Part Two: Aromatics – Resins, Balsams, Pitches and Plasters


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


Introduction: The Awesome Healing Power of Aromatics

In this second part of our survey of Galen’s medicine cabinet, we will focus primarily on the more aromatic substances that he used in his medical practice.  And while not all of these substances will be aromatic, the majority of them will be.  In addition to the aromatic substances in Galen’s medicine cabinet, we shall also be taking a look at various resins, gums, pitches, and the like, which may or may not be aromatic, but which are nevertheless distinctive and useful in their own right.  Hopefully, this study of aromatic healing substances will be quite enlightening and eye opening for you, and will get you to realize certain simple yet sublime truths regarding the art of healing.  If you want a passage from the Bible that sums up the great esteem in which aromatic medicinal substances were held in throughout antiquity, it would be the following:
Is there no Balm in Gilead, is there no physician there?
     - Jeremiah 8: 22 

The Antiseptic and Disinfectant Power of Aromatics

Quite early on in the medical history of mankind, the antiseptic and disinfecting power of aromatic medicinal substances was recognized.  What keyed primitive man into this disinfecting power was the simple fact that, when the “bad guys”, or pathogenic bacteria would come in and infect or take over a nutrient dense substance like food, or a part of the body, they would raise a stink, so to speak, with the foul odor being the cardinal sign of the infection or putrefaction.  Why not counter this foul odor with a pleasant, fresh or sweet smelling one, of an aromatic plant or healing substance?  Among the more antiseptic or disinfecting aromatic herbs and healing substances would be the following herbs and their essences: Cinnamon, Clove, Oregano, Peppermint, Thyme, and so on.  Modern scientific research into these herbs and their essential oils has borne out their considerable antiseptic and disinfecting powers. 


The Awesome Volatile and Penetrating Power of Aromatics

Aromatic resins, gums, herbs and their essential oils also have an awesome penetrating power due to their light, subtle and volatile nature.  In the hands of a master physician like Galen, this awesome penetrating power could be directed at virtually any part of the body in need of healing.  Pungent, spicy herbs are stimulant in nature, having the power to break up, or break through, blockages, obstructions and stagnations; although one could say that their power to break up stagnation and restore circulation, metabolism and patency to various humors or fluids of the body is not as strong as that of the hot, spicy herbs, it could be said that their unblocking and circulating power, although more subtle, may be more penetrating and profound.  So let’s now look at the various ways that this awesome penetrating power can be put to use: 

Diaphoretics and Sudorifics – Diaphoretics and sudorifics are herbs that provoke sweating in order to dispel the relatively superficial pathogenic factors that are involved with colds and flu.  The aromatic essential oils of these herbs and medicinal substances penetrate into the pores, or rise up to the superficial skin level to open the pores and cause sweating.  In addition, it must be remembered that, while they are opening the pores, these essential oils are also disinfecting them.  The herb can either be drunk as a hot tea or infusion, or it may be mixed into a massage oil, massaged into the skin, and then sweated out in a sauna.  Examples of these diaphoretic or sudorific sweating herbs are: Peppermint, Elder Flower, Cinnamon, and Spearmint. 

Stomachics and Carminatives – These are herbs that promote the smooth, healthy functioning of the digestive organs, mainly the stomach and intestines.  While the skin and the pores are the most superficial part of the body on which these aromatic principles work, the GI tract is seen as the next most superficial.  For example, if Peppermint tea is taken piping hot, it will rise up to the skin and its pores to provoke sweating; if it is taken warm, or moderately hot, it will soothe and promote healthy stomach function.  Needless to say, many of these herbs also have a disinfectant effect on the GI tract to counter unhealthy fermentation and putrefaction in the gut. Examples of these herbs include: Anise, Cardamom, Fennel, Lavender, Marjoram and Oregano. 

