The History of Garlic

Garlic through the ages....

The use of garlic as both food and as a remedy goes back into prehistory.  For thousands of years and across many cultures garlic is highly regarded for its many culinary uses and significant health benefits. 

Garlic is found in Ancient Egypt, dating at least as far back as when the Giza pyramids were built and was one of the basic elements of nutrition.  Well-preserved garlic cloves were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (14th century BC).   Garlic was given to the labourers and slaves in order to increase their stamina and strength, as well as to protect them from disease.  Herodotus, the Greek historian (5th century BC) wrote about hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the amount of garlic consumed by the workers and slaves who were building the great pyramid of Cheops.  Garlic is still grown in Egypt, and in fact this country is the fourth largest producer in the world.

There is a reference to garlic in the Old Testament, recounting how the Jews, on their journey to the Promised Land, missed some of the foods that they consumed while in Egypt.  "We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic." (OT, Numbers 11:5).

Ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Hippocrates, Galen and Pliny the Elder all praise the benefits of garlic towards improving many conditions, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy.  Many athletes of the ancient Olympic Games chewed a clove of garlic before participating in competition as a natural performance enhancing agent.  It was a core food provision to soldiers and sailors and there is evidence of garlic being listed on the stock control manifest of ships. 

While garlic was widely used in the classical world it appears to have been consumed primarily by the lower classes.  It appears not to have been a favourite food item amongst the elite, primarily due to the smell, and its presence in religious temples was sometimes prohibited.

Garlic arrived in Western and Northern Europe with the Roman legions. During the medieval era, garlic was grown in monasteries and knowledge relating to its therapeutic use was gained and transmitted through these communities. 

Beyond the world of classical antiquity the Vikings also valued garlic.  The Vikings took healthy supplies of garlic with them on voyages.  Crusaders returning to Europe from the Middle East brought garlic back with them to Western Europe. 

The Renaissance intensified the study of the therapeutic uses of garlic.  Gardens for horticultural research were established at leading European universities and garlic was one of the major plants grown for this purpose.

The use of garlic in China dates back to at least 2000 BC.  In fact, the use of garlic as a food and as a medicinal agent has its ancient origins in Asia.  Garlic was in wide use in China and formed part of the daily diet as food and as a preservative.   Chinese medicine is based on combinations of herbs to form therapeutic medicines, rather than the administration of single agents.  As a result, garlic was frequently used in combination with other elements.  Fatigue, headache and insomnia were often treated with garlic based tonics.

Garlic has been associated with the healing process in India from the earliest of recorded history.  Popular ancient medical traditions made extensive use of garlic as a central part of the healing process. Leading surviving medical texts recommend garlic for the treatment of heart disease and arthritis.

By the end of the first millennium of the Common Era (1000 AD), garlic was grown virtually everywhere in the known world, and was universally recognized as a valuable plant, from a dietary, medicinal and even spiritual perspective.

The popularity of garlic increased amongst Europe’s ruling classes.  It is said that the French King Henry IV (late 16th / early 17th centuries AD) was baptized in water containing garlic to protect him from evil spirits and probably from disease.  In England, however, garlic remained the food of the working classes, a view that did not prevent the wealthier English from enjoying the therapeutic properties of garlic.  Many doctors carried cloves of garlic with them for protection against disease.

Legends of the protective nature of garlic against vampires, ghosts and evil spirits all date back to the medieval era and persist in many parts of the world to this day.

The consumption of garlic has increased dramatically since WWII.  New methods of consuming garlic in commercialised products such a vitamin supplements, gourmet and naturopath preparations are ensuring the longevity and popularity of garlic as one of the most important foods and natural medicine in human history.