Ancient Greek temple overlooking a city with female statues

Rhodiola Rosea's Ancient History And First Recorded Use By Greek Physician Dioscorides

Known as the 'golden root' among its many names, the Rhodiola rosea herb has a bountiful history that spans across numerous global cultures and traditional uses. With its vast history of use throughout Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia, France, Iceland, and Sweden, this 'super herb' comes with an intriguing and rather expansive story. 

Dioscorides The "Father of Pharmacognosy" & De Materia Medica

The first recorded use of Rhodiola rosea traces back to the Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides, who was known as the "father of pharmacognosy" and authored a highly-cherished ancient work entitled De materia medica that was widely read for more than 1,500 years. This masterwork included references to Rhodiola rosea and its medicinal applications around 77 C.E. according to researchers their work Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal OverviewStudy authors Richard P. Brown, Patricia L. Gerbarg, and Zakir Ramazanov write:

"The Greek physician, Dioscorides, first recorded medicinal applications of rodia riza in 77 C.E. in De Materia Medica.3 Linnaeus renamed it Rhodiola rosea, referring to the rose-like attar (fragrance) of the fresh cut rootstock.For centuries, R. rosea has been used in the traditional medicine of Russia, Scandinavia, and other countries. Between 1725 and 1960, various medicinal applications of R. rosea appeared in the scientific literature of Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Iceland."

Rhodiola Rosea Use By The Vikings

Ancient Viking ship design, a large wooden ship mast

While the collective image of Viking culture tends to lean more towards violence and heavy amounts of muscle mass, a number of facts and finding challenge the near-archetypal narrative that the Vikings aligned with this Hollywood-style modern imago.

In a now-famous chronicle written by John of Wallingford, he actually wrote about how the Danes ('Vikings) were engaging in a much higher level of self-care and hygiene that threatened the local populace. John of Wallingford writes:

"The Danes, thanks to their habit to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner, they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines.”

Beyond their hygrine, the Vikings also reportedly used herbs like Rhodiola rosea in their traditional healing systems. As Elena Conis reveals in her story "Aromatic root used to ease stress" in the Los Angeles Times, the Vikings were also known to utilize Rhodiola rosea as a means to "fight infections, stimulate sexual appetite and enhance fertility." 

 How Rhodiola Rosea Was and Is Used

Much like Yerba Mate's traditional use by indigenous groups, Rhodiola rosea has been consumed differently throughout global cultures. As an herb, traditional preparation processes may include grinding and eating the herb, brewing tea, and in more modern preparations of liquid supplements or capsules. 

As the University of Texas at El Paso summarizes on 'how Rhodiola is used':

"The medicinal raw material (rhizome with roots) is employed in traditional European folk medicine, principally in Scandinavia and the Russian Federation (Radomska-Leśniewska et al., 2015). The tender shoots and leaves are eaten in China. The plant is considered emollient and vulnerary (Quattrocchi, 2012). Rhodiola is considered astringent and bitter, but with a cool potency by Mongolian traditional medicine (WHO, 2013)."

 Among the many 'ancient staple' herbs, Rhodiola stands out for its extensive history of use and cross-cultural acceptance into traditional systems of healing from the early Greek physicians to the Vikings. 

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