“Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing (hu)mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.”
Honey: drizzled over layers of flaky pastry in a baklava, stirred into a soothing cup of herbal tea, enjoyed over hot buttered biscuits, or mixed into barbeque sauce, the sweetness of honey is a pure culinary delight. Whether it’s Florida’s famous Tupelo honey, the Lavender honey of Provence, New Zealand’s manuka (tea tree) honey, Australia’s eucalyptus honey, or one of the many other varieties, this sweet treat is enjoyed all over the world.
Honey hasn’t always been used as a simple sweetener, though. As this hidden history reveals, honey has been used in a variety of surprising ways.
Honeybees have been serving humans since prehistoric times. A painting on the wall of a cave in Spain, dated at between 7,000 and 15,000 years old, shows a woman gathering wild honey from a tree. By the time of the great ancient civilizations, honey was an established favorite. The ancient Egyptians so prized honey, the honeybee became a symbol of the pharaoh. Bees were considered the tears of the god Re. Honey was an important part of the sacrifices the Egyptians made to their gods, and some paid their taxes in honey. The Egyptians used beeswax for embalming mummies and for making cosmetics and paint. They applied honey to wounds, burns, or ulcers to help them heal.
In fact, the practice of applying honey to a wound to help it heal persisted into the twentieth century, when antibiotics were discovered and became more common. As late as the First World War, the Russian army was using dressings soaked in honey for field wounds. There is a scientifically studied value behind this practice: honey contains hydrogen peroxide, which is an effective antibacterial substance. Honey also seals a wound from further infection, giving the skin a chance to regenerate. Studies suggest scarring can be minimized by using honey to dress a wound. In more recent times, honey has even been used to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
The ancient Egyptians also began the custom of drinking honey-based beverages for one month to celebrate a wedding. This spread to other cultures, and is the basis of the word “honeymoon.”
To the ancient Greeks, honey was a popular food, used in preparing everything from hams to peacock. They made cheesecakes with honey and goat milk. Honey featured in Greek mythology; they believed it was the food given to Zeus by his nursemaids after his mother Rhea secretly gave birth to him. A mixture of milk, honey and nectar was ambrosia, the food of the gods. Later in his life, Zeus used honey to make his father, Cronus, sleepy while Zeus rescued his siblings from their father. The Greeks worshipped Aristaeus as the god of bees and beekeepers, and said that the god Dionysus drank mead (a fermented honey beverage) before discovering the grape crop for winemaking.
Like the Egyptians, the Greeks considered honey a medicine. Hippocrates, in the first century B.C.E., used honey-based cures for everything from sweating to breathing difficulties and fevers. There is even a legend that after Hippocrates died, a swarm of honeybees made their hive in his sepulchre, and the honey was used to cure children who weren’t otherwise helped by medicine.
Democritus, a contemporary of Hippocrates, thought a diet including honey led to a longer life. Two centuries later, Dioscorides prescribed honey for coughs and for poisoning by toadstools, snakes or rabid dogs. Of course, honey is a common folk remedy for sore throats even today, and is used in commercially prepared lozenges. One study showed a spoonful of honey to be as effective as a spoonful of cough suppressant syrup in quieting children’s coughs. Please note, though, that honey should never be given to anyone under one year old. Honey sometimes contains traces of the bacteria that cause botulism, and on rare occasions infants have become ill from eating it. These bacterial spores are harmless to the more-developed digestive tracts of adults and older children.
The Persian physician Al-Razi liked honey and vinegar as a remedy for skin conditions, but also for gum disease. This, too, has some basis in science. For years it has been a folk belief that honey is not as harmful to the teeth as cane sugar. Recent studies have suggested the natural antibacterial properties of honey help it halt the growth of bacteria in the mouth. It may even help prevent gingivitis. New Zealand’s manuka honey is thought to be especially effective for this purpose.
The ancient Romans prescribed it, ironically, as both a laxative and to cure diarrhea. The Romans also believed in honey for beauty: Poppea, the wife of the Emperor Nero, is said to have used honey and asses’ milk to keep her skin young-looking, a treatment also supposedly used by Cleopatra. Honey, when combined with milk, which contains alpha hydroxy acids, does naturally encourage the removal of dead skin cells, so this may have a basis in fact.
The tradition of using honey as a beauty aide has continued through the centuries, and is common in many cultures. In China, women use honey mixed with ground orange seeds to fight blemishes. In Japan, honey is used in hand lotions to keep the skin soft. Madame du Barry, the mistress of France’s King Louis XV, used honey as a facial mask. Queen Anne of England used honey mixed with olive oil to keep her hair healthy and shiny.
Native to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the honeybee arrived in the Americas in the 16th century, brought to the west coast by Spanish missionaries. The descendants of these bees developed into the varieties of stingless bees prized by the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas. To the gold-based Inca civilization, the gold color of honey made it almost sacred. The Maya developed a particularly strong type of mead from their honey.
Even today, honey is used in cosmetics. You only have to look at the popular Burt’s Bees lip balm and other products to realize this, but there are many more beauty treatments with honey in use today. Because it naturally attracts and traps moisture, honey is an ideal ingredient for moisturizers. (For this same reason, some bakers prefer honey over sugar in their recipes to keep their baked goods moist.) Some of these beauty treatments can even be made at home. Christopher Watt, a licensed aesthetician whose clients include Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez, uses honey in many of his face, body and hair treatments using only fresh ingredients.
As if its strange and storied history weren’t enough, honey production also makes a huge contribution to the world’s food supply. Honeybees pollinate up to 80% of the world’s fruits and vegetables, yet another reason for us to thank the mythically industrious insect, the honeybee.
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Guest author Erin E. Schmidt has written for magazines including True Love, The Saturday Evening Post & The Almanac For Farmers and City Folk. She’s the author of The Magical Girls’ Guide to Womanhood and can be found online at http://erineschmidtsmith.com.
Charlton, Jane, and Jane Newdick. A Taste of Honey: Honey for Health, Beauty, and Cooking. Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, 1995.
Fleetwood, Jenni. Honey. London: Hermes House, 2008.
Hajar, Rachel. “Honey From Folklore to Medical Marvel?” Heart Views. http://www.hmc.org.qa/hmc/heartviews/H-V-v3%20N4/9.htm#Honey in mythology and religion. Accessed on Feb. 9, 2010.
National Honey Board, The. Honey for Health and Beauty. Hatherleigh Press, 2009.
“The History of Honey,” undated. http://www.health-benefits-of-honey.com/historyofhoney.html. Accessed on Feb. 9, 2010.