The term garlic derives from the Anglo-Saxon “gar-leac,” which means spear plant. Archeologists have discovered clay sculptures of garlic bulbs and paintings of garlic in Egyptian tombs in el-Mahasna. Almost 3,000 years before Christ, inscriptions in the pyramids at Giza indicated that the workers who built them subsisted largely on onions, garlic and radishes, which to them was more than just a foodstuff. The Egyptians credited these foods, especially garlic, with magical and medicinal powers responsible for the physical stamina and spiritual integrity needed for the workers to complete their backbreaking tasks. The workers subscribed to the same theory, because when the supplies of garlic ran out they went on strike; something virtually unheard of in that day and age.
A belief in the sacredness of garlic can be traced back to the third millennium B.C., when it was offered to the gods and painted on the walls of tombs. During both the era of Egypt’s great pharaohs and the days of the earliest Chinese dynasties, garlic served as food, medicine and offering. It was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (Egypt’s youngest pharaoh) who was sent into the afterlife with garlic at his side, and within the funerary complex of Saqqarah in the sacred animal cemetery (a vast necropolis in the region of Memphis in Egypt).
Unfaithful Egyptian husbands relied on garlic’s unique “scented” properties. According to Charmidas, they would chew a clove or two on their way home from visiting their mistresses so that their whole body was impregnated with the odor, ensuring that a jealous wife would be unable to detect any stranger’s perfume.
According to the Medicine Hunter (http://www.medicinehunter.com/garlic.htm) an Egyptian holy book, the Codex Ebers, was discovered in 1878 by a German archaeologist. It dates from about 1550 B.C. and lists more than 800 therapeutic formulas in use at the time; twenty-two of them were based on garlic. The Codex said garlic healed headaches, heart problems, body weakness, human bites, and intestinal parasites, lack of stamina, heart disease and tumors among them.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine used garlic for treating infections, wounds and intestinal disorders, not to mention a savory lamb stew. Others from these ancient civilizations used garlic in a variety of ways, from repelling scorpions to treating dog bites and bladder infections to curing leprosy and asthma.
Garlic was 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, and perhaps in an attempt to defeat the opposing army with one good whiff. Even Greek Olympic athletes counted on garlic to stimulate performance.
The “stinking rose” was sold in large Greek towns and in Roman cities by peddlers. Garlic was a symbol of the proletariat since no noble would debase himself by smelling of garlic. Furthermore, every Greek who wished to enter the temple of Cybele, mother of the gods, had to pass a strict breath test aimed at detecting garlic. Horace explained that garlic could be absorbed by the iron stomachs of the working class but made those used to more refined cooking feel unwell.
Roman legionnaires attributed strength, courage and stamina to garlic and took it with them as they conquered the world, thus spreading its use and cultivation everywhere they went. Praised by Virgil and the poets of antiquity, garlic was progressively introduced into various parts of Europe during the Romans’ campaigns.
Garlic was introduced into France by Godefroy de Bouillon leader of the first crusade who, when he returned to the country in 1099, was elected king of Jerusalem. Henri IV of France was so fond of garlic that, according to a Jurançon legend, the good king must have been baptized with a clove. Despite his royal station, the king was not above lending a hand in the kitchen: he became famous for his stewed chicken… studded with garlic, of course. Today the French, known for their love of good food and wine, incorporate garlic into a wealth of savory culinary dishes.
“You reek of garlic! Get out!” was the irrevocable judgment of any knight who dared appear at the court of King Alfonso de Castille with garlic on his breath; it was Spain, the year -1300. Any knight who smelled of garlic was banned from court and not permitted to speak to other courtiers for an entire week.
Home of the vampire legend, ancient Transylvanians found garlic to be an effective mosquito repellent as well as a way to ward off midnight visitors. Modern representations of the vampire legend always seem to show braids of garlic hanging from the beams of kitchens in which poor peasants tremble with fear.
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. The belief that garlic could combat evil dates back to the medieval era when children would play or work in the fields with cloves of garlic hung around their necks to protect them from the evil spells of the local witch… because everybody knows that witches love children. This custom gradually changed, and in the 19th century, cloves of garlic adorned only the necks of cows and heifers, although I’m not quite sure why; aesthetic beauty perhaps?
Throughout the civilizations of ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, into the Middle Ages and on into modern times, garlic has always been considered potent medicine. Even today garlic has maintained its place as a favorite food and valued medicine. It is good for zapping bacteria, keeping your heart healthy, warding off coughs and colds; there are many benefits associated with taking garlic regularly.
Garlic’s Health Benefits
Beyond superstition modern research has confirmed what our ancestors believed about the health benefits of garlic. In 1858, Louis Pasteur documented that garlic kills bacteria, with one millimeter of raw garlic juice proving as effective as 60 milligrams of penicillin.
During World War II, when penicillin and sulfa drugs were scarce, the British and Russian armies used diluted garlic solutions as an antiseptic to disinfect open wounds and prevent gangrene. Though not completely understood at the time, today’s research has confirmed that garlic’s healing powers stem from hundreds of volatile sulfur compounds found in the vegetable, including allicin, (which gives garlic its offensive odor), alliin, cycroalliin, and diallyldisulphide.
The allicin in raw, crushed garlic has been shown to kill 23 types of bacteria, including salmonella and staphylococcus. Heated garlic gives off another compound, diallyldisulphide-oxide, which has been shown to lower serum cholesterol by preventing clotting in the arteries.
Vitamins in garlic, such as A, B, and C, stimulate the body to fight carcinogens and get rid of toxins, and may even aid in preventing certain types of cancer, such as stomach cancer. Garlic’s sulfur compounds can regulate blood sugar metabolism, stimulate and detoxify the liver, and stimulate the blood circulation and the nervous system.
In many cultures, garlic is also considered a powerful aphrodisiac and a vegetarian alternative to Viagra. Some say it’s even able to raise a man’s sperm count; in Palestinian tradition a groom who wears a clove of garlic in his buttonhole is guaranteed a happy wedding night.
Garlic is widely used around the world for its pungent flavor as a seasoning or condiment. The flavor varies in intensity and aroma with cooking methods. It is often paired with onion, tomato, or ginger.
The parchment-like skin is typically removed before using in raw or cooked form. An alternative is to cut the top off the bulb, coat the cloves of garlic by dribbling olive oil (or other oil based seasoning) over them and roasting in the oven.
While experts vary in opinion regarding the recommended daily amount of dietary garlic, most of them agree that fresh garlic is better than supplements. To negate the aromatic after effects of fresh garlic herbalists recommend munching on fresh parsley.
Although maligned by some beloved by others, garlic has had an amazing array of nutritional and medicinal applications throughout human history, and it’s still improving the health of many today. So grab a clove and enjoy the many benefits of nature’s oldest super food: garlic.
Philipp W. Simon, USDA, ARS, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization