How spice forever changed our world

Normally, we don’t get excited about the colorful powders on the spice rack; they seem too ordinary. But the words spice and special are sisters of the same parent, Latin species. Their unmistakable fragrances and exotic origins (bark, root, bud) make spices special. So does the way a pinch explodes into enormous effect. Spices were once believed to be divine. The Garden of Eden--rich with perfume -- was their imagined birthplace. Human hunger for their heavenliness was so insatiable, the search for and securing of spices actually changed the world more profoundly than any event in history. They came from trees and rhizomes in the Far East, and for millennia, their trade belonged to Arabs who tirelessly sailed the Indian Ocean, eventually bringing Islam to south India, Malaysia and Indonesia. (In Genesis Joseph’s brothers sell him to spice merchants.) Desire to eliminate these Middle Eastern middlemen provoked the European voyages of discovery that found the New World, and led to the conquest of ancient ones: India, China, and Polynesia. Because cloves and nutmeg were worth more than their weight in gold, the Dutch were happy to trade Manhattan Island to the British for the Pacific island of their origin. Yankee colonists became so intent on profiting from the trade, they created speedy clipper ships to gain advantage. The New England merchant Elihu Yale founded the famed eponymous Ivy League university with a fortune made from spices.

Why all the fuss?

Fragrance, potency, scarcity and the secrecy of their origin made spices exceedingly special. They spelled luxury and were believed powerful enough to summon gods. They also smelled luxurious enough to herald the entry of earthly god/monarchs like Caesar. The New Testament says the Wise Men or Magi who visited the infant Jesus were kings of Oriental (i.e. spice) realms so naturally brought as offerings not only gold, but the most sacred spices: frankincense and myrrh. The ancients suspected their extravagant aroma meant sanctity and burned these resins at their altars to please their gods. The “divine” scent of spices uplifted moods and thus appealed to the soul. Their perfume suggested paradise and spiritual transcendence required to reach it. They soothed and cheered. They signaled refinement. In ancient Greece, spiced honeyed wines were featured at Dionysian revelries and in Eleusinian mysteries. Spices were used for sacrificial rites, to ward off the “evil eye”, even in love potions, because their fragrance was so “attractive.” Still today, spiced incense is burned during religious services in Greek Orthodox churches. The holiness of Catholic saints was supposedly proved by their wonderful smell, even as corpses. Catholic masses changed languages, but still include the burning of spiced incense to uplift the spirit and make worshipers feel holy. We still share the same beliefs about the power of spices: they’re the essence of aromatherapy.


You’d never know the zesty nutmeg that enlivens cappuccino and peach pie got to them by a horribly bloodied route. It’s the seed—the nut inside the fruit, of an evergreen tree native to the remote Banda islands in the Pacific Ocean. Once Dutch sailors found them, once the Dutch rulers traded Manhattan Island to the British for their nutmeg island, their determination to monopolize what had become an exceedingly lucrative market, made them massacre all residents. Nutmeg was by then a must-have spice, center of a craze. Originally, Arabs traded it as just another scent, aphrodisiac and medicine, but the Black Death made Europeans hysterical to have it at any price. Desperate survivors believed it would ward off the plague. Actually, fleas—transmitters of the virus-- seem to dislike its smell, so possibly someone perfumed with or chewing on nutmeg might have avoided a fatal bite. Part of its popularity was its mood changing, feel good chemical compounds that can create a slight high. Renaissance apothecaries knew it was an intoxicant, even a hallucinogen in large doses, so it was part of potions used by spiritual oracles. In the appendix to his Naked Lunch, William Burroughs's writes that South American "medicine men" snorted powdered nutmeg to "go into convulsive states. Their twitchings and mutterings are thought to have prophetic significance."


Cinnamon is the fragrant bark of a particular laurel tree native to Ceylon and contains compounds that ward off ants and other crawling pests. It can also ward off bacteria, which is why Europeans revered it for proper digestion and Venice grew rich from its trade. In 1,500 BC, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt used ground cinnamon as an aromatic. Prior to embalming, the corpse of Nero’s wife Poppaea was perfumed with a year's import of cinnamon. Supposedly King Solomon’s garments emitted its aroma. Cinnamon was used in Hebrew rituals at the Tabernacle, in Egyptian mummy embalming, as incense in European Churches. Oil extracted from the tree’s leaves and twigs was a crucial component of the Hebrew anointing oil (Exodus: Then the Lord said unto Moses, “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250…), and is praised in Proverbs and Song of Songs as a perfume. (Prov 7:17: I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.) Cinnamon oil is the essential ingredient in candles offered to the archangel Michael, aka St. Michael.