IN ANCIENT THERAPEUTICS
TO SUBDIVIDE the dietetic and medicinal values of honey Tis rather a difficult task. Wholesome food preserves health and likewise prevents or aids the cure of a disease. The advantages attributed to honey as an aliment apply as well to its medicinal properties. The rapid assimilation of invert sugars which honey contains makes it, for instance, a desirable source of quick energy, a practical food and, at the same time, an effective heart stimulant.
The use of honey as an internal and external remedial agent must be much older than the history of medicine itself; it is, beyond doubt, the oldest panacea. While primeval man had to search first and probe the curative effects of the various organic and inorganic substances, honey, the greatest delicacy of Nature within his easy reach, surely could not have escaped his attention very long and he must soon have become convinced of its supreme curative value.
In the most ancient scripts we already find references to honey as a glorified food, an ingredient of favored drinks, a popular medicine and the principal component of liniments and plasters. The oldest mythologies praised the invigorating and health-giving qualities of honey. Many allusions were made to its magic healing power.
Honey is frequently mentioned in the Bible. Solomon in his Proverbs (24:13) advises: "My son, eat thou honey, for it is good." The Jews advocated honey as a producer of wit and intellect; it was supposed to make one "mentally keen." Moses, when exposed in the fields, sucked honey from a pebble (Exod. R. 23:8). The resuscitating and invigorating effects of honey are disclosed in the Bible. Jonathan, the son of Saul, had his eyes enlightened with the aid of honey, after which he had a better understanding of the people than his father had. While Jonathan was passing through the woods during the war against the Philistines, he found honey dripping on the ground; he plunged his spear into it, and ate enough to restore his lost strength. He was, however, sentenced to death because he ate honey on a day of abstinence.
Honey was referred to in most ancient writings as a gift of God. St. Ambrose said: "The fruit of the Bees is desired of all, and is equally sweet to Kings and Beggars and it is not only pleasing but profitable and healthful, it sweetens their mouthes, cures their wounds and convaies remedies to inward Ulcers."
The Koran, the Code of Islam, recommended honey as a wholesome food and excellent medicine. In the XVIth Chapter of the Koran, entitled The Bee, we find: "There proceedeth from their bellies a liquor of various colour, wherein is medicine for men." The "various colour" refers to the diversified colors of honeys. Mohammed pronounced: "Honey is a remedy for all dis-eases." The Prophet ordered the eating of honey not only because it was an exquisite food and an important healing substance but because it brought one good luck. The followers of Islam looked upon honey as a talisman. The Mohammedans, to whom alcoholic fermented drinks were prohibited, drank their water with honey, which habit still prevails among the African Mohammedan negroes. Ismael Abulfeda, the thirteenth century historian, relates how Mohammed, on the day after his wedding to Safiya Hoya, a Jewess of Aaron's tribe, celebrated the occasion with a luxurious meal. Among the main delicacies, he mentions honey, dates and cream. When Mohammed reached the seventh heaven he found Christ, Who ordered Archangel Gabriel to offer Mohammed a cup filled with honey. The Mohammedan conception of Paradise was "rivers flowing with honey."
According to a Mohammedan legend, young Abraham (Abu-ram), who lived about 2000 B.C. spent fifteen months in a cave. On Allah's order, he obtained water from his thumb, milk from his index finger, honey from the middle one, date juice from the fourth, and butter from his little finger.
There is a story that a man once went to Mohammed and told him that his brother was afflicted with violent pains in his belly and with diarrhea, upon which the prophet bade him give his brother honey. He heeded the prophet's advice, but soon returned and reported to Mohammed that the medicine had not done his brother any good. Mohammed exclaimed: "Go and give him more honey, for God speaks true, and thy brother's belly lies." The dose being repeated, the man, by God's mercy and the salutary effect of honey, was cured. The Koran repeatedly mentions the technical skill of the bees in producing sweet honey from the bitter juices of plants. Mohammed maintained that medicines administered by physicians are bitter but those given by God are as sweet as honey. (The moderns believe that the more bitter the medicine the better the doctor.) An Arabic writer (Ibn Magih) quotes the words of the Prophet: "Honey is a medicine for the body and the Koran is medicine for the soul; benefit yourselves by the use of the Koran and of honey." The Arabs, before they ate honey, exclaimed: "Bism Allah" (in the name of Allah) or "Allah Akbar" (Allah the greatest). The Arabic name of the bee is nahlat, which means a gift—of course—of Allah, and han means honey. Apparently it was the root of the German "honig" and English "honey." Arabia was the last stepping stone before honey invaded Europe from the East.
