Thomas Wilson

5/15/2021

The Weekly #40: Garlic & The Ancients

Okay let’s learn us how over the past 3000 years garlic has been espoused by healers and spiritual leaders to ward off disease and evil. It’ll take you down a rabbit hole of medical advice, social segregation, and spiritual prohibition.

Garlic (Allium Sativum, of theAllium genus) has set its roots deep in the human story. And let’s get one thing straight: garlic is bloody great. It’s scientifically categorised in a group of foods called “please don’t take these away from me”. Smash it, chop it, then fry it. Or top-and-tail the bulb and put it in camembert. Pop whole cloves in with your salmon, soy sauce, and lemons. It’s versatile. Tell me you’re not drooling a little bit, you liar.

The Ancients

Records of our obsession with this tiny Allium starts some three thousand years ago, with the Ancient Egyptians, and continue upwards through Europe and Asia.

The Egyptians

Here’s what we know about Ancient Egypt’s relationship with garlic: i) It made up a massive part of the lower class’ (i.e. slaves’) diet, ii) they recognised it medically, iii) Tutankhamen was buried with some.

The Egyptians knew it was an excellent nutritional supplement. It went alongside some probably very bland (but calorific) grains. Porridge and gruel with a side of garlic. Humans will find joy and love near anywhere, but I’m sure it’s a little harder to find when it’s 30+ degrees, you’re building a pyramid, and everyone else around you smells almost exactly like they’ve not bathed for well over a month, and have only eaten porridge and garlic.

This wasn’t just random guesswork from the Egyptians to keep their slaves alive longer. The Ebers Papyrus is one of very few surviving full-length (about twenty metres all-in, not a joke) hieratic documents. It’s a medical treatise largely about herbs, dating from some 1550 BC. It recommends garlic as a treatment for abnormal growths. As a fun aside, it also tells us that the Egyptians recognised the heart at the centre of a super important circulatory system.

But if garlic was a to medical and nutritional supplement, it’s odd that a couple of bulbs ere found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. It would be like burying the queen with some chia seeds. Of course, it’s always possible that it was left there by a careless labourer on their lunch break, but it could also have been so that the emperor would have something to keep him going in the afterlife. Or it could have been that he just really liked it (my personal favourite theory).

Medieval Europe

Some two thousand years later, medieval Europe saw garlic as a nutritional or medical plants. It was given to relieve constipation and prevent heat-stroke. Just like the Ancient Egyptians, it was consumed by manual labourers to stave off heat stroke.

Medieval healers weren’t messing about: they recognised its medical properties and were bullish on eating it raw. Specifically this advice comes from the writings of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who was canonised in 2012. Hildegard was a polymath and advocate for scientific observation and method way before it was cool for anybody (especially a woman) to do those things.

To her, our physical and spiritual selves were natural. In general, Hildegard sounds cool: she had prophetic visions of the end-of-days and wrote poetry and composed music. She also left behind medical writings (insofar as medical writings had come in the twelfth century). In these, much as in her spiritual writings, she oriented her attitudes of what was good in terms of viriditas, a Latin word meaning “greenness”, as in lushness and growth. Though she didn’t create the term, or really use it consistently, Hildegard saw a lot to be admired and emulated in nature.

To medieval doctors, garlic was “hot food”, to be consumed during winter. I don’t mean hot as in heated, I mean hot as in “this food will affect your heat humours”. Medieval science understood our body in terms of humours (hot/cold, wet/dry, sweet/bitter). Hildegard recommended we consume garlic in moderation, lest it make our blood too hot.

Judaism

This idea of garlic as a hot food isn’t unique to Europe. It spread to the middle-east, back to Egypt. The Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, refers to Jews who celebrate Shabbat (Sabbath) as “Garlic Eaters”. Despite this culturally-identifying level of garlic love, not all Jewish figures advocated for it.

Maimonides (1138-1204) was a Sephardic Jewish philosopher who omitted all favourable mentions of garlic from his texts - advising minimal consumption, especially during the summer months.

Garlic is a spiritual force

Garlic wards off evil. Although we’ve moved on from understanding garlic as a “hot food”, in many places garlic is seen as a ward against malign spirits.

It goes without saying that garlic can ward off a vampires. We use to hand wreathes of it on our house and over doorways to ward off the evil eye. Allegedly King Henry IV was baptised in garlic water.

The Ancient Greek goddess Hectate (goddess of crossroads, night, magic, and witchcraft) favoured offerings of garlic. They were seen as a way to ward-off evil.

In certain religions (Jainism, Brahman Hinduism, Buddhism) the consumption of garlic is prohibited. Jains believe its harvesting is too harmful for the plants, but other eastern religions see it as too stimulating, and to interfere with our spiritual wellbeing.

I don’t think there are many other plants so beloved and feared across the world. To be seen as associated with witchcraft and night, and as worth burying alongside your beloved emperor king. Garlic has touched the collective human story, and it’s cool that so much history lives in something so commonplace

Bibliography

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