ONION (Allium cepa): Origin: perhaps native to the Mediterranean region, others suggest central Asia. The ancient Egyptian doctors used onions to determine whether or not women patients were fertile: an onion was inserted, vaginally, and left over night. If in the morning the woman’s breath smelled of onion, she was considered fertile; if onion odor could not be detected, she was considered infertile. The ancient Greeks believed that onions provided strength to soldiers hence they were frequently fed to the troops of Alexander the Great. Onion juice has been used to cure earache.
The Gerarde herbal identifies onions as drying and therefore will make consumers thin; provoke urine. Garlic cause hemorrhoids to bleed. Garlic juice was said to purge the head and to draweth foorth rawe flegmatike humours; when salted and honey added garlic is used to treat the bites of mad dogs; when mixed with a decoction of pennyroyal is useful against gout; when onion juice is applied to bald heads in sunlight this will bring about the renewal of hair. Gerarde also wrote that boiled onions caused headache, hurt the eyes, and reduced vision, and provoketh ouermuch sleepe, especially being eaten rawe.
The Culpeper herbal reports that onions draw corruption from the body and as putrification is drawn to it. He writes that a bruised onion applied to a plague sore will remove the corruption. Onions provoke appetite; increase thirst; ease the belly and bowels; help in the treatment of bites from mad dogs and other venomous creatures. When onions are mixed with honey and rue this will increase seed [sperm]. Onions steeped overnight in drinking water will kill worms in children; when roasted and eaten with honey or sugar and oil [type not identified] this will cure cough and reduce tough phlegm. Onion juice snuffed into the nostrils purges the head and helps cure lethargy. Onions preserve the body against infection especially if eaten with bread and salt. Onion juice may be put to good use for the treatment of body parts that have been scalded or burned by fire or gunpowder. Onions mixed with vinegar may be used to remove blemishes, spots, and marks in the skin. Onion juice dripped into the ears eases pain and noise [i.e. tinnitus]. When mixed with figs and pounded together, this onion mixture ripens imposthumes [abscesses] and other sores. One of Culpeper’s legacies is a medicinal aphorism regarding onion:
For a rheum [watery fluid that drips from the nose or eyes] in the Head, and the Palsy …Take a red Onion, and bruise it well, and boil it in a little Verjuice [sour juice from various fruits], and put thereto a little clarified honey, and a great spoonful of good Mustard, when it is well boiled, raise the sick upright, and let him receive the smell up his nose twice a day, whilst it is very hot.
Traditional Europeans hold that an onion placed under the pillow of a young girl on the eve of St. Thomas, will cause a dream of one’s future spouse:
Good Saint Thomas do me right, and send my true love come to-night,
That I may see him in the face, and him in my kind arms embrace.
Puritans in New England used onions as protection against infection. Onion juice was used in Medieval times as a contraceptive. Europeans and Americans in New England practiced the tradition that onions should be planted at midwinter (December 21st) and harvested on the summer solstice. Other beliefs, however, state that onions should be planted on St. Valentine’s Day.
An American tradition practiced into the last century was: hang a row of onions over your door and they will absorb all diseases from anyone who enters. Traditions in rural England claim that if onion peelings are buried residents of the house will be free from scarlet fever; a widespread believe that slices of raw onions attract germs and that they will be removed this way from inside the house; onions grown along the entrance of homes protect families from disease; chopped onions stewed in milk use to treat common cold and cough; an onion placed on a bee sting removes the pain; mixtures of onions and sugar stirred in water used to cure whooping cough; raw onion rubbed on the head cures baldness; if you carry an onion in one’s pocket, you will not have rheumatism; small hot onions inserted into the ears of children suffering from earache; applications of boiled onions used to treat hemorrhoids. To dream of eating onions means much strife within the household. An old English proverb adage links the thickness of onion skin with weather forecasting:
Onion’s skin very thin,
Mild winter’s coming in;
Onion’s skin thick and tough,
Coming winter cold and rough.
A 19th century tradition from Massachusetts held that if the heard of a roasted onion was inserted into the ear, this would cure earache. Another Massachusetts tradition was to hang a row of onions over the entrance door to the house as they absorb the diseases of any one who enter. These “absorbing” onions, however, never could be consumed.
(Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 133-135; Culpeper, 1653, pp. 180, and p. 395; Bergen, 1899, p. 114; Thiselton-Dyer, 1889, p. 119; Skinner, 1911, pp. 204-205; Vickery, 1995, pp. 265-268; Grivetti, 2004, p. 97).