The word garlic comes from Old English garleac, meaning "spear leek." As a culinary and medicinal plant, garlic spread in ancient times to the Mediterranean region and beyond.
Early Use of Garlic. Garlic has been used for medicinal purposes by more cultures than any other plant product or substance. The first recorded use was by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, in the regions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
History of Garlic in Egypt. Archeologists have discovered paintings of garlic, dating back to 3200 B.C, in Egyptian tombs, including the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Egyptians worshipped garlic and placed clay models of garlic bulbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen. A recently discovered Egyptian papyrus dating from 1,500 B.C. recommends garlic as a cure for over 22 common ailments, including lack of stamina, heart disease and tumors.
Garlic was so highly-prized, it was even used as currency. Although the Egyptians worshipped garlic, they also had a strong aversion to cooking and eating it. They did apparently feed garlic to the slaves building the pyramids to increase their strength.
The ancient Israelites were fond of garlic long before Moses led them out of Egypt. In the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions incorporated into the Talmud, the ancient Hebrew writers refer to themselves as "the garlic eaters." On their way to the Promised Land, the Jews lamented the absence of garlic, as well as other foods from Egypt.
History of Garlic in Ancient Greek and Roman Life. Many other ancient civilizations, including the Romans and Greeks used garlic to boost strength and prevent diseases. In ancient Greece and Rome, garlic enjoyed a variety of uses, from repelling scorpions to treating animal bites and bladder infections to curing leprosy and asthma. It was even left out as an offering to the Greek goddess Hectate.
Early Greek military leaders fed garlic to their troops before battles to give them courage and promise victory. The Greeks fed their athletes garlic to give them strength for the Olympic games. Garlic was also often used to help heal battle wounds.
Hippocrates, who lived 460 to 370 B.C. and is considered the father of western medicine, was said to have used garlic to treat cancerous tumors. He recommended garlic for pneumonia and other infections, digestive disorders, as well as using it as a diuretic and a substance to improve menstrual flow.
History of Garlic in the Far East. Although highly regarded as a medicine in eastern cultures, garlic was not used as a food. The Buddhists avoided eating it as did some Hindus.
The ancient Indians valued the medicinal properties of garlic and thought it to be an aphrodisiac. But it was not considered to be suitable food for the upper classes, who detested its strong odor. It was also forbidden by monks, who believed it to be a stimulant that aroused passions. Widows, adolescents and those who had taken up a vow, or were fasting, could not eat garlic because of its stimulant quality.
This attitude changed with the centuries and by the period of Muslim rule, garlic, ginger and onion were, and continue to be, an indispensable part of cuisines of South Asia.
Garlic also has a history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. This ancient Indian healing system used garlic as a medicinal plant which could warm the body, improve blood circulation, and cure digestive problems.
History of Garlic in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, garlic was thought to combat the plague and was hung in braided strands across the entrances of houses to prevent evil spirits from entering. We also know that monks chewed on garlic cloves to protect themselves from the plague.
Many cultures have used garlic for what they considered its magical powers, perhaps owing to its reputation as a preventative medicine. European folk beliefs considered garlic as a substance that could protect against demons, werewolves, and vampires. Garlic could be worn, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes.
History of Garlic in Western Cultures. Garlic was used as a medicine against plagues that struck London in the 17th century and France in the 18th century.
In New England, during colonial times, garlic cloves were used against smallpox, rheumatism, intestinal worms and whooping cough sufferers.
Louis Pasteur recognized its antiseptic properties in 1858, and Albert Schweitzer used garlic for dysentery.
For many years, garlic was shunned as a food by the western cultures such as England and America because of the odor it left behind. In seventeenth century England, garlic was considered unfit for ladies and anyone who wished to court them. It was avoided in America until the 20th century, when a huge influx of immigrants allowed garlic to slowly gained a foothold in the American palette.
Garlic Achieves Popularity in the 20th Century. Although initially used almost exclusively in ethnic working-class neighborhoods, by 1940 America had finally embraced garlic, recognizing its value not only a seasoning, but as a major ingredient in recipes.
In World War II. garlic was dubbed "Russian penicillin" because it was used by the Russian army to fight infections on the battlefield. It was also widely used as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene during both World Wars.
Today, garlic is recognized worldwide as an extremely nutritious addition to any diet. Over a thousand papers on garlic health benefits have been published since 1950.
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