How many tears are shed by peeling an onion? Despite this little drawback, the use of the onion is normal, both for the taste that ensures in countless recipes, and for the benefits it brings to health. The onion has been used as a food for millennia, although modern archeologists, botanists and historians are unable to determine exact time and place of their first cultivations, because this vegetable is perishable and its cultivation leaves little to no trace. However, some written records enables us to paint a very interesting picture about its story: for example, traces of onions were found along with fig seeds and date stones in many Bronze Age settlements, dating back to around 5000 BC.
Ancient civilizations that used them soon became really dependent on this vegetable, in fact onions were easy to grow on any kind of soil, any type of weather ecosystem, and were easy to store, dry, and preserve during winters. Onion features also proved to be very useful to Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindu and ancient Chinese civilizations who had problems to create large sources of food.
They prevented thirst, were great source of energy, had very useful medicinal properties, and could be easily dried and preserved for times when other perishable sources of food were scarce.
In 3000 BC the onions were certainly grown in Egypt, where they played an important role, both as food and as a religious symbol. The ancient Egyptians thought that the onion, due to its spherical shape, and to the concentric rings that compose it, was a symbol of eternal life, so much so that it was also used in burial ceremonies, especially during funerals of Pharaohs: traces of onion were found also inside the eye sockets of Ramses IV. Egyptians pained onions on the walls of their structures, pyramids, tombs, and were present in both ordinary meals, celebratory feasts and offerings to the gods. Onions were also important part of the famous Egyptian mummification process. However, it was not a food destined only for the privileged classes. Presumably also the workers who built the pyramids fed on radishes and onions.
Onion became more and more present in the written records of human history in 1st millennia BC and early centuries of AD. It was described several times by the Israelites in the Bible, celebrated by the Indian medical treatise Charaka Sanhita as one of the most important remedies for various heart, joint and digestion illnesses.
Unlike the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks, who believed onions gave them strength from gods, consumed the onions more than anything for the beneficial effects produced on health. The athletes consumed large quantities before the Olympic games and they consumed it raw, cooked, as juice and as rubbing oil.
Romans also consumed large quantities of onion, taking it wherever they went, from Italy to Spain, Balkans, majority of Central Europe, and England.
The great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder documents its use in Pompeii, telling that the Romans used it to improve eyesight, to sleep, and in general as a palliative for every ailment, from sores in the mouth to toothache, from the whiplash, to the dysentery.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered into Dark and Middle ages where main sources of food for entire population were beans, cabbage, and onions. During that time, onion was heavily used as both food and medicinal remedy, and was often more valuable than money. They were considered of such great value to be used to pay rent or to give gifts, replacing coins in all respects.
With the arrival or Renaissance and the new trade routes of the Golden Age of Sail, onions were carried to all four corners of the world, enabling European colonist and native people from newfound continents to grow the vegetable on countless soil types.
Native Americans consumed wild onions, both raw and cooked, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and also used them as a dye, or to make syrups and poultices. But onion cultivation was introduced into the New World by the first European settlers: according to the diaries kept by the Pilgrim Fathers, it was one of the first plants to be cultivated.
The therapeutic virtues of the onion, more or less founded, are therefore innumerable and well known since ancient times, but curiously, in the 16th century they were also recommended as a treatment for infertility, both for women and for domestic animals.
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