The discovery of the Health plant
Originally from central Asia and/or India (the only places where it grows spontaneously), garlic has a century-old history. According to tradition, this plant belongs to the Lilaceae species, even though, according to recent re-classifications, it has been placed in the Amaryllidaceae family. Its fruit is made up of many cloves close to each other, forming a single bulb. Its most typical feature is its strong odour due to several organic sulphur compounds, which, however, should not be discouraging, since this delicacy has been used since ancient times both as food and as an officinal herb.
Ancient Egypt (3200 BC – 343 BC circa)
In Ancient Egypt, according to Herodotus, this bulb was an important component of the diet of slaves and of those who carried out strenuous work for a living, whereas, as far as officinal properties are concerned, we can find clear references to its therapeutic effects in the Codex Ebeers. This code, dating back to 1550 BC, includes precise suggestions on the use of Garlic as an efficient remedy for circulation problems, headache, insect stings and parasites.
An interesting curious fact: in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, several heads of garlic were found perfectly preserved, which shows how important it was in everyday life.
Another important statement about Garlic comes from the Bible, particularly in the passage that narrates the Exodus of the Jews and their escape from Egypt. Moreover, a quote on this precious “fruit” can be found in the Talmud, the sacred Jewish text, which highlights its importance for health and for preventing diseases, as well as a more “romantic” vision. Jews, in fact, used to consider Garlic as a great aphrodisiac, almost favouring marital harmony and procreation.
Ancient Greece (1000 BC – 326 BC circa)
The outstanding achievements of Egyptian medicine, without their esoteric components, were widely used in Greece by Hippocrates of Kos (460 – 377 BC). The “Father of medicine” had founded his theories on observation and came to the conclusion that Garlic was useful for curing problems affecting the lungs, abdominal pain, and for other uses. Tradition and popular experience were, once again, widely supported. The precious cloves were given to athletes to improve their performances during competitions, and to soldiers in order to increase their braveness and resistance during battle.
Ancient Rome (8 BC – 476 AD circa)
In the first century AD, Rome was in a similar situation, since garlic was given regularly to both soldiers and sailors as a vermifuge and to avoid the spread of dangerous diseases. By that time, medicine was “imported” to Rome from Greece: as a matter of fact, the physician Pedanius Dioscorides took care of soldiers under the rule of emperor Nero. In a passage of his monumental work in five volumes, the Greek physician wrote that the most important function of garlic was “for cleaning arteries”. Studies on the human body had not acknowledged the cardiovascular system, however, this discovery was extraordinary. Pliny the Elder fully examined the therapeutic purposes of garlic in his ambitious work Historia Naturalis. Amongst its most significant properties, there is, once again, protection against toxins or infections.
Ancient China and Japan
The use of Garlic for therapeutic purposes in Asia has ancient roots. In fact, it is said that its use in the daily diet dates back to 2000 BC, or even before. Its aroma and its properties were often used to preserve foods, especially meat. The most curios fact is that, in Asia, garlic was also prescribed as a remedy against sadness or depression and, mixed with other herbs, it acted as important tonic to accelerate healing. Therefore, Asian peoples had tested the benefits of garlic, and recent sample studies carried out in the province of Shandong, China, have showed a drastic reduction in the risk of stomach cancer among those who, traditionally, eat garlic on a regular basis.
In India, Garlic has always been associated to medicine since the first written evidence was found. The most important medical text, which survived through the ages, is the Charaka-Samhita, which clearly describes the fundamental importance of garlic for curing heart problems and arthritis. Another proof of its effectiveness against fatigue, parasites and digestive problems can be found in the Bower manuscript, named after the person who discovered it (300 BC circa).
Although highly appreciated by workers and poorer classes, this is the period when Garlic stopped being relegated to certain social classes or considered a medicine, and entered the kitchens (but other places too) of royal palaces in continental Europe. According to tradition, between the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the future King Henry IV of France was baptized in water containing garlic in order to protect him from evil spirits and, more probably, from diseases.
Garlic was used and appreciated also in America. Native Americans acknowledged its extraordinary properties and its positive effect on health. However, the world of science was not able to confirm this before the 20th century. As a matter of fact, in 1858 Pasteur identified and defined the antibiotic properties of garlic. Based on this discovery, Albert Schweitzer used garlic in Africa, at first as the only remedy against dysentery and, later, against typhus, diphtheria, tuberculosis and even cholera.
To conclude, this wonderful plant is an important ally for human beings, which should be taken every day because of its active ingredients: not only does it add a delicious flavour to each dish but it is also good for our health and, possibly, also for our happiness.