They've been around all your life. You've avoided them, indulged in them, and maybe even been embarrassed by the ordinary, extraordinary onion. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that the onion is not just a food, it is also an herb.
There are probably other things about onions you don’t know. You're probably not aware that the inhabitants of the ancient Egyptian city of Pelusium worshipped the onion and consecrated it to the gods. In other cultures, thought, it was the devil who was associated with the onion. Mahomet says that when Satan was banished from paradise, onions sprang from the print of his right foot. And the early Greeks believed that the onion, which they thought was ruled by the planet Mars, exercised an attractive force so powerful that it could pull the magnetism right out of the rock magnetite.
It might have been this association with the masculine god Mars that gave the Romans the idea that eating an onion would increase the quantity and vitality of sperm. (Move over, Viagra.) And maybe the onion's purported ability to attract suggests why some Middle Eastern cultures considered it an aphrodisiac. This magnetic force might also be the reason that people in the Middle Ages put onions outside the doors of their houses during plague season, or that eighteenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper believed that an onion could draw poison from the bite of a venomous snake or a rabid dog. It might explain, too, why American colonists hung onions outside their doors. They hoped it would attract, and deflect, any evil spirits who attempted to come inside.
Onions were widely used in folk medicines in various cultures. In France, onions were chopped and stewed in milk to treat colds and coughs. In Germany, they were mixed with sugar and water to treat whooping cough. Some Englishmen believed that rubbing an onion on their bald heads would encourage hair growth, and those with chilblains rubbed their feet with a peeled onion.
There are also plenty of modern folks who believe that the onion has a magnetic personality. As late as the 1950's, in England, people were hanging the cut half of an onion in the house to attract infectious germs out of the air. A friend's mother remembers putting a small hot onion in her ear to draw out the pain of a childhood earache. And I recently read in a contemporary magazine that rubbing a bee sting with a raw onion will remove the pain. (This trick works, by the way, because the sting of the onion’s juice helps to distract you from the bee’s sting.) And some researchers have even claimed that the onion has almost as much medicinal value as its close cousin, garlic.
Superstition or not, you've got to admit that the onion exerts a powerful force. Think about it the next time you slice into one of these pungent beauties.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com