Garlic, which suggests good eating in many ancient languages, has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. As early as 3000 B.C. Chinese scholars sang its praise. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built by garlic— and onion—munching slaves. The labor in the pyramid construction may have even been tolerable as long as the slaves stuck to their work and avoided breathing on each other.

No responsible Phoenician or Viking ever embarked on a long voyage without stuffing his sea chest with garlic. It was served regularly to Raman soldiers because it enhanced strength and courage in battle. In addition to being a staple in ancient diets, garlic has always been immersed in superstition, both good and evil. Although it was cultivated in Mediterranean countries and India, it was often condemned by the priestly class, and no one was permitted in temples with garlic on his breath.

Since antiquity people have worn strings of garlic around their necks, carried it in their pockets, or hung it over their doorways and windows. The purpose was to ward off everything from witches, vampires, and werewolves to whatever plague was on the loose. Its medicinal properties and value as food have been well documented, even in the Bible. In the Book of Numbers the children of Israel complain during their desert wanderings that they remember the wonderful food they had eaten while in Egypt, which included "the leeks, the onions, and the garlick."

Because of its pungency, garlic was believed to be a powerful agent against many contagious diseases; its vapor supposedly would kill bacteria. Actually the pungency is unrelated to its bacterial agent, and the effectiveness of garlic in protecting against the Evil Eye or vampires is not easy to evaluate. Nevertheless the list of its pharmaceutical uses was so long that people were advised to keep a piece of garlic in their clothes and take a bite regularly to avoid catching a disease. A few garlic bulbs hung around the house would draw any disease away from the occupants.

There were special garlic treatments for tuberculosis, dysentery, gangrene, high blood pressure, bronchitis, colds, rheumatism, and lung trouble. A spoonful of garlic would cure bed—wetting, chopped it was a remedy for worms, and inserting it in a cavity would stop a toothache. No midwife in Greece went about her business without a supply of garlic. Aristotle recommended garlic as a cure for hydrophobia and to purify the blood. If one were to eat wild garlic gathered in the spring, it would afford protection for disease for a year.

One of the most paradoxical superstitions involving garlic was wide—spread during the Renaissance, when it was believed to be a very potent love charm. Not surprisingly, Boccaccio's Decameron, which was written shortly after 1348 (the year of the Black Death in Italy), reinforces the power of garlic in affairs of the heart. In one of the tales a love—stricken young man is convinced that he will win the affection of this chosen lady after sending her a string of fresh garlic. Belief in its powers in the pursuit of love was so unshakable that a person had only to prevail upon a clergyman to bless the garlic and he, or possibly she, would appear irresistible to the mate of choice.

At times toreadors have worn wreaths of garlic around their necks to protect them from being gored. Its effectiveness doubtless depended on whether the bull was repelled by the smell. An assurance of a good race was to rub garlic on the horse's hoofs; if a horse was off its feed, rubbing its teeth with garlic would help it regain its appetite. Other, more recent uses have been to sprinkle garlic and sulfur at the entrance to a mole's run to flush it out of the hole. A dream of possessing garlic would mean that good fortune was certainly on its way. On the other hand, to dream of giving away garlic was a sure sign of forthcoming ill fortune for the dreamer.

In classical times such magical potency was ascribed to garlic that it was believed to be strong enough to destroy the magnetic power of lodestone. Ancient luminaries including Pliny, Ptolemy, Pultarch, and Solinus confirmed it power. It wasn't until the mid—seventeenth century that the writer—physician Sir Thomas Browne countered their claim. In his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors), he identified the writer of the past who had sworn to the effectiveness of garlic in demagnetizing lodestone and dismissed them with "but this is all lies."

Perhaps the most outstanding feature of garlic is that it has been a perennial staple in folk medicine, hailed as a panacea throughout centuries for any and all ailments. Since demons were allergic to its odor, there is little wonder that it was so effective as a disease preventive. This sentiment prevailed through the nineteenth century in America, when garlic was considered more appropriate as medicine than as food and was rarely mentioned in cookbooks.

The irony of its preventive—therapeutic reputation is that modern research indicates that some of the medicinal claims for garlic are valid. It contains the amino acid alanine, which has antibiotic and bactericidal effects. Further studies have shown that it may also help prevent the development of arteriosclerosis.

Research is currently in progress in Russia to study the effect of garlic on certain types of cancer, and it was used so routinely to treat colds and flu in the Soviet Union that it was called Russian penicillin. In Japan research is being conducted to determine its effect on lumbago and arthritis. As an anticoagulant and regulator of cholesterol, it has been found effective only if the oil is not processed, as in the case of pills or extracts. Moreover, it seems to work only if the subjects eat at least ten cloves of garlic per day and are willing to tolerate unpleasant side effects.

Happily, while researchers are discovering what garlic can do to improve the human body, we can enjoy it as a condiment that improves the flavor and excitement of food. Any health—giving dividends garlic may provide will be a gratifying bonus.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth