Basil is often referred to as the King of Herbs, and it’s ubiquitous everywhere today. It’s tender leaves, anise-like flavour and strong pungent aroma make it a favourite for chefs. Its history is quite a story though. Read on to find out how this herb became “the King.”
Originally from Central Asia, basil spread through the ancient spice routes to the Far East, Europe and the Middle East. It is documented in Ancient Egypt as long as 2000 BCE where it was used as an embalming herb along with myrrh and incense. It was also used as an offering to the gods because of its divine aroma. Its blossoms were scattered on tombs in Ancient Egypt as it was believed it helped opened the gates to heaven according to some Egyptologists. The association with death is not exclusive to Egypt however. It was planted on graves in Ancient Persia, Malaysia and Greece. Even today it is used on the altars of orthodox Greek churches.
In India, where its’ believed to have first grown (as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan) it is placed in the hands of the dead to endure safe passage to the next world as well as being planted around courtyards and temples.
In Jewish culture, basil was regarded as a strength giver and was held in the hand when fasting.
In Haiti, it is regarded as a strong protector, linked to the goddess Erzulie, which has an equivalent role as Venus or Aphrodite in Roman and Greek mythology.
In Mexico, basil is used as a protector for homes and is carried as a lucky charm.
Basil has had its bad press over the years too. In the 16th Century, some English doctors, whilst visiting Italy, believed that if you inhaled the aroma of Basil you would be subject to a scorpion invasion of the brain. As ridiculous as this sounds now, the idea came from an observation that if basil was left under a wet stone, scorpions would appear in there. I’m glad that we have doctors who use more scientific methods today. This didn’t stop a physician of the time documenting a scorpion infestation of the brain.
In the 17th Century, women would refuse to eat from any dish if a basil leaf had been placed under it. There is no explanation for this bizarre craze
By the 16th Century, Basil had reached England and the mythology surrounding the herb continued with Lord Bacon in his book natural history where he comes to the conclusion that if exposed to too much sun, Basil would transform into Thyme.
From England, Basil made its way to their North American colonies. With this and the Spanish Conquistadores colonising the rest of eth Americas, Basil became a global herb.
Today basil is enjoyed all around the world and under EU law, Pizza Neapolitana is a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish and basil is one of the key ingredients. Not bad for a herb that’s enjoyed a mixed reception over the years.