A miscellany of Garlick

I complete my journey through garlic’s pungent history with a brisk summary of historical & literary references, intended to illustrate garlic’s extensive cultural influences:

According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions, there is an Islamic myth that suggests that, when Satan left the Garden of Eden after the Fall, garlic sprang from the spot where he had placed his left foot, and onion from the spot where he had placed his right.

Garlic’s medicinal properties were described in the Navanitaka text written in the 4th century AD, by Buddhists. This large medical treatise forms the second part of the Bower Manuscript written in a mixture of Sanskrit and Prakrit. The Bower Manuscript (mss), named after its discoverer, Lieutenant H. Bower, was found in 1890, in Kuchar, in Eastern Turkestan, on the caravan route to China.

The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, visiting the Indian sub-continent in the 7th century AD,  stated that the food use of garlic was unknown, which would have been particularly true of the Buddhist circles in which he moved.   These attitudes changed and by the period of Muslim rule, garlic, ginger and onion were an indispensable trio of flavours in South Asian cooking.


Cult images and altars of Hecate in her triplicate or trimorphic form were placed at crossroads, (though they also appeared before private homes and in front of city gates). Hecate was also closely associated with plant lore and the concoction of medicines and poisons. In particular, she was thought to give instruction in these closely related arts, and was said to favour offerings of garlic, which was closely associated with her cult.


The genus name Allium, the Latin name of garlic, gave rise to garlic’s name in Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese.  The French name Ail, Thériaque des pauvres (Theriac of the poor) reflects the medical value of garlic; Galen eulogised garlic as ‘the rustic’s Theriac’ or ‘Heal All’.  In the Middle Ages, an expensive and complicated mixture of mostly very exotic ingredients called ‘theriac’ was believed to be extremely powerful against every kind of illness (snake bite, bone fracture, plague, etc…).

Garlic was used to treat leprosy during the Middle Ages, so that garlic and leprosy became inseparably associated. From this we get the term ‘pil-garlic’, signifying one who is shunned like a leper, because lepers were compelled (by the force of circumstances) to peel, or pil, their own garlic and commonly these outcasts were dubbed ‘pil-garlics’ Ref:  Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable.

Garlic formed the principal ingredient in the ‘Four Thieves’ Vinegar’, a protection against the plague, so named because in Marseilles (or Toulouse) four thieves who were arrested for robbing corpses credited their immunity to wearing masks soaked in vinegar, garlic and other herbs; this took place anytime between the 14th and 18th century depending upon the storyteller!

References to garlic eating as a term of abuse seems to have historical roots. The Romans were said to feed garlic to their workers to improve their strength and to their soldiers to make them courageous. Apparently in ancient Rome the Latin expression allium olere (stinking of garlic) was used to refer to people belonging to the lower social classes.

After the Age of Exploration (15th-17th centuries), its use spread rapidly to Africa and both Americas. There are references to garlic in reports of Cortes in Mexico, although it is not native to the country and therefore probably an introduction. Garlic was not considered an essential cooking ingredient in general use in the United States until the first quarter of the twentieth century, and was used almost exclusively in ethnic dishes and in working class districts. Derogatory slang from the 1920s referencing garlic’s class and ethnic origins in the US, referred to it as Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, echoing the Latin slang of ancient Rome.

Garlic has a distinguished literary history that also echoes its cultural roots outlined above (I quoted Beowulf previously) :

Chaucer says of the summoner:

“Wel loved he garleek, oynons, and eek lekes,” a spiritual failing that aggravates his physical problems.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce puns: “I knew I smelt the garlic leek!”

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