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Long before the advent of agriculture and even before the written word, onions provided people around the world with nourishment, hydration and, as we now know, happy microbiomes. Easy to grow, store and transport, hungry wanderers can also quickly sniff out a ripe onion in the wild. They even make excellent training tools for novice cooks. Chef and nutrition coach Shannon Llewellyn recalls chopping endless onions in her culinary school days. “They were the cheapest, easiest way to practice all the necessary knife cuts,” she says. “Overachievers like myself made confits, jams, and pressed the juices out for broths and pasta waters.”
Today, we tend to take this underrated vegetable for granted. Yet the onion’s reliability and long-lasting, pungent flavor made it the center of myth and superstition for past civilizations. Here just are some of the ways in which people have honored – or vilified – onions throughout history.
The Western Mono: Onions helped fill the cosmos
An ancient legend of the Western Mono, whose ancestral lands run along the Sierra Nevada mountain range in present-day California, tells of a group of six wives who found and ate some pungent wild onions. Their annoyed husbands, put off by onion breath, threw the women out of their homes. Eventually, the lonely husbands went searching for their wives. But the women had already wandered into the sky to eat in peace, becoming what’s known today as the Pleiades cluster.
This legend is one of many denouncing the lingering sulfur chemicals of the onion family which, when sliced or crushed, quickly attach to skin and hair while sending a weak form of sulfuric acid into our eyes, causing them to water.
Ancient Egypt: Emblems of the universe
The many layers of the onion represented the circles of heaven, earth and hell to ancient Egyptians, who placed this vegetable among the dead to accompany their souls into the afterlife. A frequent tomb motif is one of priests blessing onions and laying its leaves and roots at an altar. However, religious leaders of the day were also wary of the onion’s power to incite desire and arousal; they avoided eating the vegetable themselves.
Ancient China: A link to the underworld
Spring onions have been a mainstay in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years. In ancient times, these vegetables were thought to connect the human world to malevolent demons in the underworld. But instead of avoiding them, people harnessed their powers. They hung them above their doors to ward away evil and consumed them to avoid illness.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners recommend raw onions to this day for weakened immune systems. And there’s nutritional data to back up this practice. Onions are rich in vitamin C, which can be beneficial for your immunity, and selenium, a mineral that helps stimulate the immune system’s function and response.
Ancient Greece: An Olympic superfood
The Olympics of ancient times were far fiercer than today’s tightly regulated events. To give athletes added strength and courage they were fed large quantities of onions throughout their training regimen. And that included raw onion juice to quench their thirst (when they weren’t drinking wine). And just before competing, athletes massaged the veggie all over their bodies for added resilience.
Modern studies have shown that ancient Greece was onto something. Onions do have anti-inflammatory qualities, in addition to slowing oxidative damage to cells and protection against heart disease. Thanks to their antioxidant content, onions can combat free radicals and act as a therapeutic agent for other health conditions too.
Ancient Rome: A veg of great value
Onions may have been prized by far-flung allies of the ancient Roman empire, evidenced by a 1,500-year-old burnt one recently found on a remote Swedish island. Archeologists said the vegetable must have been imported as a “unique extra spice” for the island’s fifth-century inhabitants, where Roman coins and golden rings have also been found. Even earlier, Rome’s volatile emperor from the first century, Nero, ate so many leeks to enhance his singing voice he was nicknamed Porrophagus, or “leek eater”, some say derisively behind the tempestuous ruler’s back.
A legend of more recent memory, Shannon Llewellyn recalls this thread of a folk remedy: To cure a cold, tape a thick slice of onion onto the soles of your feet and sleep that way overnight. “It’s not true. Although, you might be cured of your spouse, your dog, and your dignity,” she jokes.
Discover your own ways to put onions to use
Though the onion’s place in history is quite varied, there’s no denying that this enduring veggie has staying power. While its fragrances and its tear-inducing properties might frustrate you, it’s a flavorful and textural powerhouse that can enhance just about any dish.
Whether you’re looking to highlight onions for their nutritional value or want to amp up the flavor of sauces, sautés, roasts or any other recipe, this versatile ingredient has a lot to offer. It can stand out or subtly enhance flavor, offer crunch or even work when pickled.
You can make onion the star of your meal with recipes like our French Onion-Style Beef Vegetable Soup or Broccoli & Spring Onion Mac ‘n’ Cheese. It’s a versatile topping in recipes like our Caramelized Onion & Blue Cheese Burgers or a dressing like our Miso, Sesame & Green Onion Dressing. And if you’re looking to master the basics, learning how to quickly cut an onion is key.