Honey must have been abundant in ancient Egypt. The He-brews referred to it as "a land flowing with milk and honey." The Egyptian papyri are full of praise about the curative properties of honey. The Papyrus Ebers especially praised its medicinal value. According to this most ancient source of knowledge, honey was not only a staple commodity but a popular medicine, extensively used internally, and also externally in surgical dressings for burns, ulcers and preeminently for weakness and inflammation of the eyes. Laxative and worm remedies of ancient Egypt without exception contained honey. Milk and honey was their choice for infant feeding. There were only a few medicines in ancient Egypt which did not contain honey. The bee, its producer, occupies a prominent place in all hieroglyphic writings. Most prescriptions of the papyri were taken to Greece and the Greeks introduced them to Europe where they are still used today.
In ancient China honey was used only as a component of diets and as a medicine. The Chinese never utilized honey as a sweetening substance. China is the native land of the sugar cane, and for this reason bees were rarely cultivated. Even today in the interior of China, honey can be obtained only in the old-style medicine shops.
In India, Persia, Arabia, Assyria, Greece and in the Roman Empire, honey was much in demand as a remedial agent for internal and external use. On the entire European Continent it was in popular use, especially among the Slavic and Nordic races. In the Eddas we find that the life of Liafsburg, the mother of Saint Lindgar, was saved with a spoonful of honey.
If we review the therapeutic field in which honey was used by the ancients, we find that its main employment was as a helpful remedy for gastric and intestinal disorders, especially as a pleasant laxative. Respiratory troubles were next in order. The sedative and soporific power of honey is often emphasized. The diuretic effect of honey was well known and it was a favored remedy for all kinds of inflammation of the kidneys, for gravel and stones. The antiseptic property of honey made it a desirable gargle, expectorant and a valuable adjunct in mouth hygiene. In inflammation of the eyes and eyelids honey was extensively used. Attic honey had a special reputation as a curative substance for eye disorders. The Egyptians carried its fame with them to their country. In one of the Egyptian papyri it is mentioned that a man begged that they fetch him some honey from Attica which he needed for his eyes. In surgical dressings and skin diseases it was a remedy of first choice. The smallpox patients were anointed with honey. It was also employed as a vehicle for nauseous or bitter medicines. Lucretius referred to it 2000 years ago:
"Physician-like, who when a bitter draught
Of wormwood is disgusted by a child
To cheat his taste, he brims the nauseous cup
With the sweet lure of honey."
Hippocrates was a great believer in honey. He considered it a very good expectorant. According to Hippocrates, the physical virtues of honey were: "It causes heat, cleans sores and ulcers, softens hard ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores." (Hippocrates alleged that if the seeds of cucumbers and other plants are first soaked in honey and then planted, "the fruit that groweth of them will taste sweeter.") He recommended honey for difficulty in breathing because "it causes spitting." Hippocrates believed that honey "with other things" is nourishing and induces a good complexion but eaten alone it attenuates rather than refreshes because it provokes urine and purges too much. According to the legend (Samuel Purchas, A Theatre of Politicall Flying Insects, 1657, p. 163), a swarm of bees lived for a long time in the sepulcher of Hippocrates, the prince of physicians, and produced honey there. Nurses carried children to the grave and anointed their lips with this magic honey which easily cured them. Dioscorides, the Greek physician (first century A.D.), whose Materia Medica is one of the oldest sources of medical knowledge, often mentions honey as an excellent medicine. He also praises the medicinal value of wax, propolis and honey-wine.
Cornelius Celsus remarked in De Medicina (first half of the first century A.D.) that a physician must heal in a safe, quick and pleasing manner (tuto, cito et jucunde), and all this could be best accomplished with honey.
