Honey – Elixir of Gods
It is during such search that I discovered the medicinal properties of the ancient superfood – honey. Yes, honey – the humble ingredient present in every Indian household. Used today mostly as an additive to our nimbu pani or as a spread on a roti roll or a salad dressing, honey has therapeutic qualities which many of us may not be aware of. This led me to trace the beginnings of the healing food. How and when was honey discovered? Since how many years has mankind been using it? Was it used in India only or all over the world? And it led to some startling discoveries!
Although there is evidence of wild honey-seeking by humans as far back as 6,000 B.C.E., the earliest records of domesticated beekeeping date to 2450 B.C., on an ancient Egyptians bas-relief.
Modern archaeologists, excavating ancient Egyptian tombs, have often found something unexpected amongst the tombs’ artifacts: pots of honey, thousands of years old, and yet still preserved. Through millennia, the archaeologists discover, the food remains unspoiled, an unmistakable testament to the eternal shelf-life of honey. The secret behind this shelf life is a range of factors. Hydrogen peroxide, acidity and lack of water work together to make this sticky substance last forever.
The earliest recorded use of honey for medicinal purposes comes from Sumerian clay tablets, which state that honey was used in 30 percent of prescriptions. The ancient Egyptians used medicinal honey regularly, for making ointments to treat skin and eye diseases. Honey was used to cover a wound or a burn or a slash because nothing could grow on it – so it was a natural bandage. Honey was so valuable in Egypt at the time that it was used as currency. Marriage vows included a husband’s promise to provide his new wife with honey. There was even a civil service devoted to honey. Min, the fertility god of Egypt, was offered honey. Talk about being revered!
In ancient Greek religion, the food of Zeus and the twelve Gods of Olympus was honey in the form of nectar and ambrosia.
In Hinduism, honey (Madhu) is one of the five elixirs of life (Panchamrita). In temples, honey is poured over the deities in a ritual called Madhu abhisheka. The spiritual and therapeutic use of honey in ancient India is documented in both the Vedas and the Ayurveda texts, which were both composed at least 4,000 years ago.
In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashanah greetings show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the New Year.
In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. According to legend, while he was there a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey's gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.
The Christian New Testament says that John the Baptist lived for a long length of time in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey.
In Islam, an entire chapter (Surah) in the Qur'an is called an-Nahl (the Bees). According to his teachings (hadith), Muhammad strongly recommended honey for healing purposes.
Honey was also cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica. The Mayans used honey from the stingless bee for culinary purposes, and continue to do so today. The Mayans regard the bee as sacred.
Whilst Hippocrates (3rd and 4th centuries BC) made little use of drugs in treatment he prescribed a simple diet, favouring honey given as oxymel (vinegar and honey) for pain, hydromel (water and honey) for ‘thirst’, and a mixture of honey, water and various medicinal substances for acute fevers.
The usage of honey as medicine has continued into present-day folk-medicine. In India, lotus honey is said to be a remedy for eye diseases. The ancient usage of honey for coughs and sore throats has also continued into the traditional medicine of modern times. Honey is also used as traditional therapy for infected leg ulcers in Ghana; as a treatment for earache in Nigeria; as a remedy in Mali for the topical treatment in measles to prevent corneal scarring.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts have used honey as a remedy for many ills ranging from increasing hemoglobin to treating stomach ulcers to insomnia. Recently, scientific support has emerged with a proliferation in publications on the successful therapeutic use of honey in several general medical and surgical conditions.
Honey has been proven to have miraculous healing properties. It has anti-cancer effects through its interference with multiple cell-signaling pathways, such as inducing apoptosis, anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-mutagenic pathways. Research has proven that it also reduces the risk of heart disease being a rich source of phenols and antioxidant compounds. Above all, honey has shown anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects making it an essential nutrient. Its memory enhancing and neuroprotective properties are probably the reason why it was revered as the food of Gods during the primeval period.
Hence, we can see that our humble honey has not so humble beginnings since ancient times. It is through ages that we forgot the healing properties of this superfood. It is time we rediscover the therapeutic properties of honey and incorporate the same into our daily diets.