From ancient Egyptian funeral rites, to Victorian gothic horror and beyond… the magical and sacred properties of garlic have been recognised and exploited by cultures throughout the ages. As JAMES WILLIS discovers garlic is not just for vampire hunters.
All self-respecting horror aficionados know that garlic repels vampires: but that remarkable ability is but one of its miraculous virtues.
Garlic, both cultivated and wild, grows all over the world: it has been used by humans for so long that no one can say for sure where it originated.
Many cultures have celebrated the supposed magical and protective properties of garlic.
It was (and still is) believed to protect against wreckage and drowning, leading sailors to take cloves on deck.
Throughout Europe, garlic was historically placed in the home to keep out all forms of evil, and in particular it was hung above the doorway to ward off the evil eye.
Wearing garlic about the person was believed to protect against inclement weather, monsters and enemy attack.
Biting into garlic could repel evil spirits, and it was frequently placed beneath children’s pillows to protect them in their sleep.
Brides carried cloves of garlic in their pockets to bring them luck and keep ill fortune at bay, and rubbing garlic onto pots and pans before use was supposed to remove mystical negativity which may otherwise have contaminated the food.
Garlic was also a key ingredient in traditional spells designed to ward off ailments such as hepatitis.
Ancient lore holds that one could deter unwanted suitors by placing a garlic bulb, stuck with two crossed pins, at a road junction. If the would-be Romeo was lured across the bulb, their interest would magically evaporate.
The ancient Egyptians revered garlic as a sacred plant, and it adorned the tombs of the Pharaohs. Like the Europeans, they also believed that wreaths of garlic protected sleeping children from breath-sucking, murderous spirits.
In rural Romania and the Balkans, where vampire mythology is very much alive, garlic remains the weapon of choice in the constant battle against Nosferatu.
Here, garlic is left on windowsills, doorframes and gates, and it is smeared onto the horns of cattle.
The magical allium is sometimes placed into the mouths of deceased relatives to prevent their soul from re-entering the body, and to block wandering evil spirits who may otherwise reanimate the corpse. In the Far East, and the West Indies,superstitious parents still smear garlic onto children’s foreheads to protect them from black magic and vampiric attack .
The magical properties of garlic are not believed to be absolute. It is said that the bulb loses it’s magical powers when rubbed with a magnet or lodestone.
Magic aside, traditional medicine has always held the ‘stinking rose’ to be something of a wonder drug.
It has been credited with healing or staving off everything from the common cold to the plague.
To cure a skin ailment, people would rub the affected area with a cut clove: the clove was then washed and thrown away, supposedly taking the affliction with it.
Today folklore and science unite in their continued acceptance of the positive and protective benefits of garlic, albeit from opposing perspectives.
Modern science has proved that garlic has powerful antibiotic properties, and it is thought to lower both cholesterol and blood pressure. Garlic also has a strong antioxidant effect, protecting the body from damaging free radicals.
Whether you are a vampire hunter, folklorist, healer, food scientist, or simply a keen consumer of tasty food, one cannot deny the impact that the humble bulb has had upon the human mind, body, spirit and culture
And the good news is, garlic couldn’t be easier to grow. Traditionally planted on the shortest day of the year, and harvested on the longest – why not give it a go?