Galen recommended the mixing of four parts of honey with one part of gall of the sea-tortoise which, when dropped into the eyes, would improve the sight. To quote Marcellus: "The honey pure and neat wherein the Bees are dead, let that drop into the eyes; or honey mixt with the ashes of the heads of Bees, makes the eyes very clear." Pliny also credited honey in which bees have died with the faculty of relieving dullness of sight and hearing. In antiquity, honey had a great reputation in producing clearer vision, which may be the reason for its reputation of endowing the power of divination, improving thus not only the physical but also the spiritual sight. Some historians believe that when Jeroboam sent his wife with a cruse of honey to the prophet Ahijah it was meant as a remedy for the prophet's blindness.
Honey and dead bees were used by Galen for growing hair. "Take Bees dead in combs, and when they are through dry make them into powder, mingle them with the honey in which they died and anoint the parts of the Head that are bald and thin-haired, and you shall see them grow again." The Syriac Book of Medicines recommends a handful of bees roasted in oil as a remedy to turn gray hair black. This ancient book of medical knowledge contains three hundred recipes in which honey is an important ingredient (over fifty of them contain wax).
Celsus recommended raw honey as a laxative and boiled honey as a cure for diarrhea. The reason, he thought, was because "the acrimony is taken away by boyling which wont to move the belly and to diminish the virtue of the food" (Libr. 3 C. 3). Galen recommended boiled and only seldom raw honey but forbids long or too intensive heating because this would make honey bitter. The Hindu physicians assumed that fresh honey was a laxative and honey which was over a year old, an astringent. Pliny burned the bees, mixed their ashes with honey and used the substance for all kinds of ailments: "Powdered bees with milk, wine or honey will surely cure dropsy, dissolve gravel and stones, will open all passages of urine and cure the stopping of the bladder. Bees pounded with honey cure griping of the belly." Muffet also had faith in honey with dead bees. "Honey wherein is found dead Bees is a very wholesome medicine, serving for all diseases." Aelian reported that honey from Pontus cured epilepsy.
Porphyry thought that honey had four excellent qualities: first, it is a nourishing food; second, a good cleanser; third, it has healing power; and fourth, it is pleasant on account of its sweetness. According to Aristoxenus (320 B.C.), anyone who eats honey, spring onions and bread for his daily breakfast will be free from all diseases throughout his lifetime. The ancient Hindus had great faith in the medicinal virtues and magic properties of honey, especially of aged honey. They used it mainly for coughs, pulmonary troubles, gastric and bilious disorders. The famous Arab physicians, such as El Mad joussy and El Basry, all spoke in laudatory terms of the curative power of honey and liberally used it in their professions for a variety of ailments. Arab physicians were reputed to cure tuberculosis with an extract made from the petals of roses and honey. The efficacy of this medicine was recognized for many centuries. Rosed honey is yet an official remedy in most modern pharmacopoeias. Paul of Aegina, Aetius, Oribasius were other honey enthusiasts.
The Koran recommended honey not only as a wholesome food, but as a useful diuretic, a laxative, an excellent remedy for various distempers, particularly those occasioned by phlegm, and also as a substance greatly assisting labor pains.
Norman Douglas decribes in his Paneros the love-philters of antiquity and the value of honey in the preparations of amative elixirs. Besides honey, according to Douglas, the wings of bees have been used.
Honey was an important ingredient of all ancient satyriaca (ad coitum irritantia tentaginem facientia). The ancients had implicit faith in the power of honey to increase strength and virility. (The French consider not only honey but also the sting of the bee a powerful aphrodisiac.) The Hindu novices for priesthood had to abstain from meat, women, perfumes and . . . honey.The ancients believed that people who fared freely on honey became more congenial and affectionate. They considered honey a cure for a sour disposition and bitter feelings. Pliny said: "All acrimony of the mind is pacified with sweet liquers, the spirits are made peaceable, the passages made softer and fitter for transpiration; and they are also good physick for manners." Pythagoras thought that body and soul function in harmony and that no food could be considered beneficial to one without being subservient to the other. He believed, for instance, that music was food for the soul and likewise conducive to good health. David played the harp before King Saul to cure his melancholy.