Mallika Venkatramani takes us through the history of honey – a natural sweetener whose popularity has stood the test of time.

What lasts forever and never goes foul? Love? While that may be true, the correct answer to that question is honey! While most of us know that honey is great in smoothies, porridge and for relieving sore throats, we are learning more and more about this superfood as time goes by. This humble liquid has stood the test of time as one of the most crucial substances to humankind and we will see the various roles it has played over the millennia.

‘I take Thee to wife…and promise to deliver to Thee yearly twelve jars of honey,’ stated one marriage contract of a groom in Ancient Egypt to his wife-to-be. It could have been that she was a huge fan of honey but the real reason for the gift was that honey was once a treasured and revered substance, signifying sweetness and eternity. In Ancient Egypt, honey was used as a medicinal substance for preventing miscarriages and for the healing of surgical wounds. It was also of spiritual significance, an important oblation that was offered to the gods. Ramses III, a pharaoh, was said to have offered 21, 000 jars of honey to Hapi, the Nile god. Honey was also an indispensable beauty product– Cleopatra’s most famous beauty secret was her milk and honey bath, a technique used in different forms by many women today.

In ancient China, honey was considered neither yin (cooling) nor yang (heating) – a neutral substance that had a neat balance of heating and cooling properties. It was regarded an effective medicine and was used in wine by the royals. Li Shizhen, the author of the classic Chinese traditional medicine book Compendium of Materia Medica, believed that the regular consumption of honey led to clear vision and rosy cheeks. Versatile indeed!

Similarly, in Ancient India, honey has been elaborated in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine system) as a medicinal food item used in healing various diseases, from diabetes to worm infestation. It was, and still is, used in religious ceremonies and marriages as part of various rituals. Interestingly, the Kamasutra, an ancient Hindu text on the art of love and passion, lists honey as an important aphrodisiac!

Ireland also has a long history with honey. Mead, a type of wine sweetened with honey, is a traditional Irish treat. Honey existed in abundant supply in Ireland due to the large number of bees that scoured the vast lands of orchards and woods. Early Irish people designed special laws, the Bech Bretha, exclusively for the protection of bees. Stealing a hive was even punishable by death! Other laws stated that if one was stung by a bee and did not retaliate, he or she would be treated to a honey meal from the beekeeper as compensation! Beekeeping was an important activity that both the clergy and common people alike were involved in.

Today, the honey remains an important product. It is widely incorporated in meals due to its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and immune-boosting properties. Many opt for honey as their preferred sweetener.  Like in Cleopatra’s time, it is still used as a natural face and hair mask, due to its humectant and nourishing properties. Singers use warm honey tea to soothe their voices and it is commonly used as a cold and cough remedy. Unfortunately, bees in many parts of the world do not have the level of access to trees and orchards as they did a century ago, due to deforestation and environmental degradation. Bees manufacture honey and they are the most important pollinators in the environmental world. Without bees, numerous ecosystems would collapse. Bees and honey are important assets to humankind and we ought to cherish them, they have been an important part of our history and continue to play important roles in our lives today.

Mallika Venkatramani – LifeStyle Writer