Understanding The Doctrine Of Signatures


During the Middle Ages, when medicine in general wasn’t very developed, folk medicine was a relatively large practice and people were experimenting with medicinal uses for plants. Of course in order to use these plants as medicine, people needed a way to determine what plants would be best used to cure various ailments. Eventually, a new theory known as the Doctrine of Signatures was born in an effort to cater to this very need.

Portrait of Paracelsus. For J.J. Boissard, Icones et effigies, 1645. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

The concept was developed by Swiss physicist, astrologer, botanist and occultist, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, later known as Paracelsus. Paracelsus, by the way, is also credited as the founder of toxicology, the one who gave zinc its name and modern psychology even recognizes him as the first to note that some illnesses are rooted in psychological conditions.

Paracelsus’s concept is actually fairly simple to understand and can actually be summed up rather well by looking at what Paracelsus once wrote; “Nature marks each growth according to its curative benefit”, which simply means that every plant found in nature is marked in some way such as by its shape or color to symbolize what it can be used for medicinally.

While this idea was certainly more than radical for its time, it nevertheless grew in popularity throughout time, later being emphasized and even expanded upon by others such as Jakob Böhme and Giambattista della Porta among many others.

If you look at a lot of the common names we have for various plants you can see that a lot of them, thanks to the Doctrine of Signatures, even describe what the plant was commonly used for.   For example, Liverwort could be used to treat liver disease, Eyebright could be used to treat problems with a person’s eyes, Lungwort for lung disease, you get the picture.

While the Doctrine of Signatures may have began as a folk medicine concept it has also been traditionally used as a way to determine the magical uses of plants for about just as long. The only difference is that you are attributing magical properties to plants based on the Doctrine of Signatures instead of focusing solely on their medicinal properties.

When viewed from this perspective you can see how you could potentially use various plants in your magical work. Let me give you a few examples to further illustrate this:

  • Angelica – Associated with the Archangel Michael and is used for spiritual protection and healing due to its holy namesake
  • Bay Leaves – Keeps evil and negative energies at bay
  • Devil’s Shoestring – Is said to have the power to “trip up” evil 
  • Five Finger Grass – Is said to be able to attract to you or “grab hold” of anything that your five fingers could grab

In magical practices, we often use more than just herbs however; we use waters, sticks, rocks/minerals and other various curios as well… and the Doctrine of Signatures can be applied to every single one of them. Lodestones are a good example of this.

Lodestones are chunks of magnetite which is a naturally magnetized mineral and in practices such as folk magic it is commonly used to attract or “draw” something to you because the Lodestone acts the way magnets act. They attract.

Other trinkets or curios can be used in this way as well and where it is appropriate. For instance, when I make a bottle of Lucky Hand Wash for a client of mine who likes a little extra luck with their gambling they tell me they like to add this one set of lucky dice they carry with them all the time to the bottle due to the dices connotation with luck and games of chance and also due to the fact that for whatever reason my client feels that those dice in particular are good luck for him.

In conclusion, the Doctrine of Signatures is a cornerstone of most magical theory and practice and any magical practitioner should have a working knowledge of it. When the Doctrine of Signatures is applied properly you can seriously increase the effectiveness of your magic.

Remember to thank the spirits of the land and those of the plants themselves while you’re out foraging in the woods and get to know them a little bit better through the Doctrine of Signatures and you will benefit greatly while you connect just that much more with the spirits of the land which, of course, carries its own benefit as well.

One thought on “Understanding The Doctrine Of Signatures

  1. malisha says:

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