By Suzy Biever
It's a pretty safe bet nowadays that whatever kitchen you walk into, whether commercial or residential, there will be a spice cabinet or other special location designated for herbs and seasonings. We take it for granted that we can walk into a grocery store to pick up whatever spice we're out of. Cloves, oregano, basil…they're all easily accessible.
However, there was a time when herbs cost gold and silver, rather than a few dollars plus change. A time when merchants took a voyage hundreds and thousands of miles long rather than a simple drive across town or down the street. Entire trade routes were devoted to bringing the wealthy class exotic herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, so that they could enjoy their mouth-watering, savory tastes and aromas.
So, with such times gone and past, how much do you really know about what's in your spice cabinet?
Throughout the centuries, cinnamon has acquired various attributes and qualities which it is said to possess and represent. It has become associated with love, success, healing, cleansing, and building power, among other characteristics.
In modern times, cinnamon is used in baking for cookies and cakes, and to top off coffee drinks and hot chocolate. But most people don't know that cinnamon was once used by the Egyptians in their embalming process. Most likely, cinnamon was used as a perfume or incense to make the bodies more aromatic during mummification.
This spice has also been considered sacred by various cultures. The ancient Hebrews used it as an anointing oil. The Romans believed that it was holy and consecrated, and Emperor Nero even burned a year's worth of cinnamon at his wife's funeral. In ancient mythology, the mythical bird known as the Phoenix was said to have arisen from a fire composed of myrrh, spikenard, and cinnamon when it was being reborn.
During the Middle Ages, a story was created in order to make cinnamon more valuable and to also make its price more appealing and worthwhile. This was the story of the cinnamologus bird, a rare bird from Arabia which built its nest out of cinnamon sticks. Whenever the locals needed cinnamon to trade and sell, all they had to do was find a nest and throw rocks at it in order to make the cinnamon sticks fall.
Thyme has become associated with sacrifice, sleep, healing, courage, and psychic abilities through the ages. Its relation to bravery and daring can most clearly be seen during the Middle Ages, when knights wore scarves consisting of thyme during jousts and tournaments. A myth from England states that if someone were to take thyme growing in hills where fairies were said to reside, and rubbed this thyme on their eyelids, they would then be able to see the fairies. Other folklores state that if thyme is put under a pillow, it will keep away nightmares.
As with cinnamon, Egyptians used thyme as part of their mummification process. Medicinally, the Romans used this herb to treat headaches and depression. Prepared various ways, it was used (and is still used in modern herbal medicine) to treat toothaches, athletes' foot, gout, sciatica, hair loss, intestinal worms, rheumatism, acne, scabies, eczema, and coughs, among many other ailments.
The most common attribute linked to rosemary is the enhancement of the mind and memory. In Greece, students used to adorn their hair with rosemary in order to help them take exams. The Greeks also used this herb to treat mental illness. In other areas of Europe, folklore stated that if a woman slept with rosemary under her pillow, her future husband would come to her in a dream. It was also thrown into coffins in order to keep alive the memory of the deceased.
In Latin, rosemary means "dew of the sea," and was so appropriately named because it grew around the Mediterranean. Venus, the Roman goddess of love, was believed to have been born from the sea's foam. Because of rosemary's association with Venus, it was often associated with marriage and fidelity. It was often used in wedding ceremonies to remind the bride and groom to remain true to their vows, and when placed in the stuffing of mattresses was said to promote faithfulness. The Greeks also believed that if you burned this herb, it would help to ward off evil demons.
One myth has it that rosemary's petals were once white. However, when the Virgin Mary was fleeing from Harod with Joseph and the infant Jesus, she spread her cloak over a nearby rosemary bush. From then on, the petals were blue, hence why the bush was also known as, "Rose of Mary." Yet another legend involves Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. In 1235, Elizabeth became paralyzed, and a hermit cured her after soaking rosemary in wine, letting it sit for numerous days, and then applying it to the queen's limbs. The hermit's new remedy became known as "Queen of Hungary's Water," and was used to prevent scalp and skin issues and gout, as well as other ailments. Grave robbers also used rosemary in a concoction of thyme, lavender, garlic and sage called "Four Thieves Vinegar," which was supposed to ward off the plague while they looted cemeteries.
Medicinally, rosemary has been used to treat a wide variety of maladies, including (but not limited to) nervous disorders, depression, epilepsy, baldness, sprains, rheumatism, flu, diabetes, and memory loss. It could be prepared in various deconstructions, and could also be applied to clear acne, cellulite, and varicose veins.
There is so much folklore and medicinal knowledge which lies beyond the small bottles of powdered herbs and spices sitting in our kitchen cabinet or squeakily spinning on our Lazy Susan. Hopefully next time we reach for the oregano, sage, or bay leaves, we can appreciate the ease with which we have access to them, as well as the long history and extensive myths beyond the taste!