Aromatic herbs have been part of the Greek culture for thousands of years in the making of medicines, in rituals and in the kitchen. In ancient Greece, medicinal plants were extensively used by rhizotomists, the persons related to therapeutic herb collection and supply.
In Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey (800 BC), 63 plant species from the Minoan, Mycenaean and Egyptian Assyrian pharmacotherapy were referred to. The Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Romans and Arabs also relied on herbalism, which was assimilated into the philosophical principles, traditions and practices of their culture. Consequently, therapeutics developed from being empirical and instinctive to being magical and theocratic. The theocratic viewpoint constituted an element of all ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, until the advent of the Hippocratic School, which was based on observation and experiment. Hippocrates himself (late 5th century BC) mentioned 300-400 medicinal plants, classified by physiological action. He considered them the base of medical science, praised their therapeutic qualities and employed them in his everyday practice. Theophrastus (371-287 BC), Plato’s and Aristotle’s Student, famous philosopher and herbalist, continued Hippocrates’s work and recorded 500 species of Greek herbs, pinpointing the relaxing and empowering properties of various herbal tea flavors. Plant-derived therapeutic oils are mentioned on clay findings of cuneiform writing (2600BC) in Mesopotamia, while about 30 medicinal plants are mentioned in the Bible. In Dioscourides’ work De Materia Medica (1st century AD), herbal medicaments are described, providing the knowledge for most of the later medicinal preparations.
The great empires controlled the medicinal plants’ production and trade for centuries, while in the Middle Ages, their cultivation in abbeys and monasteries facilitated the development of knowledge on their therapeutic properties. During the Ottoman Empire, many Orthodox monasteries established hospitals within their premises, where remedies were prepared from medicinal plants cultivated by the monks. In a monastic script of this period in the island of Cyprus (1571-1878), 494 herbal descriptions and 231 plants belonging to 70 different botanical families were described. In Greece, for centuries, a large part of the native population health problems was encountered by empirical doctors, such as the renowned “Vikoyiatroi” of the Zagori region in Epirus (17th-19th century), who collected and used medicinal plants from the nearby Vikos Canyon. Eventually, with the advancement of modern medicine, traditional remedies were gradually abandoned in the developed world.
Aromatic herbs, however, are nowadays being re-examined, their extracts are thoroughly studied and their properties are revised, in an effort to complement or replace the existing synthetic chemical substances used in the modern food and drug industries. It is estimated that up to four billion people (representing 80% of the world’s population) living in the developing world rely on herbal medicinal products as a primary source of healthcare. In Africa, up to 90% and in India up to 70% of the population in rural areas depend on traditional herbal medicines to meet their health care needs. The use of herbal medicines has also become widely embraced in many developed countries, such as in Europe, North America and Australia. In 2003, the percentage of the population that had used them at least once is 48% in Australia, 70%in Canada, 42% in the United States, 31% in Belgium and 49% in France. In the United States in 2007, about 38% of adults and 12% of children were using some form of traditional medicine. In the European Union alone, it is estimated that around 100 million people are using traditional herbal medicines. In these developed countries, the most important among many other reasons for seeking herbal therapy is the belief that it will promote healthier living.
Aromatic herbs have also become and constitute a fundamental element of the Greek cuisine, known for combining different elements wisely, with a unique sense of proportion and equilibrium. Without oregano, thyme, sage and savory, many Mediterranean dishes lose their inmost qualities. Because of the many herbs used on a daily basis, there is no one herb that defines Greek cooking. The Greek cuisine is all about enhancing the natural flavors of the products. In this respect, herbs are the very best way to add flavor and texture, without adding fat or calories and at the same time, increase the health benefits of foods one already enjoys. People use herbs to cut back on sodium intake, as less salt is used to flavor a meal. As Hippocrates (4th century BC), the great Greek physician, father of medicine, has wisely said: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”.
According to one study, “intake of herbs (such as oregano, thyme, sage) may contribute significantly to the total intake of plant antioxidants and be an even better source of dietary antioxidants than many other food groups, such as fruits, berries, cereals and vegetables”.