Hidden Histories: Onions Throughout History


By Son on Earth, also called Chris Ripple

Did you know….. Onions were one of the most sacred foods/symbols of ancient Egyptians. Hailed as a symbol of eternity onions had great ceremonial and healing breadth. When oaths are sworn today it may be performed over a Bible or other religious book but when the Pharaohs took oaths they did so over the onion. Egyptians saw eternal life in the anatomy of an onion because of its circle within a circle structure. Onions were painted on the insides of tombs and used as currency to pay workers. The ancient Egyptians also used onions for their medicinal properties such as circulatory health, as an anti-inflammatory and for aiding in intestinal digestion. In the mummification process onions were used for their antiseptic and deodorizing properties sometimes being utilized in the body’s orifices, between the fabric strips and even inside the bodies. Onions have been discovered in the pelvis, eye sockets and thorax regions of mummified remains.

During the Festival of Bastet, The Festival of Nehebkau and the Netjeryt Festival of Sokar, onions were used extensively for tomb fumigations, their anti-snake properties, chewing, teeth whitening and were made into necklaces and wreaths. Though Egyptians are not the only ones to revere onions. The Bible, in the book of Exodus, mentions the use of onions as food for the Israelites and in Roman times, Apicius, author of one of the first cookbooks, references the many uses for onions. A Roman philosopher and naturalist named Pliny the Elder catalogued the Roman beliefs on onions. Pliny spent time in Pompeii noting the medicinal properties of onions in their ability to cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, toothaches and dysentery. Though ultimately killed when Mount Vesuvius erupted his literature lived on. This was also a shared belief among the Indians as they too noted the onion as a good diuretic and helpful for the eyes, heart and joints.

The ancient Greeks would use onion to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games. Athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies. In the Middle Ages onions were used medicinally, as food, wedding gifts and rent payments. The Pilgrims brought onions over on the Mayflower only to discover the Native Americans were already using the wild version. Undaunted, the pilgrims went ahead and planted the domesticated version as soon as the land was made ready. Native Americans used their wild version for eating, seasonings, syrups, poultices, dyes and even toys. To this day, the onion is one of the most highly cultivated vegetables, truly standing the test of time. Who knew such an odoriferous little vegetable could have such a rich and fascinating history.


“Life is an onion – you peel it year by year and sometimes cry.” ~ Carl Sandburg



Sources and places to learn more:  Egyptian walking tree onions about the plant

About the author

Christopher Ripple

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