Vulneraries and Antirheumatics – Aromatic principles can also penetrate down into the muscles, connective tissue and joints to ease pain and promote circulation and healing.  They can also penetrate into the subtle channels or meridians of the body to clear out wind, dampness and other toxic or pathogenic residues that may have accumulated there.  Many of these healing substances are aromatic resins, and in this, primitive man took a lesson from the trees:  When a tree gets injured, it will exude resin, like a person forms a scab, and this will be the first step in its healing – so why not use these tree resins in our own healing?  Examples of aromatic substances that fall into this vulnerary and antirheumatic category include: Bay Laurel, Bdellium, Frankincense, Lavender and Myrrh.
Open the Orifices and Restore Consciousness – Perhaps the most awesome healing power of aromatic substances would be to open the orifices of the heart and mind and restore consciousness.  You might call these super-aromatic substances, and in addition to opening or unblocking the subtle channels of the mind and consciousness, these substances also had a stimulating or reviving power as well.  One of the best known of these substances was called Smelling Salts, but also noteworthy were the scent glands of various animals like the Beaver and the Musk Deer.  Herbal substances like Rue or Calamus could also be used as aromatic revivers of the mind and consciousness as well.



Aromatherapy for the Mind and Consciousness

Neurologists tell us that our olfactory sense is our most primitive sense; of all the twelve cranial nerves, the Olfactory Nerve, which governs the sense of smell, is the first, and was supposedly the first to evolve.  Ayurvedic medicine considers the sense of smell to be the gateway to the mind and consciousness, presumably due to its primal, primordial nature as our first sense.  Aromas are great at establishing moods, atmospheres and ambiences, and this is a fact that has long been recognized and utilized by those who are not only in the business of religion, but also in advertising and marketing the latest fragrance or perfume.  We can only imagine all the wonderful fragrances that permeated Galen’s herbal pharmacy, and how they were used in ways that had both physiological as well as psychological and spiritual effects.

Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of scents and aromas in healing.  I firmly believe that, for an aroma to be truly therapeutic in nature, it must be natural, or of natural origin, and that no synthetic substitutes will do.  Some people may be less sensitive to the deleterious effects of synthetic chemical aromas than others, even to the point at which they feel that the synthetic aromas are as good as the natural ones – but they aren’t.  A growing number of people are becoming sensitive to synthetic aromas and aromatic chemicals, and to tell you the truth, most of them have not been duly tested to prove their safety.  A woman who has long suffered from chronic headaches or nasal congestion, for example, may be fully unaware or unsuspecting that the synthetically enhanced perfume she’s wearing may be the culprit.    


Galen’s Greatest Aromatic Medicinals

Before we launch into some of Galen’s more famous aromatic medicinals, I would just like to remind you of some major aromatic herbs that were covered in Part One.  These include: Aromatic Reed, or Calamus; Cinnamon, both Spanish and Chinese; Cyperus; Indian Spikenard; Myrtle; and Rue.  So, here we go:

Asphaltum – AKA Asphalt or Bitumen.  Known to Ayurvedic medicine as Shilajit, and to Russian medical researchers as Mumio, Mumio is so-called because the ancient Egyptians used it for mummification.  With the best quality Shilajit or Mumio coming from the Himalayas and other high mountains in Central Asia, this substance has also been called Mountain Balsam or Mineral Pitch Vitalizer, because it is said to exude out from between heavy rocks and boulders in these mountains.  This medicinal substance has a long history; it was studied by Aristotle, whose father was a physician, as well as his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great.  It has a wide range of beneficial medicinal effects, not only as a vitalizer and energizer, but also as a metabolic and immune stimulant, and to counter infections of, and enhance the regeneration of, bone or osseous tissue. 

Balsam, or Balm of Gilead (Balsamodendron opobalsamum / Commiphora opobalsamum) – This is probably the most famous aromatic substance in Galen’s medicine chest, and is referred to in the Bible; it was also one of Galen’s favorite medicinal substances.  It is also known as the Mecca Balsam, and is a resinous wood that is closely related to Myrrh.  Besides being a potent aromatic, Balsam was also a great stimulant and tonic to the stomach and digestion.  Galen’s Balm of Gilead should not be confused with a modern American herbal medicine of the same name; the modern variety is actually the resinous buds of a certain species of Poplar – Populus balsamifera, or the Balsam Poplar. 

