Therapeutic uses of basil, coriander and mint in ancient times
Herbs of the gods. This is how ancient people regarded some of today’s most commonly used spices. Nowadays we use them mainly to flavour our food and to a much lesser extent for their healing properties, but in ancient Greece and Rome things were different. Spices were associated with magic, rituals, and religion, as ancient people imagined their gods as pleasant-smelling deities. Since basil, coriander and mint are among the most popular herbs we use today, we invite you to discover the healing powers with which ancient people credited them.
While they often referred to basil as the devil’s plant, ancient Greeks also considered it a sort of elixir of love. In certain regions of Italy, basil is still a symbol of love, a significance it has in our country as well, as a result to well-known superstitions related to it.
Nevertheless, apart from connotations of all kinds, in ancient times basil was also used for its healing qualities, although many people considered it to have harmful effects. According to Pliny, some of the Greek botanists believed that basil not only affected the stomach, the liver, and the eyes, but it could even lead to insanity.
The Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides, on the other hand, advocated its beneficial properties and used it as a remedy against intestinal parasites, wasp stings, dandruff, and toothaches. Pliny is another scientist who discovered many of the therapeutic uses of basil. For instance, when mixed with vinegar and inhaled, it is helpful in fainting fits; when combined with rose essential oil and vinegar, it is helpful in treating fatigue, inflammations and headaches. Not to mention that basil was used as an aphrodisiac as well.
Coriander has been used as a spice and an aromatic stimulant since time immemorial. Hippocrates and other Greek physicians included it quite frequently in their prescriptions.
Dioscorides, the same pharmacologist who revealed many of the beneficial effects of basil, tells us how coriander was used in the treatment of certain diseases. To begin with, it had calming effects when mixed with bread or mush and applied on skin rashes or taken as a remedy against gastric ulcers.
Another recipe consisted in mixing coriander seeds with raisin wine, a mixture that helped people get rid of intestinal parasites. Moreover, coriander was used as an antidote against reptile venom and it was also recommended as a remedy against malaria (the treatment consisting in three coriander seeds).
Indeed, the active ingredient of this spice, which is essential oil, is found in its seeds (one seed contains 1% essential oil).
Ancient Greeks and Romans held all these herbs in high esteem not only for their curative value, but also for their refreshing flavour.
Consequently, we should not be surprised to find out that ancient people used mint to flavour the water they bathed in or as an effective inhalant in fainting spells. A common practice in Athens was to apply a different scent on each body part, and mint was used especially for the arms.
According to Pliny, the smell of mint alone is enough to refresh our spirit and to add savour to our food. Both Greeks and Romans used it to make garlands for their banquets, to purify their dishes and to season their sauces and wines. On the other hand, Hippocrates believed that too much mint could cause impotence.
This plant, however, was also renowned for its multiple benefits and used as such in treating injuries, spasms, lung diseases, headaches, and eye infections. Furthermore, if someone had to drink water from a dubious source, adding crushed peppermint leaves to the water made it safe to drink.
At the time, people who had dandruff used to pour on their heads a mixture of vinegar and powdered mint and then dry their hair in the sun.
Currently there are seven species of naturally occurring mint in the Mediterranean area, in addition to numberless hybrids. Scented oils are extracted through distillation from all of these species.
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