Nutmeg Use in Ancient Culture

Nutmeg was once a rare and pricey flavoring for nobles' food.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

The spicy smell of nutmeg usually evokes memories, often of the holidays and eggnog or other delicacies. Nutmeg, though, has a rich and sometimes bloody history dating back to ancient times. People have used nutmeg for its medicinal qualities; aristocrats also used the rare spice as a flavoring. Nutmeg was even once center stage of brutal politics.

1 Middle East

Arab use of nutmeg as medicine dates back to the first centuries A.D. In a historical text about nutmeg, German botanist Otto Warburg wrote that Arab physicians used the spice for all manner of digestive issues related to the mouth, intestines, liver and spleen. They also used it to lighten freckles and skin blotches. Later, Arab physicians became more specific in using nutmeg medicinally. By the 11th century, they used nutmeg to treat kidney diseases, combat pain and vomiting and to ease lymphatic ailments. Arab traders introduced nutmeg to the Venetians, who brought the prized spice to Europe.

2 Nutmeg in India

The Vedas, or primary religious texts of Hinduism, reference nutmeg from early on. In his 1860 book about nutmeg, German botanist K.F.P. von Martius related the Hindus' use of nutmeg for headache, cold fevers, intestinal weakness, nerve fevers and bad breath. Likewise, the Hindus described the spice as producing warmth and stimulating digestion. Indians have also used nutmeg to relieve coughing and act as a sedative in some cases. Conversely both Indians and Arabs have used nutmeg as an aphrodisiac. Indian cooks traditionally used the spice to flavor their cooking.

3 Middle Ages

For the most part, medieval Europeans used nutmeg for the same medicinal properties as the Arabs and Indians, especially for intestinal ailments. Medieval Europeans also believed it warded off the plague. European aristocrats prized the fragrant spice for its use in cuisine, especially since it could mask food turning rotten at the end of winter. Additionally, they used it as a method of causing abortions. Though its abortifacient effects have been mostly discounted, pregnant women are advised to avoid large doses of nutmeg, which also have hallucinogenic properties. The spice became very popular and very expensive due to its rarity; at the time it only grew on the "Spice Islands," or modern Indonesia.

4 The Dutch

The Dutch used nutmeg as a catalyst for political machinations. Portuguese traders took control of the lucrative spice trade, which included nutmeg, in the late 14th century. They remained in control of the "Spice Islands" until the Dutch ousted them in the early 17th century. To gain a monopoly on the spice trade, the Dutch destroyed all the nutmeg trees on the islands except those on Dutch-controlled plantations. They also drove hundreds of islanders off a cliff to their death. The British eventually founded nutmeg plantations in Grenada and Zanzibar, thus relieving the Dutch stranglehold on the nutmeg trade.

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.