Myths and legends for National Garlic Day.
National Garlic Day is April 19, and you might wonder why you’re not getting the day off from work to honor what Merriam-Webster calls “a European allium (Allium sativum) widely cultivated for its pungent compound bulbs much used in cookery.” Allium is “any of a large genus (Allium) of bulbous herbs of the lily family including the onion, garlic, chive, leek, and shallot.” If you didn’t know garlic is a member of the lily family, congratulations! You can now impress friends and family at your Garlic Eve party.
If you’re wondering why this pungent compound bulb warrants its own day, it’s because garlic has played a central role in human civilization almost since the beginning. Native to central Asia, garlic grows wild in Italy and southern France and has long held a highly esteemed role in the development of human health care, not to mention how it makes every meal better.
Garlic, of which the major active component is a chemical called allicin, carries antibacterial properties, which are held in three chemical compounds: diallyl monosulfide, diallyl disulfide, and diallyl trisulfide. As the American Chemical Society explains: “Sulfur containing organic compounds like these can penetrate the cell membranes of bacteria cells and combine with certain enzymes or proteins to alter their structure which ultimately damages the cells. Also, with these organo-sulfur bacterial assassins, allicin also has similar antibacterial properties.”
Allicin is responsible for “lipid-lowering, anti-blood coagulation, anti-hypertension, anti-cancer, antioxidant and anti-microbial effects.”
That’s the science. But in ancient times, that kind of minutia was completely unknown, and people from a wide range of cultures — many of which were completely isolated from each other and managed to learn the glories of garlic on their own — not only realized garlic was a magnificent thing to cook with other foods, but recognized its medicinal properties.
In ancient Egypt garlic was part of the daily diet for laborers who saw it as a way to increase strength and productivity, and the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from 1550 BC, prescribed garlic for the treatment of circulatory ailments, malaise, abnormal growths and “infestations with insects and parasites.” In 1922, when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, it was filled with well-preserved garlic cloves as an offering to the gods.
Ancient Greeks, too, used garlic, stuffing their athletes with garlic before the first Olympic games, believing it would enhance their performance. And ancient Rome, Japan, China and India all used garlic medicinally.
Of course, no one knew about allicin, chemical compounds or bacteria in ancient days. They attributed its healing abilities to the work of magic, and thus garlic itself was seen as magic.
With that, inevitably, different civilizations developed their own folklore and superstitions about garlic, based on its medicinal properties along with its distinctive, and some say offensive, odor. Some of those superstitions were positive, and some quite negative indeed.
As Robin Cherry relates in her book Garlic, an Edible Biography, the prophet Muhammad equated garlic with Satan, whose footsteps as he was cast out of the Garden of Eden created garlic (which sprang up from where he placed his left foot) and onion (his right foot). Muhammad declared, “He who has eaten [raw] onion or garlic or leek should not approach our mosque, because the angels are also offended by the strong smells that offend the children of Adam.”
Considered by the Islamic faith as impure, base and wicked, garlic can only be used when boiled, eliminating the offensive odor. As Cherry says, offensive odors have often been considered evil by various world religions because Satan was cast into a fire of brimstone, the ancient name for sulfur and sulfuric compounds, which cause garlic’s specific odor. Anti-Semites throughout history would warp this interpretation into a vessel for hatred beginning in medieval Europe when garlic was used to differentiate “sweet-smelling Christians” from “the base and odorous Jews.”
The nadir would occur in 1930s Germany, when as Mark Graubard says in his book Man’s Food: Its Rhyme or Reason, Nazis would issue buttons with pictures of garlic bulbs for Germans to wear to represent their hatred of Jews. He says, “The mere mention of garlic by a Nazi orator caused the crowd to howl with fury and hatred.”
On the positive side, ancient Sanskrit texts claimed garlic’s odor made it a slayer of monsters. In ancient Greece, its mysterious medicinal properties made it a protector against bulls, sorcerers and witches, and newborn babies’ cribs would be lined with garlic to protect them from those same evil forces. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus survives his encounter with the sorceress Circe thanks to eating garlic, while his unfortunate companions are transformed into pigs.
Koreans in ancient times ate pickled garlic to ward off tigers while passing through mountains, Africans would use it to repel crocodiles, and Spanish bullfighters would carry cloves of garlic for protection. Even sailors thought garlic could prevent shipwrecks, and mothers in the Mediterranean would carry garlic in their purses to safeguard their children.
In her book, Cherry says even dreams are part of garlic lore: “Some believe if a young woman dreams of eating garlic, she is looking to marry for security rather than love. And to dream that you are walking through a garlic patch suggests that you will rise from poverty to prosperity.”
The most famous superstition, of course, is that garlic wards off vampires. The fear of the undead has been around for centuries, and outbreaks of panic have often accompanied plagues. After the rapid deaths of large portions of the population, mass graves would often have to be reopened to place more bodies inside. As Mark Jenkins says in Vampire Forensics, when those who reopened graves viewed the existing, decomposing bodies and didn’t understand what happened to bodies in death, their decomposing forms would be seen as a transformation into some kind of demon. Legends and myths eventually further identified these creatures as vampires.
Vampires, of course, are best known for their love of sucking blood, and while the myth of vampires takes many forms in many different cultures (such as China’s Jiangshi, the “hopping vampire”), the bloodsucking is the one constant. Garlic, thanks to its main ingredient allicin, is known for repelling mosquitos, nature’s favorite bloodsuckers. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine garlic might repel vampires.