Bdellium (Commiphora mukul) – This is another aromatic medicinal that made it into the Bible; it is a fragrant resin that is closely related to Myrrh.  Ayurvedic medicine calls it Guggulu, and includes it as a major ingredient in many different medicinal formulas used to treat various forms of arthritis and rheumatism, as well as other related disorders.  Bdellium is a good example of an aromatic medicinal that penetrates into the joints and connective tissue of the body to relieve stiffness and pain.  Modern research has shown Bdellium to be rich in certain phytosterols that are useful for reducing cholesterol levels in the blood. 
Cardamom (Eletarria cardamomum) – Being in the Ginger family, Cardamoms are pods of fragrant seeds that are a good tonic and stimulant to the stomach and digestion.  They also help to reduce dampness, turbidity and putrefaction in the GI tract.  There are actually many different varieties of Cardamom, and Galen’s herbal pharmacy probably boasted quite a few of them.  Cardamoms also have uses in incenses and perfumery.

Castoreum – Being the scent gland of a Beaver, this is a good example of an aromatic medicinal substance that is used to clear the mind and revive consciousness. 

Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) – Called Boswellin in health food stores today, it is often combined with Turmeric, as well as a little bit of Ginger and Black Pepper, according to the traditional Ayurvedic formulation, to treat joint pain as well as colitis and irritable bowel conditions.  Modern research shows it to be useful in treating irritable and inflammatory bowel conditions like colitis and Crohn’s disease.  In Chinese herbal medicine, Frankincense is often teamed up with Myrrh in powders and liniments to treat traumatic injuries.

Mastic (Pistachia lentiscus) – Often confused with Frankincense by many herbal experts, Mastic may look similar to Frankincense / Boswellia in that it is a pale or light colored resin, but here the similarity stops.  Commonly available in Middle Eastern supermarkets, pieces of the resin are chewed, and the pieces swallowed when the resin starts to disintegrate, both for cleansing the teeth and protecting them from decay and dental disease, as well as for strengthening and soothing the stomach and digestion as well as treating chronic candidiasis and other conditions involving fermentation and putrefaction in the gut.  The Greeks bake Mastic into bread, to which it imparts its subtle aroma, which resembles a cross between Pine and Vanilla.  In addition to its medical and health uses, Mastic was traditionally used for making paints and varnishes. 

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) – Besides Frankincense, Myrrh was the other fragrant, healing resin that was gifted to the infant Jesus by the three wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew.  While Frankincense is white or light colored, having a solar vibration and resonance, Myrrh is a dark colored resin, yielding a bitter perfume, that has a lunar resonance.  Myrrh was also commonly used in embalming corpses.  Whereas the solar Frankincense denoted Jesus’ exalted status as the King of Kings, the bitter Myrrh denoted the pain, sacrifice and death he was destined to undergo in his passion.  Myrrh is a good example of what herbalists call a vulnerary herb – a healing resin that promotes and accelerates the granulation of wounds and the healing and regrowth of tissue.  In addition, it is also a digestive stimulant and disinfectant, and is able to stimulate and promote intestinal peristalsis.  In Chinese herbal medicine, Myrrh is often combined with Frankincense in Dit Da liniments for the healing of wounds and traumatic injuries. 

Propolis – Propolis is a gummy resinous substance that is collected by the bees from various tree resins, and is used both to repair as well as to disinfect their hive.  The main way in which modern herbalists use Propolis is in the form of a tincture, or an alcoholic extract, seeing that resinous substances like Propolis dissolve very well in distilled spirits of alcohol.  And so, Propolis tincture makes a very fine antiseptic wound dressing – one of the best there is.  Propolis tincture can also be taken internally for sore throats in colds and flu.  Herbal historians tell us that the distillation of hard spirits of alcohol, as well as the steam distillation of essential oils from fragrant herbs, is something that was discovered or invented by Avicenna or Ibn Sina in the 11th century AD, so honestly, I’m not sure exactly which preparation of Propolis Galen used, but he probably used the resin to disinfect wounds. 

Storax / Styrax (Storax officinalis) –In modern pharmacies, Storax, or Liquidambar, is merely an ingredient in Compound Tincture of Benzoin, but it has also been used to treat ringworm and other skin infections.  It is a quite versatile medicinal in Chinese herbal medicine, where it is used to treat many diverse conditions like edema, arthritis of the limbs, and stomach pain. 

