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Book Review-Woman As Healer

Health

I have always been a reader.   I enjoyed holing up on a summer day with a good book instead of being helpful around the house or getting outside.  Now if my kids pick up a book and get off the screens, I’m thrilled! 

Over the years reading has become more for learning and less for pure enjoyment, unfortunately.  But every now and then the two worlds collide and I find a page-turner.  I found that rare gem in, Woman As Healer by Jeanne Achterberg. It’s an older book so the “modern” perspective is outdated but the history is fascinating!  And since March is Women’s History month I thought it would be perfect to tackle some of the concepts and characters of this book.

 

Human Origins

In my freshman year of college, by far my favorite class was “Human Origins”.  I remember my fascination with the trajectory that brought humanity to the present moment.  I have continued to read and wonder about how women fared during this journey through time.  Countless myths and stories point to the fact that women have been revered in ancient cultures in ways that haven’t been seen in the modern era. 

For years, I have longed for a historian’s perspective on how this came to change, how our institutions and culture became so masculine.  As you may imagine, women’s history written by women themselves is rare.  The stories have to be constructed from myths, relics, and artifacts; or teased out of what has been recorded, mostly by men.  Woman As Healer answered so many of those questions, exploring the rich and, often surprising, history of women’s roles in healing and culture. 

 

Women Through Time

Throughout the span of time, women have been perceived as divine, as intuitive, as healers, as having a sacred, even mysterious, connection with nature.  Conversely, women have been labeled as witches, as intellectually inferior,  and as embodiment of evil and temptation.  The tendency may be to think that progress marches forward in a linear fashion, but when it comes to the role of women’s autonomy as healers it is a series of gains and setbacks; the story doesn’t go from dark to light but rather meanders wildly over time. 

In very ancient times, at different locations around the world, there is evidence of violent destruction of artifacts and female figurines, as though a sudden shift in attitude toward woman’s innate powers occurred.   The author points out that the practice of the healing arts by women was most free when a culture viewed its deity or deities as being feminine. 

She writes, “the great mother or great goddess was unseated from her reign in favor of a single male god who resided outside and above the earth.”  Interestingly, during times of relative prosperity and peace, women’s status in their society fared well–but as scarcity and warfare would inevitably return, the pendulum would swing toward the qualities of ferocity, overpowering strength, and brutality.  

 

Middle Ages to Modern Era

The book spans ancient Denmark, Greece, and Rome and travels through early Christianity and the Middle Ages to the modern era. She points out some themes that are seen across time and place: 

  1. in all cultures women are associated with nature–for this, they were treated as supernatural and then later condemned
  2. healing has been considered a divine function throughout the span of time and culture
  3. the image of God shifted from nurturing, healing, wise, and feminine to a dominant male God
  4. the need for power and domination arose as civilization went from a hunter-gatherer society to agricultural and technological, leading to women’s subordination.

These themes provide the backdrop to the variety of chapters that examine in fascinating detail the different eras and places.  For example, in ancient Sumer, until 2000 BC women-owned businesses and land and were represented by the goddess that would become known as Ishtar.  Unmarried women could serve as healers.  

In time, the goddesses of Sumer fell from grace and the civilization eventually followed suit and was gone by 1000 BC.

 

Something is “Healing “in the state of Denmark

During the Bronze Age in Denmark, women ascended to the role of shaman or medicine woman, a highly revered position of healing.  This status had representation in the goddess, Nerthus, who inspired a pretty tragic ritual of sacrificing young men, the evidence of which has been unearthed in the peat bogs of Denmark. 

Apparently, this appeased the goddess as her early reign was peaceful, but changing climate patterns made conditions harsh which, along with tribal warfare led to a cultural shift, and suddenly offerings were being made more predominantly to male god figures and the female deities became more war-like.  

Even so, over the years the female healer/goddess continued to hold influence and women accordingly had surprising freedom.  The far north was cut off from the march of Christianity and so women enjoyed this somewhat elevated status for many years into the new millennia.

 

The Arc of Women’s Healing

The arc of women’s healing history includes ancient Roman and Greek healers, possibly including Helen of Troy, who was represented by a myriad of female healing deities.  Many scholars credit these early Greek women (around 2000-200 BC) for advanced surgical techniques and botanical therapies. 

In fact, the Hippocratic oath is recited to the Greek physician, Asclepius, and his daughters, Hygeia and Panacea–representing prevention and cure.  There were a large number of Greek women, including Pythias, the wife of Aristotle, whose contributions to early medicine were ground-breaking and may have been the knowledge base that was “borrowed” by many of the famous Greek fathers of medicine–Galen, Hippocrates, Aristotle.  

