Myth and Mystery: On the Origins of Cinnamon

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Cinnamon is found everywhere in Classical Europe. Despite its expense, it was widely used throughout ancient Rome. Most of their homes burnt incense, including cinnamon, and they would often flavor their wine with the spice. Their neighbors, the Greeks, also used cinnamon incense in their rituals (though they weren’t above using it to treat their inflamed bowels). But despite its widespread use, both the Greeks and Romans had little idea where cinnamon came from. To them, cinnamon’s origins were shrouded in mystery–mystery which was only heightened by the tales classical writers spun about the spice.

In 5 BCE Greece, Herodotus writes on the spice, incorrectly sourcing Arabia as a cinnamon producer:

“Again, Arabia is the most distant to the south of all inhabited countries: and this is the only country which produces frankincense and myrrh and casia [sic] and cinnamon and gum-mastich. All these except myrrh are difficult for the Arabians to get.”

This was of course, incorrect–for many reasons. On a positive note, he differentiates between cassia  and cinnamon–a difference many historians writing far after Herodotus failed to notice. And while Arabia traded in many spices, it did not actually produce cinnamon. And it certainly wasn’t the southernmost inhabited country! Though, considering this is written by the same man who believed that frankincense was guarded by “small winged snakes of varied color”, these are some of his more believable fantasies.

But not all of the ancient writers wrote stories as far-fetched as Herodotus’. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder starts out by calling tales about winged serpents as “evidently invented for the purpose of enhancing the prices of these commodities.” The Roman naturalist also debunks the myth that the smells of the spice greeted Alexander the Great when he reached Arabia. He even differentiates between “Syrian cinnamon” and true cinnamon. Though by the end, even he starts to spin a few tales of his own.

Pliny writes: “For cinnamomum, or cinnamum, [sic] which is the same thing grows in the country of the [Ethiopians] which is linked in marriage with the Trogodytae [Cave-Dwellers]….These last, after buying it of their neighbors, carry it over vast tracts of sea, upon rafts, which are neither steered by rudder, nor drawn or impelled by oars or sails, indeed no motive power at all but man alone and his courage….They say that their traders take almost five years there and back, and many die.”

Unlike Herodutus, there is a lot of truth in Pliny’s tall tale. He mentions Ocilia as a stop for these superhuman sailors, a real harbour in Yemen for those crossing the Indian Ocean. And the “Trogodytae”? Most likely he is referring to the coastal Indians (not Africans) who were also known as “cave-dwellers.” From here, he made the natural leap to call the similarly landlocked portion of India “Ethiopia”. So while the geography is confusing to later readers, he likely did know cinnamon was grown in India, then exported out through the Indian Ocean and into the Middle East. And even if the hardships of the journey were slightly exaggerated, it was an easier pill to swallow than flying snakes.

There are other classical writers who give their opinions on cinnamon. Theophrastus and Agatharchides both shared Heroutus’ opinion that cinnamon came from Arabia. Geographer Strabo spoke of the “Cinnamon Country” which lies “3000 stadia south of Meroe, and 8800 (north) of the equator.” It lay on roughly the same latitude as the Arabian Gulf, but in India, “where they hunt elephants”. Going further than Pliny, Strabo hints at the possible Far East origins of the spice. His geography arguably hints at the existence of Saigon or Indonesian cinnamon. Whether or not they were right, these ancient writers had little sway over their audience. Cinnamon’s mystery (and value) increased as people heard and believed in tales of how it was plucked by phoenixes or carried by magic rafts. And any attempts to curb these stories fell on deaf ears.