Tamarisk (Tamarix tetranda) – Tamarisk is another one of those biblical trees around which a lot of mystical legend and lore has accumulated.  It is said that the Tamarisk tree provided Manna, or food from God in heaven, to the Israelites while they were wandering through the desert – but this Manna seems to be nothing more than a sweet, honey-like exudation of the long, scaly leaves of the tree.  Tamarisk is indigenous to arid and semi-arid regions of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, and because it can tolerate high levels of salinity in the soil, it is sometimes called the Salt Cedar tree.  The Introduction to Galen’s Method of Medicine says that Galen used it as a repressive and cooling agent; he also probably used it as a good astringent.  Today, you can find Tamarisk trees growing in arid, desert areas of southern California, like Indio and Palm Springs. 

Terebinth (Pistachia terebinthus) – The turpentine you buy at the hardware store is Denatured Spirits of Turpentine, or Pine sap, so you can’t take it internally, even in small doses, because it is denatured, or unnatural.  Prior to encountering the listing of Terebinth in Galen’s Method of Medicine, I thought that Terebinth was just a natural essential oil distilled from Pine sap, in contrast to the denatured stuff sold at the hardware stores, but according to the translators of Galen here, it is actually from a small, resinous tree that is closely related to Mastic.  So the modern Terebinth essential oil used by aromatherapists is the distilled essential oil of that resin.  Modern aromatherapists use Terebinth as a muscle relaxant in massage oils, and also as a disinfectant for the respiratory, gastrointestinal and genitourinary tracts.


Non-Aromatic Resins, Gums and Pitches in Galen’s Medicine Cabinet

Not all of the gums and resins in Galen’s medicine cabinet were aromatic; many of them weren’t.  Today, many of these non-aromatic gums and resins find useful applications in the food processing industry, as stabilizers and emulsifiers, for example.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of these substances:

Acacia Gum (Acacia arabica, Acacia senegal) – Acacia Gum, also known as Gum Arabic, is the pale, sticky, tasteless gum or exudate of a small, thorny tree or bush that is native to the Arabian peninsula.  It is rich in protein content, and therefore nutritious, but Galen used it as a healing astringent and drying agent.  Acacia Gum is one of the best substances to stop diarrhea, and can also be used to heal or soothe lesions and ulcerations in the gut.  It is used as a stabilizer and emulsifier in the food processing industry, and for similar purposes in the mixing of inks and paints. 

Manna – Many plants exude some kind of sweet, flaky or sticky Manna-like secretions, and there is a lot of biblical lore and legend attached to these substances, since it was said that Manna was how God fed the Israelites during their forty years of wandering through the desert.  A kind of Manna is exuded from the leaves of the Tamarisk tree, which is regarded by many to be the true source of Manna.  There is also a species of Ash tree that exudes scaly chips of a Manna-like substance. 

Opopanax (Opopanax hispidus) – This is a gummy substance exuded from Hercules’ Woundwort. 

Sagapen (Ferula persica) – This is the gum of a plant that is closely related to a plant that exudes a gum, but one that has a strong odor that is considered to be foul by many, hence its nickname, “Devil’s Dung” – Ferula asafoetida, or Asafoetida.  Asafoetida has a very strong odor resembling a mixture of garlic and onions, and is often used as a condiment in Indian cuisine whenever this kind of flavoring is desired.  It also happens to be an excellent remedy for Turista, or intestinal bugs that tourists get when traveling in Mexico or third world countries.  Just take a pinch or two of Asafoetida powder on the tongue and wash it down with water.

Tragacanth (Astragalus gummifer) – This is the gum exuded from a species of Astragalus plant.  Culpeper says that Gum Tragacanth helps coughs, hoarseness, and distillations of phlegm from the lungs. – 1.   


