The History of Thyme (Plus Uses of Thyme)
Thyme is a beloved herb for many human beings on planet earth. This is as true today as it has been throughout history. Thyme is a perennial evergreen plant that weaves its way throughout our stories and rituals. It has shaped our lives in ways we may not even realize. Whether you are using thyme in recipes, teas, using it as an antidote, or as a preventative health practice, you are part of a long lineage of folk knowledge, herbal medicine, and culinary tradition.
While time itself is native to no single location as it is a “nonspatial continuum measured in terms of events,” thyme, the plant, is a bit easier to pin down. It is native to Eurasia and now cultivated all over the world. People use thyme as a herbal addition to poultry, fish, stuffing, eggs, soups, pasta, etc. Thyme belongs to the Lamiaceae, also known as mint, family. This means it is also related to oregano. The species of thyme most often used for these purposes is Thymus vulgaris. There is a wide variety of species, however, some of which are fragrant ground covers. Their scent wafts around as your feet brush past their leaves. Creeping thyme is a popular ornamental addition to gardens for this very reason.
In The Beginning
The use of thyme stretches all the way back to the beginning of written records. The earliest example we know of is dated back to ancient Sumeria – over 3,000 years ago. The author of this script noted that thyme was an antiseptic. From that, we can imply that regardless of whether or not our ancient ancestors were using thyme to spice their poultry, they were at least aware of this herb’s medicinal power.
Ancient Egypt – 3100 to 332 BCE
Historians of antiquity believe that the Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming. Due to thyme’s high thymol content, it kills bacteria and fungus and would have been a helpful agent for this process. Practitioners of this ritual also most likely incorporated thyme for its scent. Most people wouldn’t associate perfumery and the mummification process together, but they go hand-in-hand. The ancient Egyptians equated scent with holiness and denoted status. Bodies were cleaned out of organs and then stuffed with spices like cinnamon, lavender, and thyme to combat the odor of decomposition. Tasty stuff, huh?
The Romans – 700 BCE to 476 CE
In the Roman era, folk wisdom strongly associated thyme with courage. Soldiers would exchange thyme as a sign of respect. Religious leaders would burn thyme in their temples, while ordinary folks did the same in their homes in order to purify the space and instill a feeling of strength and bravery. Smelling burning thyme would evoke a feeling of courage for many people.
In this period of history, people also believed that thyme had strong protective qualities. People ate thyme before and after meals to protect from poison. Other times, individuals would take warm baths steeped in thyme to stop the effects of poison after accidentally consuming it. Unsurprisingly, it was a popular herb among emperors and politicians.
The Middle Ages of Europe – 400 CE to 1492 CE
Thyme’s association with strength and courage endured into the middle ages as well. The herb was traditionally given to men going to battle and sometimes worn as a badge of honor. Some remnants of ancient Egyptian rituals may have carried over to the medieval folk knowledge as well. While they did not practice the embalming techniques of the ancient Egyptians, people still thought to aid those poor souls in making a transition to the afterlife.
Plagues and pandemics shape our world today, as well as throughout our recorded history. Thyme, unsurprisingly, is part of that ongoing story as well. In 1349 the Black Death ravaged parts of Europe and people turned to thyme for strength, protection, and relief. We now know that thyme is a powerful antiseptic. Thymol, the same chemical compound that provided relief for struggling families in Edinburgh in the middle ages can now be found in items such as mouthwash and hand sanitizer.
If you are having trouble sleeping during this time of global pandemic and social upheaval (I mean, who isn’t) consider giving thyme a try. People of the medieval period also thought that thyme was a sleep aid and helped to ward off nightmares. Can’t hurt to try, right?
The Victorian Era – 1837 to 1901 CE
The Victorian period was one of enchantment for the upper classes of Britain. We know it as a period renowned for its innovation, while also instigating incredible violence against colonized landscapes and indigenous peoples across the globe. In a period where the industrial revolution reshaped our society and railroad tracks lead to the demise of buffalo herds in the American west, thyme came to reflect the fanciful and detached aesthetics of high society. Among the gentile class of Great Britain (the world’s largest empire at the time) believed that patches of creeping thyme, found in the forest, were evidence of a fairy’s footsteps. People would camp beside these patches, hoping for a glimpse of magical fairies.
And Now, Thyme In Our Times
Thyme flourishes around the globe. From a perspective of history and tradition, this makes sense. Some of the most powerful empires in the world valued the herb, and so it is present in the societies we inhabit today. Modern technology and developing scientific understanding have proven much of the folk wisdom around the plant to be true. As our world continues to change in wild ways we never imagined, it can be a comfort to realize that thyme, and other plants that have helped people in various ways, are still with us as allies and teachers in how to care for those around us, and how to connect with where we come from.
Featured image by maxmann via Pixabay