Weird and Wonderful Uses of Spice in History

At the risk of sounding a tad dramatic, spice is one of the ingredients that has shaped the structure of the world we know today. In fact, I’d go so far as to say its importance is almost as old as human civilisation. While you might walk into your pantry and simply see a kitchen staple to add a kick to your dish or a certain aroma to whatever you’re preparing, the spices you take for granted today played vital parts in wars, peace treaties, trade and culture for thousands of years, and there were no limits to their uses. Here are some of the top interesting, and outright weird, uses of spice throughout history.

Paying bills with pepper

Spice was once the main currency of the world in the ancient and medieval ages. In fact, pepper and cinnamon were once so valuable they were used to pay rent in the Roman Empire, and some workers were even paid in salt. In one bizarre incident in 408 CE a group known as the Visigoths attacked Rome and held the city ransom, declaring they would only leave once receiving a ransom of 3,000 pounds of pepper. 

Keep it healthy

Speaking of pepper, black pepper was considered the best treatment for coughs and asthma, skin wounds, and in some instances, as a remedy for poisoning. Hippocrates, often called the “Father of Medicine, believed that saffron, cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint, and marjoram all had healing powers. Cinnamon was believed to help cure fevers, nutmeg was good for flatulence, and warmed ginger was considered an aphrodisiac.

Spice…. for the dead

That’s right, spices used to play a huge part in death rituals and practices, and in some parts of the world still do. Known as the innovators of mummification, the ancient Egyptians used a combination of spices to preserve the bodies of their deceased. Before being mummified the bodies were cleansed with a mix of spices. Cinnamon, Cumin and anise oil were all used in the mummification process to prevent decay and putrefaction. The Egyptians also practiced burial rituals for royals which involved literally stuffing the deceased’s nose with pepper, as was proven by the peppercorns found in the nostrils of pharaoh Ramses II.

Catch some shut eye

This one is not so much limited to the ancient world, and many people still look for holistic solutions to insomnia and sleeplessness. Popular holistic solutions include valerian, mint, cinnamon and saffron. Nutmeg in particular is a safe bet to help you get some zs, and you simply need to add a pinch of nutmeg to a glass of warm milk and drink that before you go to sleep. Beware of consuming too much  though, overconsumption (120 mg or more daily) has been known to cause hallucinations, including “Nutmeg psychosis”.  I’m not making this up! 

Beauty and fashion

In the ages before drug store makeup and Instagram filters, ancient civilisation relied on natural ingredients to help them attain physical beauty. Ancient Greeks and Romans consumed cumin believing it would give their skin a fairer complexion, Indian women used ingredients like turmeric and sandalwood for masks, creams, dental hygiene and exfoliation, and Cleopatra took warm baths with a quarter-cup of saffron every day.

Spices also played their part in the ancient world of fashion before synthetic dyes were invented. Historically dyes were ‘extracted’ from the natural world, including spices like turmeric which gives vibrant results with its strong, yellow hue. Saffron imparted a deep orangey-red colour and other herbs and spices used for dyeing fabric include sumac berries (brown) lavender (pink) and bay leaves (yellow).

It’s getting hot in here

Spices are still associated with fertility and arousal but in the ancient world they were practically worshipped for their believed assistance in the boudoir. The “Kama Sutra” mentions spices like nutmeg, cloves, galangal, cardamon and ginger, while the Romans  loved cinnamon and pepper before a big night and the court of Louis XV used to mix raw egg yolks and ginger.

Herbs and spices like basil, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper, saffron, and vanilla were forbidden during medieval times because they were believed to be used in love potions, and the muhtasib of Seville once tried to prohibit the sale of spices within the proximity of religious spaces for fear of immorality.