Garlic in witchcraft – a look at its Pagan history

In Muslim lore, as the Devil left the Garden of Eden, where he stepped garlic sprang from beneath one foot and onion from the other.  Similarly, in the Bower Manuscript, a medical treatise of the fifth century CE, garlic is identified as having sprung from the blood of a demon, an enemy of the gods who was killed by Vishnu.   In Hindu philosophy onion and garlic are foods with the quality of tamas (“darkness”) about them. Indeed, there is a common belief that garlic and onions are tied to underworld forces, death, darkness, and evil.

The first thing anyone notices about garlic is the pungent smell. The ancient Greek name for garlic was scorodon, and the French physician Henri Leclerc (1870–1955), who coined the term phytotherapy for the therapeutic application of herbal medicines, thought this must derive from skaion rodon, which he translated as “stinking rose,” though this is fanciful.

Whereas sweet perfumes such as frankincense are thought pleasing to the gods in most cultures, more pungent odors are believed to offend them, or even to be polluting to the spirit. Therefore, those coming into the presence of the gods—in a temple, for example—had to be clean and fragrant, and not stink of sweat or garlic and onions.

In ancient Greece people who had eaten garlic were not permitted to enter certain temples of Cybele, while in Babylon they were banned from the shrine of the god Nabu. Plutarch wrote that priests refused to eat garlic and onions as they are the only plants that flourish at the dark of the moon, and they are “suitable for neither fasting nor festival because in the one case it causes thirst and in the other tears for those who partake of it.”

In modern India, garlic and onions are considered impure offerings to the Hindu gods. Yogis, orthodox Hindus, and Jains reject garlic as being too stimulating, therefore rooting the consciousness more firmly in the body and interfering with meditation. Chinese Buddhists refrain from eating garlic in the hope that this will reduce sexual desire and contribute to purity.  In nineteenth-century China officials participating in state ceremonies were expected to abstain from any foods that made them “impure,” which included garlic, leeks, and onions. 

Perhaps because of the sulfurous smell, because they grow underground as bulbs, or because they provoke tears akin to mourning, onions and garlic were associated with death and chthonic deities. In Egypt onions were used while embalming people, placed on the eyes and inside the ears to mask the smell. During the festivals of the god Sokar (Seker), the lord of tomb entrances depicted as a mummified hawk, his followers had strings of onions around their necks, referencing his underworld nature. According to Pliny, garlic and onions were invoked as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths. 

Garlic was considered a suitable offering for the underworld forces, whether evil spirits, demons, or chthonic deities, to seek their protection, divine their intentions, or to repel them and eliminate the evils they brought. The ancient Greeks offered garlic to the witch goddess Hecate, who could cause or cure a host of banes. Theophrastus commented that superstitious Greeks placed wreaths of garlic on crossroad altars to the goddess Hecate, and she was believed to punish with madness anyone who dared to eat her suppers. Despite the advent of Christianity, these offerings continued into the eleventh century CE, and there are reports of the church trying to stamp them out. Hecate is often said to have led the witch rides of medieval times. 

In ancient Greece, garlic was considered a powerful force against the evil eye.  This continued into modern times, and Greeks might attach a cluster of garlic over the door of the house or shop to protect against the evil eye.  Infants and children were thought to be at especial risk, and Greek midwives would take garlic into the delivery room and tie some around the child’s neck to protect it while the mother would keep some garlic beneath her pillow.   In some parts of Greece, merely uttering the word garlic is thought a defense against the evil eye, as is exclaiming “Garlic in your eyes!” after inadvertently saying something unlucky, or directing the phrase at someone suspected of having evil intent.

 Most Turks wore something to ward off the evil eye, which might be a bead in the shape of an eye or a small sack of garlic and cloves attached to the underclothing with a pin. 

Garlic protected against evil and misfortune in other ways. Homer reported that the hero Odysseus owed his escape from the witch Circe to “yellow garlic.”   It was eaten by ancient Greek and Roman herb collectors before they set out to pluck poisonous herbs such as black hellebore.  In ancient Italy, it was believed that hen’s eggs could be prevented from spoiling during thunderstorms by attaching garlic with iron nails to the chicken pen.  This practice was still in use in modern Sicily, where the nail was thought to absorb noises that might upset the chickens. In modern China people visiting a mortuary wear some garlic about their clothes to protect themselves against the forces of death.

