Though now used in every grandma’s kitchen, cinnamon was once the mystery of the Orient. As with many other spices, the ancient’s curiosity only encouraged the tales surrounding cinnamon. These stories told not just where cinnamon came from or how it was grown, but also how to include it in their everyday lives. From ancient rituals to cure-alls that read more like potions than pharmaceuticals, the mystery of cinnamon wove itself throughout the lives of our ancestors.
The earliest uses of cinnamon are in religious ceremonies. In the Bible, God commands Moses to anoint the Tabernacle with oil infused with cinnamon. The bark decorated the temples of Peace and of the Capitol built in ancient Rome. The Greeks also burned it for incense in both the temples and their homes. The Greeks even wrote (made-up) doctrine of (made-up) cinnamon growers. Supposedly, these imaginary parishioners would set a portion of their harvest aside so it could be taken up by their god-sun (see Theophrastus’ works). Eventually, cinnamon moved out of the realm of religious ritual and moved on to folklore. Specifically, medicinal folklore.
Individuals in both the Greek and Roman empires did use cinnamon medicine, though it was an expensive treatment. After the fall of their respective empires, medieval Europe used the spice as a cure all, despite its price. And, like nutmeg and garlic, it guarded against the worst illness to invade Europe–as early as the 700’s, scholars like Saint Benedict Crispus describe a recipe of cloves, pepper and cinnamon which “long serves against the plague.”
Besides the plague, cinnamon was also prescribed for many other ills. Saint Crispus’ plague cure was also used to treat arthritis. Another writer, the Venerable Bede, remarked that both cassia and cinnamon were “very effective in curing disorders of the guts.” This might actually have some basis, according to modern science. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg were all thought to come from the same tree. Consequently, many physicians would prescribe cinnamon either in the same ways or in combination with these other spices. Now, instead of perfuming Roman temples, cinnamon incense was used to focus the mind and increase clairvoyance. However, with the onslaught of the Spice Wars and the increased availability of once-rare spices–and the resulting slump in market value–spice cures, including cinnamon, lost their popularity.
However, the folklore surrounding cinnamon have never quite stopped. Got mumps? Drink cinnamon tea to ease the symptoms. Cinnamon brandy will help cure a cold. These folk-cures and others are still quite popular, especially in the United States. In Illinois, dab a little cinnamon on a wart and it will disappear overnight. Or in Alabama, mix a little with some water to cure a headache. Cinnamon is still a bit of a mystery–even if it is common enough to be eaten with oatmeal.