Called everything from ”stinking rose”, “rustic cure-all”, “Russian penicillin”, “Bronx vanilla” to “Italian perfume“, garlic has been loved and despised throughout history for its taste and other mysterious properties. Garlic’s healing properties started a conversation thousands of years ago that still goes on. Though, the most fascinating stories surrounding the garlic have all to do with its magical attributes. This article tries to summarize the most important magical aspects as revealed by the Romanian folklore and traditions, while also taking into account what other cultures across the world have to say about it.
The birth of the garlic’s legend
The amazing world of folklore and mythology gives us a very different answer regarding the garlic’s origin. In the Romanian folklore, garlic is not just a simple aromatic and medicinal plant. According to Elena Niculina Voronca, one of the most respected Romanian folklore experts, it is believed that “garlic is human; it has a head a cross, and it’s wears clothing”, and the garlic leaves are named “catei” (“puppies”). Garlic is a Christic plant as “it bears on it the sign of the cross”. It’s also a sacred plant: “God made garlic and it’s a pity to step on it. When you peel the garlic and throw the sheaths in the fire, don’t let them fall down.”
The Indian tradition gives garlic a sacred origin as it is said that it was born from a drop of amrita (divine ambrosia) unintentionally left behind by tired Garuda, a large bird-like creature, or humanoid bird that appears in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle, drives away evil spells, black magic influences, negative spirits and removes all poisonous effects in one’s body.
A Mohammedan legend states that when Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic sprang from the place where his left foot stepped and onion from his right foot. The Bowers Manuscript, a fifth century Buddhist medical treatise, includes a tale that says the the first garlic appeared from the blood of a demon.
According to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), garlic and onions were invoked as deities by the ancient Egyptians at the taking of oaths. Archeologists discovered clay garlic bulbs placed in Egyptian tombs with the dearly departed, yet they are unsure whether they were intended as funds for the afterlife or as idols to appease the gods.
Garlic – the vampire repellant
Although Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, had a lot to do with making famous Romania’s belief that garlic wards off the vampires, the truth looks a little bit different from this side of the world. With all do respect for those of you who think that garlic is just Romania’s vampire repellant, allow me to tell you that this is not quite accurate. Montague Summers, author of Vampires and Vampirism:
“Certain trees and herbs are hateful to him, the whitethorn (or buckthorn) as we have seen, and particularly garlic. Often when the Vampire is decapitated his mouth is stuffed full with garlic; garlic is scattered in and all over the coffin by handfuls; and he can do no harm. In China and among Malays to wet a child’s forehead with garlic is a sure protection against vampires.”
So, with so many vampires, vampire-like creatures and all sorts of evil spirits present in the worldwide mythology, it’s not that surprising that this far-reaching fear of such beings needed an all-mighty resource to ward the off, but …
“In truth garlic is not a universal deterrent; other common foods that can be used to thwart a vampire attack are poppy seeds, grains of rice, sesame seeds, iron shavings and peppercorns. Each of these items when thrown or left for a vampire to discover will compel it to stop and count each one. Ideally, this obsessive counting will take the monster all night, stalling it long enough for the sun to rise and destroy it; this is believed to be true of the Sucoyan of the West Indies.” (Theresa Bane)
Vampires – not a Romanian invention
Legendary healer Melampus and Theophrastus (c.371- c.287 BC) both suggested in their writings the Greeks’ belief that garlic protects people from witchcraft and vampires. Yet, if you go far much deeper and search the literature, you will realize that the term “vampire” was never actually used in the Antiquity’s texts. True, in the ancient texts across the world there are many references to supernatural creatures who feed on blood or human flesh. Vampires were presented as demons or malefic spirits. Here are just few examples of such creatures that had vampire-like features:
- Vetalas and goddess Kali in the Indian mythology;
- Empusae, Lamia and Strix in Greek-Roman mythology;
- In the Scriptures of Delphi, a collection of myths and legends attributed to Babylon era, but gathered as a collection around 1700, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to vampires;
- Xortdan (Hortdan) is creature in the Azerbaijani mythology which raised from its grave and could transform in any kind of animal;
- The Vrykolakas or Kallinkantzaros have been in ancient Greek history for centuries.
