Saffron is perhaps the most expensive and ancient of incenses known to man. Saffron-based pigments were probably used to make stencil prints on caves by earliest of cave inhabitants about 30000 BC. But the earliest saffron dye pigments used in paintings probably goes back to the Minoan period. In Crete in 1450 BC, a volcanic eruption buried the Minoan palaces and buildings in a cloud of dust, where they remained until their discovery by archaeologists. A building called Xestes 3 in Akrotiri has several frescoes of girls and women gathering saffron flowers and bringing them to a goddess seated on a three-tiered platform on a cushion of saffron. Another fresco from the same site shows a woman’s bleeding foot being treated with saffron. These frescoes indicate that saffron was perhaps collected locally from the wild. The species shown probably was Crocus cartwrightianus.

Saffron was imported into ancient Egypt and surrounding areas from Crete and its primary uses were as a dye and perfume. Barber (1994) observes in Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years that saffron was used to dye women’s garments from 3000 BC to 1100 BC, producing a yellow color ranging from radiant warm yellow to deep orange-red. Saffron and other aromatic spices were often scattered on pillows and sheets for their aroma and freshness. The spice was mixed with olive oil to scent clothes and hair. Until the reign of Ramses III, the final layer of the mummification process included a saffron-dyed shroud. It is believed that Cleopatra infused her baths with saffron before sexual encounters. The Ebers papyrus mentions saffron as a plant of medicinal value. It recommends saffron powder blended with beer as a poultice for women in difficult labor and recognizes saffron as a diuretic.

There are references to saffron in the tablets and scrolls from the Library of Nineveh during the reign Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC). These tablets are now preserved in the British Museum in London. The spice was collected from flowers found in the wild. Experts believe that C. cartwrightianus is the precursor to the cultivated saffron variety Crocus sativa, which emerged as a mutation around 1700 BC.

Saffron was also one of the most valued and most expensive aromatic spices of Greco-Roman times. The Greeks called it the “Blood of Hercules.” It was used as ritual incense and regarded as a protective amulet. It was associated with fertility and romance, and nobles used it to perfume clothes and baths. Homer states that Greek gods Zeus and Jupiter lay on a bed of saffron to enhance amorous emotions. Dioscorides the Greek physician mentions the aphrodisiac properties of saffron. It is also mentioned as a ritual incense in the Orphic mysteries of the cult of Dionysus.

Alexander the Great became enamored of saffron in the 4th century BC during his campaign for the conquest of Persia. He used the spice in his baths, perhaps after he defeated Cyrus the Great and brought the saffron-producing regions of Persia under his control. He believed that saffron helped heal wounds and was good for the skin. Active trade via the Spice and Silk Routes led to increased popularity of saffron. Shen Nung, a ruler in China (c. 27th or 28th century BC) and regarded as the father of Chinese medicine, described medicinal uses of more than 300 herbs, including saffron, in one of the earliest of the extant Materia Medica called the Divine Husbandsman Materia Media, compiled in the 1st century AD. There is also reference to saffron in Chinese herbalist Wan Zhen’s (c. 3rd century AD) writings.

The use of saffron as a natural dye was fairly widespread in Arabia, Europe, Persia, and India. It has been used to color religious and royal garments. Saffron was considered the color of renunciation in India, where its flowers were used to dye clothes. After the death of Buddha, his followers in Kashmir began using saffron to dye their clothes using a mixture of roots and tubers, plants, bark, leaves, flowers, and fruits. The color was temporary, so Tibetan Buddhist monks were known to dye their robes each year. The active ingredient for dyeing in saffron is crocin, which is extracted from the flower petals. Traditionally, forest monks wear ochre (obtained from jackfruit heartwood) robes and city monks wear saffron robes, though variations exist. Today, though, saffron has been replaced by turmeric, which is also yellow but less expensive.

The Talmud contains multiple references to saffron, and it is one of the 11 ingredients of the Ketoret Holy Incense. In Christianity, saffron is not a spice of major religious significance. There is a single reference to saffron in the Bible in Song of Solomon 4:14, where it is mentioned along with other incenses. During the Crusades, Christians brought large quantities of saffron, a highly valued commodity then, from the Holy Land to their European homes in France and England. Saffron was then extensively planted in France and England and acquired huge popularity. In 15th century AD Germany, adulterating saffron was a crime punishable by burning at the stake. In England, royal ladies often wore saffron in their hair, a practice that was ultimately forbidden by Henry VIII. In Arabic, saffron is called zafran and used extensively in food and coffee. The Middle East is the biggest importer of saffron. Islam, however, forbids the wearing of saffron-colored clothes by adult males (Wikipedia).

Book link: Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants


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