Part Three: Marvelous Mineral Medicines


By David Osborn, Master Herbalist, Medical Astrologer, Holistic Health Educator


Introduction: Healing Minerals from Mother Earth

When studying the world’s traditional healing systems and their respective Materia Medicas, it is important to realize that they used all types of naturally occurring substances as medicines, whether they were of plant / botanical, mineral or animal origin.  The important thing was that the substance, whatever its origins, worked, and produced reliable results.  Although botanical substances have traditionally been, and will probably always be, the mainstay of natural healing the world over, substances of animal and mineral origin are also used.  Heck – even the sweat and grime from gladiators’ virile, muscular bodies was used as medicine back in ancient Rome!  Of course, the whole gladiators’ sweat thing opens the door to the whole conundrum of the placebo effect, and how to differentiate between perceived or wished for results and real ones.  And because I have written elsewhere in this website that Mother Earth is a healing goddess, it seems like the healing obtained from these earthy mineral substances probably has a spiritual dimension just as much as a physical one, with the basic healing qualities and energies of the Earth element being solidity, stability and endurance.  Other common qualities and attributes associated with many of these mineral substances include a heavy, sinking quality, which is consistent with the gravity of the Earth element; and so, these heavy, sinking energies often give these mineral substances sedative properties – like, calm down! 

Broadly speaking, it could be said that mineral medicines belong to the Earth element, whose basic qualities are coldness and dryness – cold because it is a heavy, substantial element, and not a light, subtle, energetic one; and dry because it is a solid, discrete element, and not fluidic in nature.  The humor associated with the Earth element is Melancholy or Black Bile, which has a cooling, drying, thickening, coagulating, condensing and crystallizing effect on metabolism – and the main taste associated with Black Bile and the Earth element is the Astringent taste, which happens to have all the above properties and effects.  And so, it just so happens that many mineral substances from Mother Earth have this same astringent taste – just put a piece of chalk into your mouth, and you will see what I mean.  Or take Calamine lotion, for example – its cooling, drying astringent properties are useful for treating poison ivy rashes, which are characterized by the opposite qualities and attributes of heat, redness and inflammation, as well as weeping, wet exudations.  Mother Earth to the rescue! 


Well – how was all this medical theory put to use by Galen in his medical practice?  Astringent mineral medicines were very useful in the treatment of wounds and traumatic injuries – and Galen, who had extensive experience treating the terrible wounds suffered by gladiators in the arena, was probably the best in the business in his day.  Astringent mineral substances could be used to staunch or stop bleeding, as well as to draw together the edges of a gaping wound.  Astringent and cleansing minerals could also be used to mop up the turbid, putrid crap that was preventing an infected wound from healing before sewing it up with cat gut.  As I was surveying the list of Galen’s Materia Medica,  I was struck by how many of these mineral substances were listed as being either drying agents or cicatrizing agents, or both – and both are some of the key properties of astringents.  Cicatrizing agents are useful in the healing and granulation of wounds, and drawing them together, and drying agents are used to “mop up the crap” of a weeping or infected wound.


Ancient Alchemy versus Modern Toxicology: A Turbulent and Controversial History

One of the first things that one notices as one surveys the mineral substances that were in Galen’s medicine cabinet is that many of these substances are known to be highly toxic today – and by this, I am speaking mainly of compounds and preparations involving Lead and Mercury.  Let’s take a closer look at these two metals, or elements, and the colorful and controversial history behind them:
Lead – Lead is the heaviest metal there is, and today it is known to be a pernicious and insidious toxin; not so back in Galen’s day, when the ancient Romans used lead pipes in their plumbing systems – with one of the reasons being that it imparted a delicious, sweet taste to the water.  The Latin word for Lead is Plumbum, which is where we get our word, “plumber” from, because, up until relatively recently, many water pipes were made of lead.  Even Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century, some fourteen centuries after Galen, had this to say about Lead:
Lead is of a cold dry earthly quality, of an healing nature; applied to the place it helps any inflammation, and dries up humours. – 1.
From this quote from Culpeper, we can conclude that Galen was also blissfully unaware of Lead’s toxicity, and also considered it to be a healing substance.  Galen used four different derivatives of Lead in his medical practice.
Mercury – Of all the substances that are recognized as dangerous toxins today, perhaps none has accumulated a richer body of lore, myth and legend around it as Mercury – and perhaps none held the rapt fascination of the medical profession for so long, and was so hard for it to finally renounce.  Although the particulars of Mercury’s history of use in the medical profession are extremely convoluted and complex, I believe that the principal reason for this was Mercury’s intimate association with the ancient art of alchemy.  Mercury is the Latin name for the Greek god Hermes, the fleet footed messenger of the gods on Mount Olympus; Hermes Trismegistus, or the Thrice Great Hermes, was also revered as the legendary founder of Hermeticism and alchemy by those who practiced this art.  Mercury was also greatly fascinating in its physical properties as well:  Of all the metals, it was the only one that was a liquid in its natural state, at room temperature.  Also known as Quicksilver, Mercury’s nature was shiny, fluid and changing – just like the fleet footed Hermes / Mercury himself. 