Garlic also protected from the malicious attentions of fairies, demons, and evil spirits. In relatively modern Greece, children born on Christmas Day were thought at risk of becoming one of the Kallikantzaroi, evil spirits of chaos that appear during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and to prevent them being taken, the child was wound with braids of garlic.  Likewise, at the dangerous time of May Day, when many spirits were about, garlic might be sewn into a child’s clothes.  In Romania garlic gathered on Trinity Sunday was tied around the neck of a child or tail of an animal to protect them. During Lent, when people were thought most in danger of witches, people smeared garlic on their armpits, the soles of their feet, and breasts at Shrovetide.

Seventeenth-century Danish mothers put garlic in their infants’ cribs or over the door to protect their children,  while Swedish bridegrooms sewed garlic and other strong-smelling herbs in their clothes to protect themselves from trolls and sprites.  In Eastern Europe, it was common for peasants to hang wreaths of garlic over their doors to protect them from vampires, and in modern India, garlic is hung over the door to repel demons.

Garlic was also believed to drive out evil spirits and was used in exorcism. Idols of Chang Ling, the Taoist

patriarch of exorcism, represent him with fistfuls of garlic or leeks.  In early England a man possessed by a demon was given a potion of garlic, holy water, and church lichen with “Christ’s mark or cross,” masses were sung over it, and the man took a drink of it from a church bell.  In Konkan when a Hindu man is thought possessed by a certain evil spirit, an exorcist squeezes some garlic into the person’s ears or up his nostrils.

The disease-fighting properties have been known since ancient times, though its value as an antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal was not understood. The symbols of the Greek healer-god Aesculapius were the mortar, pestle, garlic, and squill. Before the mechanics of disease and illness were known, they were often thought to be caused by noxious miasmas or the attentions of evil spirits, and it was recognized that garlic combatted them. In Romania, the Calusari, a secret society of dancers, dedicated themselves to curing diseases thought to be caused by fairies, such as rheumatism, stroke, plague, and cholera. They worked under the auspices of the fairy queen, Doamna Zinelor, an altered Romanian form of the Roman goddess Diana, whose very name came to mean “fairy” (zina). The Calusari had a flag bearing the image of a bag containing magical herbs, notably garlic and mugwort, most potent against fairies. They chewed as much garlic as they could to protect themselves and spat garlic onto the faces of the afflicted.

Garlic was given to the pyramid builders in ancient Egypt to give them stamina. When they threatened to go on strike, they were given more garlic. In ancient Greece and Rome, garlic was eaten by rural folk as it was believed to provide fortitude and bravery. Virgil observed in his Eclogues that “The stylus is bruising garlic and wild thyme, strong-smelling herbs for the mowers wearied with the fierce heat.”

Greek athletes would eat garlic before competing.  The belief in the fortifying power of garlic remained a common one; in Paris, people used to eat garlic and butter throughout the month of May to strengthen themselves for the coming year.  There is an old Welsh saying: “Eat leeks in March and garlic in May, then the rest of the year, your doctor can play.”

The Greeks thought soldiers who ate garlic fought better.  As Aristophanes said, “Now bolt down these cloves of garlic…Well primed with garlic, you will have greater mettle for the fight!”  In Rome garlic was consecrated to Mars, the god of war, and it was believed that eating large amounts of garlic made soldiers braver and fiercer. Indeed, the Romans grew garlic in all the lands they conquered.  The Greeks also fed garlic to their fighting cocks, as it was thought not only to increase bravery, but also sexual desire, which was considered to increase their aggressiveness.

This brings us on to garlic’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. The Roman author Pliny said it gave the body a ruddy color and should be pounded with fresh coriander and taken in wine as an aphrodisiac.  In one tale by the Greek Aristophanes, some drunken young men went to Megara and kidnapped a prostitute, and the Megarans retaliated by stealing two prostitutes from Aspasia, describing them as being “in agonies of excitement, as though stuffed with garlic.”  Among practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine today, garlic is held in high regard as an aphrodisiac and for its ability to increase semen.

