Myths and Legends

What is the Doctrine of Signatures

The Doctrine of Signatures
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicensePhoto by  Peter G Trimming

There’s a certain life concept that suggests everything that God created is marked with some sort of a sign that can help explain the purpose for each individual creation. This is an ancient diagnostic system known as the Doctrine of Signatures.
One such example of the Doctrine of Signatures would be a walnut for instance. Walnuts are believed to be good for the brain when consumed. The signature left on a walnut is found in their appearance. They kind of look like a brain, and also have similar properties like being a hard shell encasing a spongy, fairly soft substance.
The doctrine of signatures is a form of medical theory that goes back as far as Galen of Pergamum (129-200 A.D.). Galen of Pergamum was the preeminent doctor during the Roman period. This plank of medical thinking remained all the way up until the late 19th century.

Some Good Examples of the Doctrine of Signatures

Some other beliefs of the doctrine of signatures suggests that all remedies will display or reflect the ailments in which they cure. This being the case, it suggests that lungwort is good for curing lung conditions. Mainly because lungwort is an oval, white spotted leaf that resembles that of a diseased lung.


Cardamine flowers, better known as tooth-wort, are supposed to be good for a toothache. And wouldn’t you know it, tooth-wort also resemble teeth with their small white flowers that have a similar shape to a tooth.


Let’s not leave out St. John’s wort either. This is supposed to be excellent for your skin. They have oil glands in the leaves that resemble pores that are in skin.


There does seem to be some truth to all this and we can use St. John’s wort as an example here. It is recognized by modern medicine as a plant containing strong antibiotic properties that can help wounds heal very quickly. Not only that, but it is also used as an anti-depressant. Even though some of these uses are quite common, there are recent studies that have been inconclusive as to whether or not it actually works. Some believe it to be nothing more than a placebo effect. For those of you that don’t know, a placebo effect is basically when your mind is led to believe something is going to work, so upon taking the medicine, your mind will do the healing, not the medicine. Kind of a trick on the brain if you will.


Some Bad Examples of the Doctrine of Signatures

A good majority of the remedies found within the doctrine of signatures had some sort of medicinal value. But more often that not, there was no medical purpose for most of them.


One such example would be henbane. Henbane’s seed container is shaped like a human jaw, so it was thought to be good for tooth-aches. But in all actuality, henbane is actually a poisonous hallucinogen that can potentially be fatal.


In more modern times the doctrine of signatures is not taken quite so seriously as true medical science advances further. So pretty much any success that can be seen from a supposed doctrine of signatures is said to be mere coincidence. For example, St. John’s wort may not of started off as an item of the doctrine, but after folks heard it was good for healing wounds, they made a symbolic comparison to that of skin. Then of course it was associated with the doctrine of signatures.


Is the Doctrine of Signatures Still used Today?

There are a couple of booming areas of modern medicine where the doctrine of signatures is still applied.


Modern herbalists use the doctrine of signatures to substantiate claims of  “miracle cures” found in herbal health products today. These of course all tend to be marketing ploys and there is no real evidence to back up these claims.


The doctrine of signatures is also used as a defining point for homeopathy. It suggests that “like cures like”, also the “law of infinitesimals” is used to suggest the smaller the dose, the more effective the medicine. Personally I don’t think either of these make total sense, that’s almost the same concept as fighting fire with fire. I suppose in some instances these principals may apply though. Such as the modern day flu vaccine. It is in fact a shot of the flu virus itself which helps to build immunities to the virus. But these cases are rare I would imagine.

I suppose the doctrine of signatures may be found in pretty much everything on Earth if you look hard enough. Building comparisons and creating uses for things based solely off their appearance rather then the real value. But not everything can be made to have some sort of medicinal value. Sometimes I wonder if the technological advances and higher levels of medical science that we’ve achieved have caused us to turn a blind eye to those things in nature that are of the simplest form, but have the strongest uses.
Maybe we’ve all become dependent on those advances that we’ve created and have forgotten how to appreciate the things that have been given to us through nature. But we can’t forget, that without those things that come from nature, there would be no science, therefore there would be no technology. My what a vicious web we weave….
Tell me your random thoughts…

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7 thoughts on “What is the Doctrine of Signatures
  1. I agree with you. Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back, that you can do two steps forward.

    1. Absolutely! Taking a couple of steps back before we advance can help us better understand why we are able to take the steps forward. Thank for commenting.

  2. That,s right some time when we going to forward taking few steps back its help for us

  3. Your Blog Is Very Helpful For Us. Our Team Member Often Comes On Your Blog.

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  4. Robert,
    The Doctrine of Signatures sounds more like old wives tales than having any truth to it. I have never heard of it before, so I am glad you posted about it, because it is interesting. If you follow this doctrine on how to live, then one might eat some dangerous things.

    1. yah, that’s very true, some of the things that people once thought were good for curing certain things were very poisonous. Luckily not many people standardize their lives through the Doctrine of Signatures anymore. But there was a time when it was taken quite seriously.

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