Pyramids, cats, and hieroglyphics, all things associated with ancient Egypt. But there’s one thing you may not have realized played a large role in this past civilization: The onion.
This bulbous veggie may be common in Egyptian dishes today, such as koshary (lentils, pasta, and rice with caramelized onions) or lahma bil basal (beef in onion sauce), but in ancient times the use of onions went far beyond cooking.
Onions in Daily Life
Through archeological and literary evidence, it’s known that ancient Egyptians cultivated onions, leeks, and garlic for cultural and culinary purposes.1 The type of onion grown then is today called the Egyptian walking onion, and it’s a distinct variety that grows long stems and has a sweet, mellow flavor.2
Onions were a staple food for the spring festival of Sham Al Naseem, which translates as “to smell the air,” with traditional accompaniments including salted fish, eggs, and lettuce. These foods were eaten outdoors in picnic-style and also offered to the gods, a practice that continues in Egypt to this day, though with more emphasis on the former.3
Onions even made their way into ancient Egyptian medicine. Onion was applied to venomous snake bites, including that of the black spitting cobra, in the thoughts that it could draw out the venom. Modern science shows they had the right idea using onions, with research suggesting that they can potentially stifle the release of histamines and temporarily slow down the spread of the venom when applied to the bite.4 In less advanced medical practice, the onion was also used in gynecological testing. For women experiencing fertility issues, an onion bulb was placed in the patient’s vagina overnight and if onion could be smelled on her breath in the morning she was considered fertile.5
Onions in Religion and Burial
Onions as offerings are found throughout ancient Egyptian culture, for both the dead and the gods. This seems to have been particularly popular when offering to Sokar, lord of the dead, as the onions are grown underground (in theory near the underworld, Duat) and used in both funerary and rebirth rituals.1 Onions were also common features at yearly festivals honoring the deities Nehebkau, a funerary snake god, and Bastet, a warrior cat goddess.2
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, an ancient religious text written on papyrus during the New Kingdom era, mentions onions quite frequently. Chapter 172 reads “You chew the onion by fear of your heart,” with context implying that eating an onion is part of the solar rebirth process, purifying the individual’s heart.2 This may be why some mummies, the most famous being Ramesses IV6, are found with slices of resin-coated onion in their nostrils, suggesting that they are ceremonially placed to breathe in new life.2 The pungent nature of onions means they were also used to stuff into mummified bodies, as a way to prevent the smell of decay.6
Whether used as the base of a dish, part of a burial ceremony, or as a revered offering, there’s no doubt the humble onion has deep roots in ancient Egyptian culture.
- Simoons, Frederick J. Plants of Life, Plants of Death, 151. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
- Benderitter, Thierry. “Onions and the Festivals of Sokar Nehebkau and Bastet.” Osirisnet. Accessed January 25, 2022. https://www.osirisnet.net/docu/fetes_sokar_nehebkaou_bastet_et_oignons/e_fetes_sokar_nehebkaou_bastet_et_oignons.htm.
- Asante, Molefi Kete. Essay. Culture and Customs of Egypt, 75. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002.
- Wexler, Philip. Toxicology in Antiquity, 73–82. London: Academic Press, 2019.
- Nelson, Gregg S. Essay. Ancient Egyptian Obstetrics & Gynecology. University of Calgary, 2001.
- Abdel-Maksoud, Gomaa, and Abdel-Rahman El-Amin. “A Review on the Materials Used During the Mummification Processes in Ancient Egypt.” Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 11, no. 2 (2011): 129–50.