The History of Honey

1 / 3
A page from the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts in the world; many of the recipes call for honey.
2 / 3
Beekeepers with their honey.
3 / 3
The Benevolent Bee by Stephanie Bruneau.

In The Benevolent Bee (Quarto Publishing Group, 2017) beekeeper, herbalist, and artist Stephanie Bruneau explores six amazing products of the honeybee hive—honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, beeswax, and bee venom.

You can purchase this book through the Capper’s Farmer bookstore- The Benevolent Bee

Humans have been enjoying honey since the Stone Age; the oldest-known depiction of human collection of honey is a prehistoric cave painting in Valencia, Spain, thought to be at least 8,000 years old, predating modern civilization. Documentation of the use of honey is found in almost all cultures and many historical texts since the beginning of human society.

The earliest evidence of organized honey production is found in ancient Egypt, where stone carvings dating to 2400 BCE depict bees, hives, and men harvesting honey and filling and sealing jars. Honey’s use in ancient Egypt is well known: Egyptians used honey as currency, food, and medicine, and to embalm and to honor the dead. The Egyptian Papyrus Ebers, the oldest-known book of medicine (fifteenth century BCE), includes more than 800 medicinal recipes, many of which employ honey for preventing and curing infection.

The first recorded medicinal use of honey dates to between 2100 and 2000 BCE in Sumer (what is now Iraq). An unearthed Sumerian clay tablet provides instructions for preparing what appears to be some kind of salve for external application: “Grind to a powder river dust . . . and . . . then knead it in water and honey, and let . . . oil and hot cedar oil be spread over it.”

In the Ayurvedic tradition of ancient India, honey was used to treat infected wounds, and was mixed with ghee (clarified butter) to make a post-surgical paste (c. 1400 BCE). Cleopatra (69–30 BCE, Egypt) famously bathed in milk and honey, and she compiled a book of grooming tips, dedicating many pages to the use of honey. More recently, Russians and Germans used honey in World War I as an antiseptic to prevent wound infection, and combined cod liver oil and honey to treat burns and other wounds.

From Hippocrates (469–399 BCE) to Jennifer Lopez (born 1969), who credits her clear and honeyed complexion to her use of a honey and lemon face mask, human use of honey spans continents and centuries.

[Honey] causes heat, cleans sores and ulcers, softens hard ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores.

—Hippocrates (469–399 BCE, ancient Greece)

[Honey] will clear freckles from the face in a trice, of this about three ounces may suffice.

—Ovid (43 BCE–18 CE, Roman poet)

[If] the dew is warmed by the rays of the sun, not honey but drugs are produced, heavenly gifts for the eyes, for ulcers and the internal organs.”

—Pliny the Elder(23–79 CE, ancient Rome)

Honey is a remedy for every illness….

—The Prophet Muhammad (570–632 CE)

There proceedeth from their bellies a liquor of various color, wherein is medicine for man.

—Qur’an 16:69 (609–632 CE)

My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste….

—Proverbs 24:13

[Honey] helps to kill pain and relieves internal heat and fever and is useful to many diseases. It may be mixed with many herbal medicines. If taken regularly, one’s memory may be improved, good health ensues, and one may feel neither too hungry nor decrepit.

—Shen Nong’s,Book of Herbs (second century BCE, China)

More from The Benevolent Bee:

Reprinted with permission from the Quarto Publishing Group, excerpted from The Benevolent Bee by Stephanie Bruneau published by Quarry Books, 2017