Spices through the years

Spices Through the Ages I: From Warding Off Evil Spirits to the Art of Embalming

It's undeniable that spices products were a lucrative commodity for thousands of years. The flavor it brings to any dish is so irresistible that people in ancient times are willing to go to great lengths to get them. Aside from enhancing food and the notably medicinal properties it gives, the use of spices went beyond what we can imagine today. Here are some of the interesting uses of spices in ancient times.


skull with rotten apples
Evil spirits are everywhere. Photo by Aphiwat Chuangchoem. 

Nobody wants to have Evil spirits around. Thanks to spices our ancient folks were able to get rid of them and how they use them was amazing. In ancient Egypt, it was believed that the deceased had to pass through a series of trials and obstacles in order to reach the afterlife.  

incense using spices and herbs
Mixed herbs and spices used as incense. Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva. 

One of these obstacles was the "Demon of Putrefaction," who was believed to be a malevolent spirit that could cause the body to decay before it had a chance to reach the afterlife. To ward off this evil spirit, the ancient Egyptians used a mixture of spices and resins, including myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon. Garlic and Frankincense were worn as an amulet or carried as a talisman to cast away evil spirits and protect against diseases. They were also used to purify spaces and were believed to remove negative energy too.  

Ginger - one of the spices used for spiritual rituals against evil spirits. Photo by Karolina Grabowska. 

In the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, spices such as ginger, garlic, and cumin are used in spiritual rituals and are believed to have protective and purifying properties. In Ghana, the Ga people use ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg in rituals to ward off evil spirits and promote healing. In the Ivory Coast, the "Baoulé" people use turmeric and ginger in spiritual rituals to protect against negative energy. Most tribes use these spices by burning them and using it as incense, wearing them as amulets, or, combining them with other herbs to cast evil spirits away and for protection.

hanging red chili peppers
Red Chili Peppers are also found in South America. Not just a flavor enhancer but were also used for purification and warding off spirits. Photo by Karolina Grabowska.

The Aztecs hung Chili Peppers at homes and other sacred spaces to ward off evil spirits. They were sometimes burned as incense or used in bathwater to purify the body and be safe from the evil lurking anywhere.  


(Anubis can be seen in the center known a jackal-headed deity who presided over the embalming process and accompanied dead kings in the afterworld.)
Anubis can be seen in the center known a jackal-headed deity who presided over the embalming process and accompanied dead kings in the afterworld. Photo by 2H Media.

Who would have thought that the very main ingredient in our cinnamon rolls was used as a preservative in the mummification process during ancient times! The oil extracted from cinnamon bark contains a compound called "Cinnamaldehyde", which has antimicrobial properties that help prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. By adding cinnamon to the embalming mixture, the Egyptians were able to slow down the process of decomposition and preserve the body for eternity. They also used Juniper berries to mask the odor of a decaying body.  

whole cinnamon

Cinnamon is one of the prized spices during ancient times. Photo by June Andrei George. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans used Frankincense and Myrtle before the embalming process. Rosemary was added too to avoid the unpleasant smell of the decaying body. Spices and herbs were often combined with various oils and resins to create a mixture that was used to preserve the body of the deceased. The exact recipe for the embalming mixture varied depending on the time period and location, and was often kept secret by the embalmers.  


Cassia is closely related to cinnamon, but has a slightly stronger and more pungent flavor. It is commonly used in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Photo by 41330.

Other herbs and spices that were used in the embalming process in ancient times included cinnamon, cassia, myrrh, and lavender. These were often combined with oils or resins and applied to the body as part of the embalming process. Some of these substances were also used as anointing oils during funerary rites and were believed to have spiritual or symbolic significance. 


Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan city located in the Andes Mountains of Peru. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the world and is a popular tourist destination. Photo by Mike van Schoonderwalt

The Incas of South America used a mixture of various herbs, including coca leaves and muña, to preserve the bodies of their leaders. They also used aromatics, such as copal resin, for the preservation of the body. 

Mixed spices
Mixed Spices. Photo by Kim van Vuuren.

In conclusion, the uses of spices in ancient times were not limited to just flavoring food. Spices were highly valued for their medicinal, spiritual, and cultural significance. Today, we may take spices for granted, but their importance in human history cannot be denied. So, the next time you sprinkle some cinnamon on your morning oatmeal recipe or add a pinch of turmeric to your curry, remember the rich and surprising history behind these humble spices. 

Keep an eye for the second part of the interesting facts about the uses of Spices in ancient times. Any insights for this blog? Share them in the comments! 







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