The full list is extremely long, but, that does not mean, all evil creatures of the worldwide mythology qualify as vampires in the current definition of the word. Theresa Bane, author of Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology, also makes in her extremely documented book distinction between “vampires” (e.g. Agta, energy vampire in Phillipines, Abchachu in Bolivia) and “vampiric spirits” (e.g. Chochonyi in Argentina, or Aipalookvik in Alaska, Greenland and Nothern Canada). As she also very well underlines, not all these creatures feed on blood and neither can be ward off only with garlic.
The Romanian mythology abounds in supernatural creatures. In his “Romanian Mythology” book, Tudor Pamfile talks about 46, out of which 37 (84%) are malefic creatures or evil spirits, while 8 % are benevolent and 8% neutral. Therefore, one can say that in the study of Romanian mythological supernatural beings, those with evil or malefic characteristics dominante.
Romanian ethnologist Romulus Vulcanescu, identifies few major categories of such creatures, namely “strigoi”, “moroi”, “pricolici”, “tricolici”. Their names are impossible to translate in English; the closest terms I would choose are ghosts, phantom or wraiths. It would not be accurate to say that they are the exact equivalent of what is generally understood as “vampire”.
It seems that term “vampire” appeared for the first time as “upir” (in Old Russian, 1047) in an old note written by a priest who transcribed a book of psalms. There he referred to “the evil upir”. It is also assumed that the word “upir” comes the Tatar word “ubyr” which means “witchcraft”. Another mention of the eleventh century goes back to Saint Gregory who talks about the pagan worship of the “upirs”.
Garlic – antidote for the evil spirits
The ethnology and cultural studies report many customs and traditions related to garlic, yet most of them are related to specific areas, regions or villages across the Romanian land, so we cannot consider that they refer to the entire population. As in the case of other plants, popular traditions related to garlic’s magical powers are connected with some important religious celebrations (St.George’s Day, Pentecost, Saint Andrew’s Day, Christmas, New Year, etc), but not only. Garlic garlands are also seen around the houses even today.
Generally speaking, in Romania garlic is believed to be a magical plant which keeps safe people, animal stocks and households from dark or energies, evil spirits, ghosts, evil-eye and various diseases. Mainly on St.Andrew’s Day (November 30), Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Eve locals use garlic juice to make a Christian cross sign on the door frames and locks, window frames, house eaves, stables and barns to protect themselves from evil spirits. Here are just few examples I’ve found:
- In Transylvania it is said that those who eat garlic gloves on the eve of important religious celebrations (Christmas, Baptism of the Lord, Easter and others) will have nothing to worry about being bothered by the ghosts;
- To drive away ghosts you can ignite incense and garlic in a brass pot;
- In Moldova, on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), there’s a traditional party where young people who are not married gather; in the meantime, one or two old women guard the garlic brought by the girls, so men won’t steal it; at sunrise, in some villages takes place what’s called Hora Usturoiului (The Garlic Dance); following this, they believe the garlic gets miraculous powers, meaning it’s good for healing; it is also believed that this garlic it’s good to be kept with them by travellers and while doing business or negotiations;
- When you are on a field and suddenly smell garlic, it means there’s a snake nearby;
- In some regions of the country (e.g. Suceava, Valcea, Bihor), there’s a belief that if you lubricate the udder of the cows with garlic juice, they will give good milk the entire year;
- To protect the cattles from being attacked or bitten by snakes or weasels, people in Olt country hang garlic yarns (threads) in the stables;
- In Hateg county, people put garlic cloves in the dead’s coffin so it won’t turn into a ghost.
According to Theophrastus, garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks on the piles of stones at crossroads, as a supper for Hecate, the goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy. The reason behind this superstition is linked to the fact that the garlic placed at crossroads protects travelers from evil spirits and disorientates demons.