 

The Calm Before The Storm

It would be hard to overstate how far women’s status fell in the centuries and millennia to follow.  That said, in the early dawning of Christianity, women were integral to the movement–“Jesus himself challenged the religious and social institutions of his day with a frontal assault on the patriarchy.”  Women were a part of Jesus’ circle and were some of his bravest followers.  

In early Christian sects, God was seen as a dyad of father and mother.  God, the mother was called “Sophia” and was a creative force imparting wisdom to humanity.  This representation, again, led to the freedom of women to use their healing talents. 

In 395 AD a wealthy European woman, Fabiola, founded the first public civilian hospital, and much like Mother Teresa found her patients in the streets.  Fabiola functioned as a physician.  As Christian men and women’s healing reputation spread, the Roman Empire extinguished many of them, some becoming saints with shrines that inspired miraculous healings.  In spite of this, the first 500 years after Jesus lived could be called the “calm before the storm.”

 

The Loss of Knowledge

The Dark Ages after the fall of Rome were a time not only of plague and war but a loss of the intellectual gatherings of previous eras.  Many of the trade skills were not handed down: shipbuilding and the great architectural achievements of the past were absent at this impoverished time of feudalism. 

The same was true of much of the knowledge of botanicals, essential oils, and healing instruments and procedures.  In fact, medical tools unearthed in the ancient city of Pompeii were not reinvented until 600 years later.  Hygiene was a thing of the past as people took pride in ignoring the trappings of the flesh, including care for their bodies. 

Wise women were still sought out for healing ministrations but the ingredients of their balms and prescriptions became more aggressive and strange,  such as the tongue of an eagle or the body secretions of a variety of animals, replacing the gentler botanicals used in the past.  There was no lack of imagination!  The skills of observation and living in harmony with the earth’s offerings fell to the wayside.  The natural connection between cause and effect became hidden.

As the pillaging of warfare began to cease around the year 1000 BC, the energy for building self-sufficient communities was liberated.  The food supply improved, trades proliferated and quality of life improved.  Women of means would be educated and even the poorer classes of women would have the opportunity to learn their family’s trade. Lists of licensed healing practitioners have surfaced from this time period in Italy and France and the occasional woman’s name can be found.  Often the woman of the manor was the sought-out healer; along with midwives, who throughout the span of time were present to assist women.  

 

Lost in Translation

The works of ancient Greece were translated by Near Eastern Arab culture and introduced back to the West, often via the Jews who could read Arabic.  These teachings would then be translated into Latin and the Christians then translated for the people.  We can only wonder if each scribe altered the translations? 

Nonetheless, these ancient writings became the basis for the practice of medicine once again.  The Crusades generated the need for medical facilities, often founded by a variety of Orders of the church.  These facilities popped up along the routes of Crusaders and women’s healing services were well-received, setting the foundation for the profession of nursing, as well as the system of hospital care. 

The 13th century brought a renewal of the worship of Mary in an otherwise patriarchal religion; almost as a longing for the lost goddesses of the earth and healing.  Women were encouraged to live a life of purity, as Mary had, and give their life (and their large dowries) to the church.  In this way, the Church was able to lay claim to ⅓ of Europe’s land.  The most famous abbess to arise from this era, Hildegard of Bingen was the last powerful female healing figure before a dark new era began.

 

A Dark New Era

As the Middle Ages wound down, changes in climate led to crop failures and starvation.  Overcrowded conditions heralded an era of the plague that claimed ⅓ to ½ of the European population.   Women tended to survive in far greater numbers than men, leading some to believe they were using magic to help themselves, or more sinister, to hurt others. 

In spite of the fact that most “trained” physicians fled to save themselves, women who offered healing were under the watch of the Church and state. Guilds were formed and seized the power to decide who could perform what tasks, providing the beginning of distinct professions. 

It was quickly determined that women, having “no status as adults in a court of law” should be prohibited from professional practice.  Practicing surgeon/barbers had no interest in caring for non-paying patients, yet harassed the women who deemed it charitable to help the sick and poor.  The Church issued this statement: “that if a woman dares to cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die.”  Most women, with few exceptions, were not allowed access to education, this meant that any woman performing healing arts was vulnerable to this charge. 

