The widespread popularity of the onion is not limited to modern-day kitchens. There is evidence of onions being used for culinary and medicinal purposes all over the ancient world. No culture revered the onion quite as much as the ancient Egyptians. For them, the onion was not just food or medicine, it held deep spiritual power and purpose.
Evidence of Ancient Egyptian Onions
Onions are depicted in many paintings found inside pyramids and tombs that span the history of ancient Egypt. The paintings show onions being consumed at feasts, as funeral offerings, on altars and in the hands of priests. Various types of onions are shown, from young, green onions to large yellow ones, and both the leaves and the roots were used.
Onions themselves do not leave a large archeological footprint, as they are small and leave little residue after decomposing. But traces of onions have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.
Along with bread and fish, onions were a basic dietary staple for all ancient Egyptians, rich and poor alike. Kitchen gardens were common in most ancient Egyptian households, where vegetables, including onions, were grown year-round to sustain the family. Onions were a very easy vegetable to cultivate, and they had a long shelf life and were easily preserved, making them a food source that ancient Egyptians could always count on.
Onions have antiseptic and antibacterial compounds that many ancient cultures discovered and made use of. The ancient Egyptians used onions for medicinal purposes, but they likely would have viewed the vegetable's curative power as magical, rather than medical.
One unique use of the onion devised by the ancient Egyptians is in a test for pregnancy.
A woman would insert an onion in her vagina, and if her breath smelled like onions the next day, it would indicate pregnancy. This test has not been replicated in modern times, so its accuracy is unknown.
Ancient Egyptians worshiped onions as symbols of eternal life. The concentric layers of an onion reflected the eternity of existence. The dead were buried with onions and onion flowers on or around various parts of their bodies, and mummies have been found with onions adorning their pelvis, chest, ears, eyes and feet. King Ramses IV was found with onions in his eye sockets. Ancient Egyptians may have seen the healing properties of onions as helpful in the afterlife.
Amy Wilde has worked as a grant developer, copy editor, writing tutor and writer. Based in Portland, Ore., she covers topics related to society, religion and culture. Wilde holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and classical civilization from the University of Toronto.