Montague Summers also mentions the use of garlic against evil spirits or witchcraft: “The West India negroes today smear themselves with garlic to neutralize the evil charms of witches and obeah men.” On the other hand, Buryat people of Mongolia believe that the presence of the women who died during birth, and who are known for coming back at night to torture the living, can be recognized by the garlic smell they spread around.
The Korean folklore mentions the garlic in the foundation myth of the ancient kingdom of Gojoseon, when eating of nothing but 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of Korean mugwort for 100 days, let a bear be transformed into a woman. There are also mentions that eating garlic repels tigers, while eating pickled garlic for those traveling dangerous mountain passes frequented by striped predators.
Garlic – help for women, children and soul
Besides the traditions related to the garlic’s protective power against evil spirits, there are also few other traditions where it plays a part in the welfare of the young married couples and child care:
- On the wedding day, in Dolj county, the couple that gets in the church must go three times by each icon; in the meantime, a woman takes seeds of barley, raisins, three garlic cloves, five coins, seeds and fruits and throws them towards them; this will bring the young couple good crops;
- In Moldova, the bride who wants to have only two children puts two garlic cloves in the shoes received as a gift from the brom; also, if a woman wants to get pregnant, she must put nine garlic scapes in half liter of rachiu (local home-made alcoholic drink obtained through twice distilling of the wine or certain fruits like plums, apples, without adding sugar or sugar syrup); the bottle is left for nine days on the chimney crown and after that the woman has to drink it;
- In Suceava county when women give up breastfeeding their babies, they should rub their breasts with garlic to stop the milk;
Greece is also responsible for spreading throughout Europe the placement of a garlic braids as well as squashing garlic in the rooms were women gave birth.
Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, as well as Montague Summers mention how Batak people in Borneo use garlic to bring back the soul in the body and for good luck:
“It may be noted that the Battas or Batakas of Sumatra ascribe pining and wasting away, sickness, terror and death to the absence of the soul (Tendi) from the body and the souls must be lured back to his tenement. One of the most powerful soul-compelling herbs which is used by them in their mystic rites on these occasions is garlic. At the St.John (Midsummer) Festival of Fire, on the Vigil of the Major solemnity of that Saint, 23rd og June, at Dragingnan, Var, the people roasted pods of garlic by the bonfires. These pods were afterwards distributed to every family, and were believed to bring good luck.”
Garlic – for abundance and crops
Gorovei & Ciausanu have found in the Romanian folklore several traditions that link the garlic with rich harvests, but also recommendations on how and when it should be planted. On the morning of the Resurrection Day, when women go to the church bringing pasca, they put garlic beneath it, believing that the the blessed garlic once planted will never be destroyed. Also in Suceava, once the people have eaten the garlic, the left threads are thrown on the road so that next year will bring rich harvests.
If you plant garlic in one year, then you must plant it every year; if not, things will not go well for you; Garlic must be planted on Saint Dumitru’s Day (October 26); those who do it later die; the garlic is a head and asks for a (human) head; in autumn, before planting the garlic, one must jump over it so that the bulbs will grow big for the same reason, when planting it one must take the garlic from a cap.
Ciausanu also mentions the fact that Romanians link the planting of the garlic with Moon’s phases: hard, strong seeds (e.g. rye, corn, wheat) should be planted during the Waxing Moon, while soft, delicate seeds during Waning Moon.
“Onion, garlic, potato and all eatable vegetables grown around the house should be sowed before the sickle of the first moon quarter.”
The Evil Eye
Just as the garlic has been thought to ward off vampires or other evil spirits, it is also found in the mythology of countries as a repellant for what is generally known as Evil Eye. The Evil Eye was first recorded in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets, but it may actually have originated as early as the Upper Paleolithic age. The belief in Evil Eye is much present in the Roman times when it was named Oculus Malus, turpicula or fascinus and authors such as Hesiod, Plato, Theocritus, Plutarch, Heliodorus, Pliny the Elder, Tertullian, Saint Augustin and others often mention it in their writings. The belief in the Evil Eye is still very much present in the Romanian society, yet it’s also spread across many cultures, from Jewish, Christian and Muslim to Buddhism and Hindu societies. Romanian ethnologist Gh.F.Ciausanu comments that “The Evil Eye, just like other diseases, is seen by Romanians as a being, an evil spirit.”