“What is alchemy?” you might ask.  Although most history teachers today might simply dismiss alchemy and those who practiced it as being vain dreamers who sought to turn base metals into gold, there was much more to it than that.  Alchemy, or Al Quimia in Arabic, was an ancient and medieval art and science that laid the groundwork for modern chemistry in many ways.  And one of the main ways in which alchemy was put to use was in the field of medicine – specifically in the rendering of previously toxic or inert substances into ones that were useful in the healing of the body and the many diseases and disorders it was heir to.  In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Bhasmas, or alchemical mineral ash preparations are used as special catalytic ingredients to potentize many traditional herbal formulas, and give them remarkable healing powers that they would not otherwise have.  Many otherwise toxic minerals, like Lead and Mercury, says Ayurveda, can be transformed into useful healing substances by secret alchemical processes.  That may be good enough for India, where a respect and reverence for the traditional indigenous healing systems still prevails, but when many of these alchemical medicines are imported into the United States, they hit a solid brick wall in the form of the FDA.  In Unani Medicine, alchemical medicines are called Kushtajat, or “killed” medicines, because their essential nature has been “killed” and transformed into something totally different. 

Getting back to Mercury, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the final death throes of the medical profession’s long infatuation with Mercury.  Even as late as the turn of the twentieth century, Calomel, a Mercurial compound that was used as a drastic and violent purgative, was still being prescribed by doctors.  The best purgatives, said these doctors, were those that purged you from both ends – simultaneously.  The middle years of the twentieth century saw what has come to be called the Amalgam Wars in the field of dentistry – a heated debate back and forth regarding the toxicity and suitability of Mercury amalgam fillings – which have now largely been replaced by non-toxic plastic composite dental fillings, thank God.  I myself had some thirty-three Mercury amalgam fillings taken out and replaced with plastic composite fillings when I was back in my thirties, and living in the Los Angeles area.  One of the reasons that Mercury amalgam fillings survived for so long in dentistry was that they had precisely the right physical properties to be molded into fillings, packed into the cavities, adhere to them, and also resist the mechanical pressure of chewing and grinding. 

The long history of battles and controversies back and forth between the advocates of alchemy, and chemical medicine in general, and natural healing, has left longstanding scars in the fields of medicine, dentistry, nutrition and herbal medicine that persist even to this day.  Most obviously, there is the pharmaceutical industry, which can be seen as falling solidly into the chemical or synthetic medicine camp, versus the nutrition and natural healing advocates, who favor the Natural Way.  A potent pair of opposing “buzz words” that could also be used to sum up these two camps, and the battle lines that run between them, are the words “organic” versus “inorganic”.  Nutritionists working for the vitamin industry tell us that a mineral like Calcium, for example, must be chemically bonded or chelated to organic acids in order to become organic, and much better assimilated by the human organism.  In the field of herbal medicine, the whole buzz word of “organic” has hardened into a kind of dogma in some circles, with some herbalists declaring that all inorganic substances are, by their very nature, toxic and harmful to the body.  But the traditional healing systems of the world continue to use inorganic substances like minerals in the service of healing, and with good and reliable results.  The bottom line, I feel, is a clear and objective view of the substance’s benefits, versus the attendant risks and drawbacks, if any, on a case by case basis.

The ultimate bottom line to all I have said here is this:  Don’t try this at home, folks!  Especially when it comes to known toxic substances like Lead and Mercury.  Or, at the very least, only use these substances under the care and guidance of someone who has been professionally trained in their use, and knows what they’re doing.  If you do decide to go the way of ancient or medieval alchemy instead of following the safety and toxicological norms of modern medicine, that is ultimately your decision; it is also a reason to be very cautious and circumspect, and to fully do your research and homework before proceeding – and preferably under the guidance of a medical professional. 


