We take so much for granted these days. Almost every household cupboard has ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks in them. Mass produced cinnamon is cheap and readily available at almost every market and even higher quality cinnamon sticks from the far reaches of the globe are accessible and relatively affordable via the internet. In times past, however, spices were rare and expensive and significant portions of household income were spent on them for their medicinal and nutritive qualities and well as for the maintenance of one’s social standing through conspicuous spice use.
For Greeks, Egyptians, and others in the ancient world, spices came from far-away places. The men who gathered them risked their lives to do so, and their bravery was compensated for by high demand and high price for their sometimes intermittent supply of spice. As early as the 5th Century BCE, Herodotus wrote in his Histories that the “Arabians” obtained cassia by traveling to the shores of a great lake and gathering cassia on the shores. However, the shores were patrolled by a huge bat-like, winged creatures which screeched horribly and attacked the spice gatherers. To protect themselves from the creatures, the spice gatherers covered their bodies and their faces with the hides of oxen and other skins leaving only holes for the eyes. Dangerous and hot work – to harvest a rare bark.
Another legend related by Herodotus is that cinnamon came from the land of Bacchus. Great birds were said to collect branches of cinnamon and make their nests with it. The nests were constructions dappled with mud and affixed to sheer cliff faces. Still more wonderful was the mode in which they collected the cinnamon. The “Arabians” cut meat and joints from their beasts of burden such as oxen and asses and place near the nests to lure the birds from their nests. Herodotus tells us that the cinnamon gatherers withdrew to a distance and allowed the birds to swoop down and seize pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests. The nests, not being able to support the weight broke off and fell to the ground, whereupon the Arabians returned and collected the cinnamon for sale abroad.
Legends like these abounded for centuries. In the 4th Century BCE, Theophrastus tells us in his Enquiry into Plants ( IX v. 1-6) that cinnamon and cassia came from bushes with many branches that grew in deep glens and that in these there are numerous snakes which have a deadly bite which guarded the bushes. The men who harvested the bark and branches protected their hands and feet from the snakes and when they were through they left one portion of the harvest behind for the sun in gratitude for being spared from the snakes. The portion left for the sun was said to ignite spontaneously and perfume the air with a sweet incense as the gatherers departed the glens.
Still other legends tell of flying snakes guarding cinnamon trees and gatherers having to burn noxious incense to chase the snakes away and gather the bark in safety.
The wonderful thing about all these legends is that they are not just accidental tales from the active imaginations of traders and travelers. They are deliberate attempts to drive the price of commodities as high as possible by making the collection of cinnamon and cassia sound very dangerous and difficult to do.
An interesting aside is that what we call cinnamon (which is either true cinnamon or cassia or a blend of the two spices) is not what traders and merchants in the ancient world would have considered cinnamon. Long ago, cinnamon was thought to be the whole branch – wood and inner and outer bark – with the delicate newer growth considered of higher quality than the wood and bark close to the roots of the tree. The bark devoid of inner wood was called by another name (often cassia). Eventually, the whole branch fell out of commercial trade and the bark only became known as cinnamon.
Today, a number of different species of Cinnamomum tree are cultivated and sold as cinnamon. There is Cinnamomum verum – the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka that cultivates only the inner bark and was traded along the early silk road; C. burmanni which is Indondesian cinnamon; C. loureiroi or Saigon cinnamon and lastly, C. aromaticum or Chinese cinnamon which uses all layers of bark and has a more harsh flavor than Ceylonese cinnamon. Medicinal cinnamon is the “true cinnamon” from Sri Lanka, not cassia from China and Southeast Asia which can have hepatotoxic effects when taken in medicinal doses.
So next time you use cinnamon or cassia to flavor a sweet treat or to make a savory Asian curry or stew, think on the dark and dangerous (and fictional) tales of the ancients who gathered these spices along the silk road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Plate of Cinnamomum varum Kohler, and Photo of Cinnamon sticks from Wikimedia)