's tissues and organs. Other disciplines use herbal extracts to encourage the body to make changes to its own function through affinity - as is the case with homeopathy, or acting in a psychosomatic manner through subconscious keys, as is the case with Bach Flower Remedies. The reality is far more complex.

While it is true that many herbs do have a direct effect on cell receptors and tissues, in much the same way as pharmaceutical drugs, they also have many other attributes that give the body a complete picture of the herb's qualities and how it is going to exert an effect on the person as a complete whole.

Consciously, we may associate herbs with physical attributes we know: Few would not consider an oak tree to be large, strong, and stately. Similarly if you bring a rose to mind, you will likely know that roses are fragrantly scented, and will probably bring to mind a red or pink flower, with a connotation of love or affection associated with it - even if that connotation is not of romantic love. These physical attributes start telling the conscious mind about the qualities of the plant before we have even tasted it. It is surprising just how closely a herb's biological effects will mirror its archetypes: Oak extracts are indeed strengthening and toning to membranes, and the rose family have a physical affinity with the circulatory system and the emotional heart.

When you taste a medicinal extract such as a tincture of a plant, your body gathers all sorts of information about its qualities, some of which you may not even be aware of at the time. How does it smell? What does the aroma remind us of, and how does that make us feel? Taste - is it bitter, sweet, salty, sour?  Does the action of the medicine feel stimulating or calming? Does any sensation arise from taking the medicine? Do you feel warmer or cooler? Do you feel any movement in your body...? Either a physical movement such as the stomach/bladder etc., or a movement of subtle energies?

These qualities give three reactions: If you taste a tincture of dandelion root, you will have a conscious psychological reaction such as 'Oh that's bitter! And I can feel my stomach', a reflex action of the physical tissues to speed up the rate at which the movement of the intestines occurs, and a subconscious reaction to the medicine. The subconscious mind will associate feelings and emotions with what it is presented with - these are subjective, and specific to each of us, but there will be an effect on subconscious and endocrine function, and may in turn exert an effect on the body via the limbic system and parasympathetic nervous system. Physical changes occurring in the body will also feed back to the limbic system and may lead to a change in limbic activity. Some herbs also directly effect the limbic and endocrine function; either via the senses such as aroma, smell and texture or by acting on the neurotransmitter balances in the brain, or through being chemically similar to the body's own chemical messengers.

In effect, the qualities of the herb have given us a deep understanding of what the herb will do: We know why we have taken it, and what its actions are, we know how it tastes and feels to our body, and it sends chemical messages to our subconscious which will in turn effect the function of our tissues and organs. The herb has become bigger than the sum of its actions by being understood and experienced. In effect we have made an archetype of it, and that archetype and its set of characteristics are recognised and understood by the subconscious.

Archetypes – the Language of the Soul

As archetypes and symbols are the language of the individual and collective unconscious, and as some have suggested the very soul itself, herbs can play a very unique role. They act on the physical body, on the conscious mind, and on the unconscious mind via their experiential attributes. This is unique because they can address a health problem from many sides at once, and also because they are non-human archetypes. If the word 'archetype' is mentioned, one might think of gods, or archetypes of people or animals - for instance a giant, muscly man and a lion are both archetypes of strength. But by forming an archetypal association with a herb - a medicine - we are elevating it to the same realm, and forming a bond that directly relates to our own subconscious understanding of our own state of health, and our own understanding of symbols - not necessarily in an abstract form, but in very much a sensory, experiential form of tastes, aromas, feelings and movement. This is where the energetics of medicinal plants become archetypes to our subconscious.
From understanding the myth of the lady arising and returning to the lake, and the keys to the processes of the unconscious and their role in healing, we can communicate with the world that lies under the waters of our own subconscious mind and bring about a state of deep healing on a subconscious, mental, and physical level.

Note: This article is centered on the philosophy of healing and the role of archetypal psychology and the unconscious and does not reflect modern herbal practice, although the role of the limbic system and unconscious mind is most certainly considered in modern Clinical herbal medicine.