A Closer Look at the Mineral Medicines in Galen’s Medicine Cabinet

According to the introduction to Galen’s Method of Medicine, the following were the main mineral medicines that Galen used; however, I would wager that there were several more that Galen used quite frequently as well, with the most obvious one being Clay, of which Galen probably had at least a few different varieties, or colors, like green, red and white.  I would even wager that that good old standby for acid indigestion, Baking Soda, was also in Galen’s medicine cabinet as well.  So let’s take a closer look at some of the mineral medicines Galen used:
Alum – Also called Alumen, Alum is a clear or translucent rock or mineral substance that has a tart and astringent taste.  It is a strong astringent and drying and binding agent.  In Mexican folk medicine, Alum has a subtle spiritual use in that it is able to absorb and wipe away negative energies or vibrations from other sources.  Because of its astringency, Alum is useful in dentifrices for binding the teeth and holding them in place.  Better used topically than internally. 
 Asphalt – See Asphaltum in the second installment of “A Peek into Galen’s Medicine Cabinet”.  Asphalt, AKA Shilajit in Ayurveda and Mumio to the Russians, is both an aromatic medicinal substance as well as a substance of mineral origin.  Its chemical composition is extremely complex, having both organic as well as inorganic chemical constituents in its overall makeup – and I am using the term “organic” here in its strict biochemical sense, as denoting a more structurally complex, carbon-based molecule.    
Aphronitron – The introduction to Galen’s Method of Medicine is ambiguous and confused about the true identity of this substance.  On the one hand, it says that it might be a form of native Sodium Carbonate; on the other hand, it says that it might also be an efflorescence of Saltpeter, or Potassium Nitrate, which is an ingredient of gunpowder. 
Brimstone – See Sulfur.
Cadmia – This is basically Calamine – the same stuff that forms the basic active ingredient in the Calamine Lotion you put on Poison Ivy rashes or mosquito bites.   It is a cooling, drying astringent, and those are the qualities you want for healing and soothing the hot, red, swollen, inflamed and weeping lesions that are involved.    
Cerussa – A form of Lead.
Chalcitis – A form of Copper ore.  Used to treat erysipelas and herpes lesions; also used in eye medications. 
Chalk – This is basically Calcium Carbonate, or the chalk that a teacher uses to write on the blackboard.  Calcium Carbonate, which is an organic chelate of Calcium, is used in Calcium supplements in the vitamin industry, although its absorption and bioavailability are not as good as other chelates.  Chalk is also useful for stopping diarrhea. 
Copper – Galen used various oxides, ores and other preparations of Copper in his medical practice, for various purposes. 
Diphryges – This was a kind of baked clay from copper mines; it contained copper sulfide and oxide mixed with iron and zinc ores.  Galen used it for cleansing and treating abscesses.    
Galena – This is also a form of Lead.
Hematite – Chinese Medicine uses Hematite, called Dai Zhe Shi, both as a hemostatic in cases of abnormal bleeding as well as a medicine to calm the liver and subdue excess or aggravated Liver Yang.  It is a key ingredient in Ming Mu Di Huang Wan, or “Bright Eyes Rehmannia Pills”, a traditional herbal patent medicine that is used to nourish the Yin of the Liver and Kidneys, calm or subdue aggravated Liver Yang, and improve the eyesight.  Of course, a popular nickname for Hematite is Fool’s Gold, since, in its natural state, its shiny nuggets are often mistaken for that precious metal. 
Lead – Galen used four different forms of Lead in his medical practice; all are now considered to be toxic.  Don’t try this at home, folks!
Mercury – Mercury is a heavy metal, liquid at room temperature, that is now recognized to be highly toxic.  Nevertheless, it has a long history of medicinal use and a rich body of alchemical lore attached to it.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses Cinnabar, or Mercury Sulfide, as an ingredient in a popular insomnia remedy and heart tonic pill called Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan, or The Heavenly Emperor’s Heart Tonic Pills.  TCM considers Cinnabar to be a sedative or mineral that calms the Spirit.  But when this Chinese herbal patent medicine came to American shores, the FDA stopped it at the border and told the manufacturers that they had to take the Cinnabar out and modify the formula.     
Pompholyx – According to Culpeper, Pompholyx cools, dries and binds – 2.  In other words, it is a cooling, drying astringent.  What is Pompholyx? You might ask.  Pompholyx, according to the introduction to Galen’s Method of Medicine, is basically Zinc Oxide, which is essentially the same substance that lifeguards at swimming pools put on their cheeks and noses to protect them from the hot summer sun.  
Sinopian Earth – Quite frankly, I am totally amazed and flabbergasted at how Sinopian Earth made it into this little list of supposedly medicinal substances that Galen used in his practice.  It just so turns out that Sinopian Earth, as far as my online researches could elucidate, has virtually no medicinal uses at all!  Sinopian Earth was mined in Capadoccia, in Asia Minor, which is now in central Turkey.  It was known for its dark red pigment, and was an essential ingredient in painting, not medicine!   Galen only mentions it once, in passing, in his Method of Medicine; apparently just to say that it really doesn’t matter if a certain amount of this dark red, iron-rich earth is mixed into a certain formula or not – the formula is effective either way.  But for that passing, token mention, the translators and scribes dutifully put it into the list of supposedly medicinal substances in the beginning of the book – apparently without checking things out any further than that.  If you want to know a real medicinal Earth that Galen did use medicinally quite a bit, check out my entry on Lemnian Earth in the Greek and Unani Herbal section of this website – now, that really packed a punch!  And, strangely enough, Lemnian Earth, which really should have made it onto this list, somehow got left off.
Sulfur – Sulfur was widely used in many different traditional medical systems as an antifungal agent against conditions like ringworm and athlete’s foot. 
Verdigris – Green Copper rust; Verdigris powder was dusted on wounds to disinfect them. 
White Lead – Yet another form of Lead in Galen’s medicine chest.  Again, don’t try this at home, folks! 



