The Healing History of Garlic
Researchers think the ancient Egyptians were the first to farm garlic; in fact, the little bulbs helped power the building of the great pyramids. Hard-working slaves received a ration of garlic each day to improve their strength and ward off illness. And a mere 15 pounds of this ancient currency would buy a healthy male slave to add to the pyramid-building team.It seems fitting that garlic, a natural wonder with many healing and culinary properties, played a role in the creation of one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Ancient Egyptians bestowed many sacred qualities upon garlic. They believed it kept away evil spirits, so they buried garlic-shape lumps of clay with dead pharaohs. Archaeologists found preserved bulbs of garlic scattered around King Tut's tomb millennia after his burial.
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Garlic has held a mystical allure for cultures throughout history.
Ancient Greeks and Romans loved their garlic, too. Greek athletes and soldiers ate garlic before entering the arena or battlefield because they thought it had strength-enhancing properties. Roman soldiers ate garlic for inspiration and courage. Greek midwives hung garlic cloves in birthing rooms to repel evil spirits.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek known as the "father of medicine," prescribed garlic for a variety of ailments around 400 B.C. It was used to treat wounds, fight infection, cure leprosy, and ease digestive disorders. Other prominent Greeks used garlic to treat heart problems, as well.
Garlic's reputation as a medicinal wonder continued into the Middle Ages. It was used in attempts to prevent the plague and to treat leprosy and a long list of other ailments. Later, explorers and migrating peoples introduced this easy-to-grow and easy-to-carry plant to various regions around the world. The Spanish, Portuguese, and French introduced garlic to the Americas.
In many historic cultures, garlic was used medicinally but not in cooking. That might surprise us today, but were our ancestors able to travel into the future to visit us, they would likely think us rather dense for our culture's general lack of appreciation for the bulb's healing qualities.
Legends convinced people that there were certain things over which vampires had no power, and garlic was one of them. However, it is only in European (and, by extension, American) folklore that vampires are powerless in the presence of garlic. The bulb apparently is not mentioned as a defensive tool against these infamous bloodsuckers in vampire legends from other parts of the world.
Garlic played its first starring role in modern medical treatment during World War I. The Russians used garlic on the front lines to treat battle wounds and fight infection, and medics used moss that was soaked in garlic as an antiseptic to pack wounds.
In the first part of the 20th century, garlic saw plenty of action off the battlefield, too. Even though penicillin was discovered in 1928, the demand for it among the general population often outstripped the supply, so many people reverted to treatments they had used with some success before, including garlic.
The pungent, ancient remedy has found its way to modern times. Herbalists have long touted garlic for a number of health problems, from preventing colds and treating intestinal problems to lowering blood cholesterol and reducing heart-disease risk. Garlic remedies abound -- and scientific research has begun to support the usefulness of some of them.
Garlic's popularity today is due in part to the efforts of scientists around the world. They have identified a number of sulfur-containing compounds in garlic that have important medicinal properties. If you were to look at or sniff an intact garlic clove sitting on a cutting board, you'd never suspect the potent aroma and healing properties within. Whack it with a knife, however, and you open a portal.
Cutting, crushing, or chewing a garlic clove activates numerous sulfurous substances. When these substances come into contact with oxygen, they form compounds that have therapeutic properties. The most researched, and possibly the most medicinally powerful, of these potent compounds are allicin and ajoene.
Today, fortunately, we're not so worried about evil spirits and the plague. On the next page you'll see how garlic can help cure the ailments in modern society.
Ancient Indians believed garlic would lure people away from spiritual endeavors, so it was banned in certain sacred places. What's more, the upper classes among them felt it would be barbaric to eat such a "common people's food." The British considered garlic rank, and even Shakespeare mentioned it with disdain in several of his plays.
Want more information about garlic? Try:
- Vegetable Recipes: Find delicious recipes that feature garlic.
- Nutrition: Find out how garlic fits in with your overall nutrition plans.
- Vegetable Gardens: Grow a full harvest of great vegetables this year.
- Gardening: We answer your questions about all things that come from the garden.