IMPORTANT!  A Cautionary Word About Using Aromatics and Essential Oils

Aromatics and essential oils can be powerful medicinal substances indeed.  And the more powerful a substance is, the more it should be used with care and respect – and the more it can potentially become like a double edged sword that can heal or harm, depending on how it is used.  And so, I would like to emphasize here at the very outset, that preparation and dosage are all important!  Let me repeat that once again, for added emphasis: preparation and dosage are all important.  Before you take an aromatic substance, essential oil, or other medicinal preparation, especially internally, you must know exactly what you are taking – its source, method of preparation, and relative concentration.  In other words, do your research, do your homework, and above all, read the label / instructions before you take the substance or medicine.  Where there are directions and instructions, you must remember: Take only as directed is usually the best way to go.  And if you still need further guidance, consult with a physician or licensed healthcare professional before taking. 

Essential Oils:  Generally speaking, the most care and caution are advised when taking essential oils.  The basic reason for this is simple:  Essential oils are extremely concentrated; often, large quantities of the raw herb are distilled down, via the process of steam distillation, into just a teaspoon, or a few drops, of the essential oil.  And so, if you were to make a tea from the whole Peppermint plant, even dried, for example, it would be extremely difficult, almost impossible, to make it or take it in a dose that was too massive or concentrated.  On the other hand, it is very possible, and even easy, to take the essential oil of Peppermint in a dangerous or even potentially lethal dose.  When it comes to dosage, the basic rule or guideline for essential oils is three to five drops – and nothing more.  Generally, essential oils can be taken either in a cup of water, either warm or room temperature, or directly on the tongue and washed down with water. 

Of course, as my French teacher in high school used to tell me, “There wouldn’t be any rules if there weren’t exceptions.”  The same line of reasoning can be applied to essential oils, and how they should be taken.  The three to five drop rule is a good basic rule to follow for most essential oils; if they are a bit on the strong or potent side, maybe three drops is enough.  But, there are exceptions to this general rule, of course, with the most notable ones being the essential oils of Oregano and Thyme.  When it comes to these essential oils, the basic rule is this:  The essential oils of Oregano and Thyme must always be diluted – in a relatively inert base oil like Olive Oil, for example, or with just a couple of drops in a whole cup full of warm or hot water.  Even topically or externally on the skin, the essential oils of Oregano and Thyme must be diluted, because they are extremely hot and caustic, and have the ability to burn or injure the skin. 

Sometimes, it’s also necessary to know the exact source, even down to the part of the tree or plant being used, before you can know exactly how to prepare and take the essential oil.  For example, what is commonly sold as the essential oil of Cinnamon in health food stores is actually distilled from the leaf, and not the bark, of the Cinnamon tree.  And the leaf just happens to be a lot hotter and more potent in its properties and effects than the bark.  And so, I have had the unpleasant experience of putting way too much essential oil of Cinnamon Leaf into a massage oil that I made – with the result being an herbal sunburn caused by too much of the essential oil.  If we are to be truly serious about being natural healers and therapists, we must always use the natural form of the essential oil or other medicinal substance, and not settle for any synthetic substitutes.  For example, there are many synthetic substitutes for Sandalwood Oil being sold today, and even passed off as the real thing.  Dabbing a drop or two of real, natural Sandalwood Oil on a zit will usually send it packing within about five to ten minutes, but using synthetic “Sandalwood Oil” on that zit won’t do much – it may even inflame or aggravate the zit.  In the acquisition of his aromatic medicines, and in all the other natural medicinal substances in his medicine chest, Galen was an uncompromising stickler for purity, potency and quality.    

So, read the label, do your homework, and above all, know exactly what you are taking, and how it is mixed, diluted or otherwise prepared, before you take it.  It also helps to educate yourself on the basics of herbal pharmacology as well.  For example, the essential oil of Peppermint can be seen as a first generation distillate of the whole Peppermint herb; Menthol, which comes in dry, crystalline form in its undiluted state, is the second generation distillate of the essential oil, and is even more concentrated and potent.  Natural Camphor, for example, is the second generation distillate of the essential oil of the Camphor tree, or Cinnamomum camphora.  Above all, do your research and read up on the medicine you are taking, and its ingredients, and how it was prepared, and know all these things fully before you take the medicine in question.


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.
1.  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged by Nicholas Culpeper, pg. 354.  Copyright 1995 by Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 



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.