Women Healers and the Inquisition

Much of the official administration of this genocide came from the Church, from the Holy Inquisition.  Sadistic and horrific torture was employed to gain “confessions.”   Documented cases of the execution of “witches” number in the many tens of thousands; many believe those numbers are vastly low.   Suspicious and condemning activities included knowledge of healing herbs, attachment to a pet, or simply, healing ability.  Perhaps a disgruntled neighbor or child issued a charge of “witchcraft” against a woman.  A reputed healer, Alison Peirson was called upon to help the bishop of St. Andrews with his illness.  She cured him and in repayment, she was charged and executed for witchcraft.  Such gratitude!

Luckily, as the church’s influence in European governments waned so did the killings.   The last documented witch hanging happened in the late 1600s in Europe and America, and in 1775 in Germany.  Nonetheless, women’s status was not restored and they were further from acceptance than ever.  

 

The Scientific Revolution

As the Scientific Revolution surfaced, the separation of man from nature and spirit from matter further pushed women to the side of the healing arts.   Unfortunately, as we have seen, this disconnection has also allowed mankind to dominate and take from the Earth with little regard.  Though there were a few enlightened men, such as Paracelsus,  who saw value in the feminine attributes of healing, especially when coupled with the masculine values of the scientific approach.  For the most part, women’s intellectual capabilities were found lacking and most women were relegated to domestic duties.  

The author eventually arrives in the United States in the Victorian era, early 19th century, where women had far less political and economic power than at many times in history.  However, they were seen as very important to the overall fabric of society and the smooth running of a home. This elevated status as paragons of virtue, superior to men in morality was a far cry from the witch hunts seen only a short time before!

For what is gained though something else is lost and women of this era did lose much: their mystery, their sensuality, and their connection to the power of nature. As leaders in domesticity, these women brought forth a popular health movement, reigniting DIY health and hygiene practices.  As harsh medical practices had not advanced much since centuries earlier, women may have filled a very important niche.  Specifically emphasizing sunshine, fresh air, exercise, nutrition, and clean water. Out of this era came medical schools that emphasized herbal remedies, as well as the practice of homeopathy.   

 

Enter Homeopathy

Homeopathy opened doors and led women to run up against the barriers of the masculine institutions of the time.  Many women wanted to expand their knowledge and to have the opportunity to study the practice of medicine.   Mary Baker Eddy started her own healing ministries.  Of course, there was opposition to this advancement.  This gem was penned by Dr. E.H. Clarke:  “higher education for women produces monstrous brains and puny bodies, abnormally active cerebration and abnormally weak digestion, flowing thought and constipated bowels.”   

Harvard responded by posing this question for its prestigious Boylston Medical Prize competition–do women require mental and bodily rest during menstruation and to what extent?  The winner of this prize, though Harvard refused to print her work, was Dr. Mary Putman Jacobi.   She was one of a number of women who were able to train medically during the Victorian era, along with Harriet Hunt, Elizabeth, and Emily Blackwell, Ann Preston, and Marie Zakrzewska. 

 They sought to fill a niche, to care for women and preserve their modesty, and to focus on prevention and health education. They hoped by not stepping on the toes of male physicians they would be able to continue the growth of the field of the “doctoress.”  By 1900 women made up a significant percentage of students at medical colleges with the majority graduating honors.   women were so widely accepted in their male counterparts’ training facilities that most of the female medical colleges closed their doors.

 

The Feminization of Medicine

However, as financial strain compromised medicine, men were no longer willing to cede their market share to female physicians.  They perceived that their status and reimbursement suffered as a result of the “feminization” of medicine.  Medical schools dramatically limited the enrollment of women. 

As Victorian thought fell to the wayside, women no longer required a woman physician for modesty’s sake–their patient base collapsed.  Corporate interests and money poured into the education of physicians, solidifying a very masculine institution, that arguably remains today. 

The trajectory of women as healing artists is vast and mind-boggling.  It’s hard to fathom the wild swings of history and how women found a way to express their talents and gifts in healing, in spite of the challenges and dangers. 

 

Modern Role for Women Healers

The author finishes by documenting the role of women as healers in the latter part of the 20th century.  The rise of the nursing profession, midwifery, faith healing, and metaphysical healers.

You may not be interested in the health field. However, the study of women, culture, and spirituality gives richness and context to the history of humankind. 

It would be hard not to see yourself somewhere in the pages of this book.  The history of Women Healers has given me much to think about in my own journey as a healer and patient.  Be inspired and grab this book and enjoy it as much as I did!

Here’s a link to Women as Healer by Jeanne Achterberg

Stacy

 

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