The Medicinal and Quasi-Medicinal Uses of Minerals

It is an undeniable fact of medical science that certain inorganic mineral substances, when taken internally, have solid and reliable therapeutic effects, or medicinal uses.  And the therapeutic or medicinal effects of certain mineral substances, even when used externally or topically on the skin or certain sensory orifices, are also undeniable.  For example, the Indian government recognizes no less than five different complementary and alternative medical systems – Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani Tibb, Siddha Medicine, and Homeopathy – which all fall under the purview of their Department of AYUSH.  Even within such a diverse and competitive environment, Unani Tibb, or Graeco-Arabic Medicine, is making quite a name for itself, and is establishing a solid reputation, in the field of treating chronic and difficult skin conditions with medicines that feature mineral substances as their key ingredients.  Go to your corner drugstore or neighborhood supermarket and you’ll find old standbys like Epsom Salts and Baking Soda; why?  Because these mineral medicines work reliably and dependably. 

In addition to the solidly medical and accepted use of mineral substances, there is a whole vast “grey area” of what could be called quasi-medicinal uses – or pseudo-medicinal uses if your outlook and opinion on these uses is more jaded and skeptical.  Many of these quasi-medicinal uses are alchemical in nature, and involve some special alchemical processing used to alter the mineral’s basic nature in a major way, often to change it from a substance that is inert or toxic to the human organism into something that is helpful or therapeutic to it.  And as I have pointed out earlier, these alchemical preparations are highly controversial in nature. 

And finally, we have ways of using minerals that could be called magical or subtle / energetic in nature, and that can be seen as falling mainly into the category of using or wearing minerals and gemstones for therapeutic purposes to bring about certain beneficial changes in the body, mind or emotional / spiritual state of the person.  Jyotish, or Hindu Vedic Astrology, for example, is quite sophisticated in its therapeutic use of gemstones; not only is the type of gemstone worn according to precise therapeutic specifications, but also the finger on which it is to be worn is also important.  The therapeutic uses and indications of common gemstones is also discussed in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.   The entry for Amethyst says that it makes men sober and steady, and keeps them from drunkenness and too much sleep; this is basically the same folk wisdom that has come down to use today regarding the use and wearing of this gemstone. – 3.

Definitely, the section on Metals, Minerals and Stones on pp. 359 – 360 of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal is a very interesting read, with many common minerals and gemstones having therapeutic uses and properties that you would never suspect.  For example, Jasper, according to Culpeper, “resists fevers and dropsies (edema or fluid retention) – and that, apparently, is just by wearing it.  Culpeper opens this section with an entry on Gold:
Gold is temperate in quality, it wonderfully strengthens the heart and vital spirits, which one perceiving, very wittily inserted these verses:
For Gold is cordial*; and that’s the reason, Your raking Misers live so long a season.
A medicine that strengthens the heart



1.  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged, pg. 360 by Nicholas Culpeper. Copyright 1995 by Wordsworth Editions, Ltd.
2.  Ibid, pg. 360.
3.  Ibid, pg. 360.  
The main source for this article was Galen’s Method of Medicine by Claudius Galenus / Galen, Vol. I, pp. cxxv – cxxxvii.  Edited and translated by Ian Johnston and G.H.R. Horsley.  @ by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England 2011.



DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or medical condition.  The reader assumes full liability and responsibility for the application of the information contained herein, and is advised to consult with a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her condition or symptoms persist or worsen.