Given intentionally or not, the malevolent glare can cause yawning, headaches, heartaches, fever, back pains, insomnia and an overall feeling of exhaustion. Animals and plants can also get the Evil Eye look.
To protect against the Evil Eye Romanians have many incantations (Romanian “descantece”) and a very old one I know mentions “red garlic in the eyes of the one who gave me this spell” (Romanian “Usturoi rosu in ochii tai, celui ce-ai facut aceasta facatura”). Ciausanu also mention an old protection phrase: “Garlic between my eyes to protect me from the Evil Eye” (Romanian “Usturoi intre ochi, sa nu-mi fie de deochi!”). A garlic clove hanged with a red thread around the neck of the baby or on its cap will protect the newborn from getting the Evil Eye.
Ancient Greek and Romans also believed garlic can serve as a protection talisman against the Evil Eye. For the same reason, ancient Greeks used a triangular amulet containing coal, salt and garlic. An old Macedonian tradition says that to for the newborn to have good luck and be protected against Evil Eye and bad spirits, one must put in its clothing a garlic clove, three lemon seeds, a piece of bread and a ring.
Eric Block, chemistry professor at Albany University and author of more than 220 papers, 5 patents, 4 books, mentions the way Sephardic Jews used garlic as a way of protecting themselves against Evil-Eye. When a neighbor came and said something complementary about her neighbor’s child she would often add “May the evil eye not fall” or “let it go to the garlic.” Blocks also adds: “Their houses were protected with crocheted bags with five tiny finger-like sacks each holding a single garlic clove. The bags were placed outside a window or in a balcony just like a mezuzah.”
The possible explanation why, as you have seen, so many cultures believe that garlic has the power to protect against us from evil or “dark energies”, including the Evil Eye, also comes from Block:
“the view that garlic and its relatives are impure and linked to the underworld suggests that these same plants are especially suited for offerings to underworld forces, e.g., evil spirits, in seeking their protection, or eliminating the evil they brought on.”
Love and hate of garlic
Although globally praised for its reputation for warding off evil and use as a medicinal herb, garlic was also deemed for its strong smell. This pungent smell of garlic is unfavorably referred to in the Talmud that recounts stories of people taking blame for actions they did not commit, with the goal of saving another from embarrassment.
Those who smelled of garlic were considered vulgars by Roman, Greek and Indian in the upper classes or aristocracy. Egyptian priests worshiped garlic but actively avoided cooking and eating the fragrant cloves. Greeks wishing to enter the temple of Cybele had to pass a garlic breath test. Author Jason Johns mentions the fact that at the court of King Alfonso de Castile the knights caught smelling of garlic were cast out of polite society for a week.
It is also said that Muhammad, the Prophet and founder of Islam, did not eat either garlic or onions because they conversed with supernatural beings and that he disliked its odor. Nevertheless garlic is permitted for consumption, though Muhammad says that those who eat it should stay away from the mosque.
In England, garlic breath was also deemed and considered unsuitable for refined young ladies and the gentlemen who wished to court them. Probably it’s not by chance that also many Americans adopted the English attitude and didn’t embrace garlic until the 1940’s. Until then it was considered an ethnic ingredient and known by slang terms such as “Italian perfume” or “Bronx vanilla”. There are some of you who might not know, but the official story about the origin of the Chicago city name is the French version of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (“Stinky Onion”), named for the garlic plant (Allium tricoccum), common along the Chicago River.
The magical garlic of all people
In the past decades, Dracula might had cemented into people’s the collective memory the idea that garlic is a repellant for vampires, yet looking at the long list of examples above, one must admit that garlic has far much longer affair with nations from all over the world. It’s a connection built over thousands of years and with more magical meanings we could have ever imagined.
For those of you who wonder how come I have not mentioned anything about the healing powers of the garlic, the reason is very simple. This is going to be the subject of my next article dedicated to the all-mighty garlic.
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