In modern witchcraft, garlic is used as a herb of protection. Garlic may be hung on the door or in the kitchen to ward off negativity and the evil eye. Cloves of garlic may be placed in protective charms and talismans. Dried and powdered garlic can be added to incense used to drive out negativity or used in exorcism. Garlic is also offered to Hecate and other chthonic deities.

Culinary uses

A garlic bulb is composed of many individual cloves enclosed in a thin white or purple skin. Garlic has been used as a seasoning for thousands of years and is indispensable in Asian, Indian, and Italian cuisines, among many others, adding a depth of flavor unlike any other. It is usually sautéed with onions and added to soups, stews, casseroles, curries, pasta dishes, vegetable dishes, and so on. For a milder, sweet, nutty taste, garlic can be roasted with the top cut off; wrap the whole bulb in foil and drizzle with olive oil before roasting, then add to pizzas, savoury tarts, spreads, sauces, and hummus. Raw, it imparts a spicy bite and can be added, grated, to dishes just before serving. Use raw in garlic mayonnaise (aioli).

Chew a fresh parsley leaf or a cardamom pod if you are worried about bad breath after eating garlic.

Cosmetic uses

Garlic is antiseptic and astringent, and can be rubbed onto pimples to banish them.

If you can stand the smell, using garlic on your hair and scalp can help prevent hair loss and treat dandruff due to its high levels of allicin, a sulphur compound. Use Garlic Infused Oil to massage your scalp on a regular basis. Wash well afterwards!

Medicinal uses

actions: anti-atherosclerotic, antimicrobial, antifungal, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiparasitic, antiviral, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, hepato-protective, hypoglycaemic, reduces serum cholesterol, stimulant

Garlic is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, killing a wide variety of bacteria. In 1858 Louis Pasteur wrote that garlic was effective even against some bacteria resistant to other factors. Battlefield doctors in both world wars used garlic to disinfect wounds.  It is sometimes known as “Russian penicillin” because Russian physicians used it for many years.

Dr. Tariq Abdullah stated in the August 1987 issue of Prevention that “garlic has the broadest spectrum of any antimicrobial substance that we know of—it is antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, anti protozoan, and antiviral.”  Garlic appears to have antibiotic activity whether taken internally or applied topically. It is effective against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria while being harmless to our native gut flora, unlike modern broad-spectrum antibiotics that wipe everything out.

To use garlic as an antibiotic and antiviral, take it internally in the form of Garlic Vinegar or Garlic Electuary, add some fresh garlic when you juice fruit and vegetables, or just eat a clove of fresh, raw garlic a day, especially if you have a cough or cold or urinary infection.

For external use, apply a garlic poultice on the affected area. Externally, a fresh, peeled, sliced clove of garlic can be applied directly to insect bites, boils, and unbroken chilblains.

Taken regularly, garlic can also help reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. It slows arterial plaque formation and clots and may help prevent thrombosis and atherosclerosis. It is a circulatory tonic, increasing blood flow. Garlic exerts a powerful protective action of the heart and also reduces the risk of stroke.

Regular use may help to regulate intestinal flora and combat Candida albicans, diarrhea, stomach cramps, flatulence, and sluggish bowels.

The regular consumption of garlic may be of benefit in reducing the symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis.

It has significant antifungal properties, which make it a good treatment for athlete’s foot, ringworm, and other fungal skin diseases. Apply Garlic Infused Oil directly or use double-strength Garlic Tea to make a compress.

Garlic is a popular home remedy for ear infections. Take some Garlic Infused Oil, warm a small amount in a spoon, and suck into a dropper. Place two drops in the ear canal and plug with cotton wool. Repeat hourly as needed.

A poultice of fresh crushed garlic applied to warts has powerful antiviral properties, and repeated application can get rid of warts.

Caution: Garlic is considered safe for most people, though it can cause bad breath, heartburn, and gas. It should not be applied in high concentrations to the skin as it may cause a burning sensation. To be on the safe side, it should not be taken in medicinal amounts when pregnant or breastfeeding or by young children. Avoid large amounts if you are on blood-thinning medications such as warfarin and for two weeks before surgery. As garlic can lower blood pressure and blood sugar, treat with caution if you are on blood pressure medication or are diabetic. Garlic can decrease the effectiveness of some HIV/AIDS medications and oral contraceptives.

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