The Bible is not just a religious book for the Jews and the Christians, but it is also one of the early records of life, as it existed from around the 7th century BC up to the end of the first century AD.
Saffron is perhaps the most expensive and ancient among incenses known to man. Saffron-based pigments were probably used to make stencil prints on the walls of caves by the earliest cave inhabitants around 30000 BC. But the earliest saffron dye pigments used in paintings probably go 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 archaeologists discovered them. A building called Xestes 3 in Akrotiri, Greece, 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. Saffron at that time may have been collected from the wild. The species shown in the frescos is probably Crocus cartwrightianus.
Saffron was also one of the most valued and expensive aromatic spices of Greco-Roman times. The Greeks called it the “Blood of Hercules.” It was used as a 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 cited as a ritual incense in the Orphic mysteries of the cult of Dionysus.
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 from the Holy Land, to their European homes in France and England. Saffron was then extensively planted in France and England and became hugely popular.
Hippocrates and Galen’s mention using saffron to improve digestion, reduce flatulence and colic, and calm the nerves of adults and children. In Book II of the Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al-tib), Avicenna describes various medicinal uses of saffron, including its use as an antidepressant, hypnotic, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, a bronchodilator, aphrodisiac, labor inducer, and emmenagogue. Most of these effects have been studied in modern pharmacology and are well documented.
Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants