Go I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What or Green as Garlic

In which we find that clever beautiful women are always an asset, that a magical mother-in-law should not to be under-estimated, that a magical servant will always improve your day and cruel kings are more frequent than you might think. It is also wise to beware of hen-women and servants of the king.


The Man Persecuted Because of His Beautiful Wife

This tale is a bit longer than the ones I usually tell, and I considered splitting it in two especially when I considered how much I had to share with you about the folklore of the food and the tale. However as its my first monthly podcast I hope you will forgive the self indulgence. Our tale today is classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther A465 – ‘The Man persecuted because of his beautiful wife’. In this tale type an unmarried man traps or catches an animal (often a water creature) and brings it home where it turns into an incredibly beautiful woman. In some versions the hunter burns the skin or hides the wings of his now beloved to ensure that she remains with him. Later a man of superior rank sees his beautiful wife, falls in love with her and sends the husband off on impossible tasks hoping to achieve his death.

A Tale of Many Countries

This is a a Slavic/Baltic tale which has versions in many countries across the globe including Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, Middle East, Central Asia, Korea, China, Mongolia, Japan, Tibet, Egypt and Sudan. The oldest versions of the tale are from the 7th Century in China and Japan. The tale also carries a little of ATU 402 Animal Brides although most of those tales have an animal bride who has been enchanted into their animal form whereas our blue dove is definitely doing her own transformations. There is one about a cat and a cat kingdom and a prince and a tiny, tiny dog in a walnut but its name escapes me right now.

An Austen Misquote

I haven’t even asked if you liked the tale? I’ve based it on several different versions that I read and I really enjoyed it playing with it. I think I was fascinated by the fact that you can measure how long in time it would take to go ‘where you know not where’. This is definitely not one of the versions where the maiden in our tale is trapped, she buys her life by promising her new husband to be good fortune for him. Even more good fortune than being married to an exceptionally beautiful woman which then, as now, was a benefit in itself. I’m trying to stop myself from misquoting Austen here about men falling in love with handsome faces instead of well informed minds but I may have failed.

Why Sisters?

However our maiden/wife who I may call Elena from now on just because that’s quite a long thing to type. Just as an aside here its unusual in such a long tale that none of our characters have names but I suppose the cast list was limited so people couldn’t really get confused. The sisters of Elena only appear twice, once in bird form and once as beautiful maidens who have to be reminded to provide hospitality. They don’t seem to add anything to the story except to bring in the magic number 3. They don’t seem to have any other power except that of transformation although thinking about it they would be perfect for a spin off if our story wqs a successful television series. They could have all sorts of powers like their older/younger sister but that’s clearly another story.

A Cunning Maiden & An Adventurous Husband

Elena is considered to be a clever and cunning maiden which our hunter appreciates and even her enemy the hen-wife compliments her on it. Our hunter however is considered a strong and excellent soldier with brilliant marksmanship but perhaps a little on the dim and innocent side so can be easily be outmanoeuvred. I wouldn’t consider him that dim or innocent, he was very happy to break into a strange palace and steal not just food and drink but gold and valuable as well. He was also very happy to betray the merchants at the end of the story and steal their amazing gifts.

He also only survives and wins out because of the supernatural help from his wife’s family, his new magical servant and his stolen magical gifts. You could say that strictly speaking he wasn’t that much better than the cruel king he replaces. However, he was at least appreciative of his wife and very thankful for all the assistance he received so maybe we should give him a chance, even if we don’t know his name. His courtesy to his magical servant is also how he got him to join his service so he can’t be all bad anyway.

Do Frogs Really Like Milk?

The magical creatures in our tale are traditional, if slightly strange, especially the ancient frog. I didn’t even know frogs liked milk but maybe its only magical ones. I’m probably not going to put our any saucers of it in my garden as the wildlife around here is a bit more on the rodenty side and I really don’t want to encourage them even if their surprised faces are actually quite cute.

We’ll be talking about the food in our tale very shortly but I’d like to talk briefly about another element of folklore we brushed up against here. That is the folklore of weaving. Elena creates a beautiful embroidered carpet (with help) which is the precipitating event in the change in their fortunes when it enchants first the steward and then the king before Elena’s beauty weaves its own unconscious enchantment . It made me think about how weaving is so important in story and folklore.

Weaving Fate

The fates of Ancient Greece (the Morae) and The Norse (the Norn) are both considered to weave the fates of humans into a giant tapestry of life. It is said that mortal sorceresses could add to this fabric with their magic but could never really change things enough to derail their fate. Weaving is also very important in The Odyssey too where Ulysses loving and faithful wife Penelope uses weaving and the fact that men know nothing about it to trick potential suitors into waiting longer to try and marry her thus making time for Ulysses to return.

The two women or sorceresses that Ulysses had affairs with also were known for their weaving: Calypso and Circe who weaved forgetfulness and enchantment but could not use their skills to avoid their fates either. You probably don’t think of weaving when you think of Circe, you probably have a totally other story in mind but don’t worry she makes another appearance in a while.

Why Tease a God?

There’s also one of those standard tales which explain why if you’re better than a god at something you should probably keep it quiet. When it comes to weaving that’s the tale of Arachne who bragged that she was a better weaver than Athena. Her descendants are probably weaving their fascinating webs in the corner of your sitting room and I’m still not sure if that was a punishment or a release. That’s goddesses for you, can’t live with them, can’t offend them to their face.

Garlic – A Culinary Superstar?

I bet you’ve been waiting for the next bit possibly because everyone I know loves our food in this episode. That might not have been so true 70 years ago here in the UK, but today and certainly throughout history garlic is a superstar. For my own selfish purposes, it is perfect. It has history (lots of it), it has folklore (lots of it) and even its own tales. It even appears in The Bible and The Talmud. It appears in the Old Testament when the Jews are wandering in the desert and pining after the foods of Egypt that they have left behind:

‘We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic‘ (Numbers 11:5).

According to the Talmud, garlic was important: it reduced hunger, it kept the body warm; it brightened up the face; it killed parasites in the body and it removed jealousy and fostered love. The Talmud recommends the eating of garlic on Friday – Friday being the night faith leaders felt should be devoted to conjugal love, as it is an aphrodisiac that improves sexual potency.

Garlic- The Beginning

Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself, we need to start at the beginning or as close as we can get. As in all ancient food history quite a lot is educated speculation. Garlic (Allium sativum) is believed to have come from Central Asia on the northwestern side of the Tian Shan Mountains, near Kyrgyzstan. The Food Timeline has it originating around 3,000BCE and we have some additional proof in the early use of garlic. Three cuneiform tablets known as the Yale Babylonian Tablets, which date from around 1600 BCE, list around forty recipes from ancient Mesopotamia. These contain many references to garlic as well as to onions and leeks. So we can assume that the allium family in general was popular with the ancient Mesopotamians and possibly also their neighbours.

The First Recorded Strike

It was possibly even more popular with the ancient Egyptians and was the cause of possibly the first ever recorded strikes when the garlic ration was cut for labourers on the Pyramid due t a garlic shortage. Once the garlic ration was reinstated, construction on the pyramids resumed. Garlic was also famed for its stamina-boosting powers, and Israelite slaves were fed garlic to keep up their strength as they built the cities of Pithom and Raamses for the pharaohs. The ancient Egyptians used to swear oaths on it and believed it kept evil spirits from tombs so it was sealed into the tombs of the dead including that of Tutankhamun where it was found centuries later amongst his treasures.

The Ancient Greeks used it as well to keep away evil spirits and the first use of wedding flowers was in ancient Greece, where brides wore a crown of flowers, herbs, and garlic bulbs to protect them from evil influence. The ancient Greeks, linked garlic with Hecate, the triple goddess who represented maiden, mother and crone. Hecate inhabited the Underworld and had power over birth, life and death, which demonstrates how miraculous it was considered to be. She was also the goddess of magic, witchcraft, sorcery and enchantment and Theophrastus wrote that garlic was placed on stones at crossroads as an offering to Hecate to keep travellers safe. It was also thought to improve stamina and athletes were encouraged to eat it and were rubbed with garlic infused oil before competitions.


The Ancient Greeks even believed garlic could have been one of the key ingredients in achieving immortality: Asclepius, son of the god Apollo, was taught about healing herbs by the wise centaur, Chiron. He became so skilled that he was even able to raise the dead, which made Hades, God of the Underworld a little on the grumpy side. Hades complained to Zeus, who was also miffed with this disruption in the natural order of things, so Zeus killed Asclepius with a his trademark thunderbolt while he was in the middle of writing down the formula for immortality.

Zeus then sent down pouring rain to destroy the paper that Asclepius was writing on. The paper melted into the earth, and when the sun came out, a plant sprang up where the formula had been. I think you can guess what that plant was. Its also another a good reason, should you need one, why it is important to avoid annoying a god of weather.

Circe, Those Pigs and A Fashionable Ingredient

Garlic even finds its protective way into Ancient Greek literature. You remember Circe and the tale that is more familiar to most than her impressive weaving skills? Yes that tale, the one where she turns Ulysses men into pigs. I’ve read it and I think she definitely had some cause but essentially Hermes gave protection from that dreadful fate to Ulysses in the form of a herb, Moly, which is now believed to have been a type of wild garlic! See, I told you we’d come back to Circe again. I’d definitely recommend Madeline Miller’s book on Circe if you’d like to gain a different perspective on the sorceress.

Roman Wedding

Anyway we need to leave the Ancient Greeks and move to the Romans who were big fans of it as a protective herb as well and at weddings in ancient Rome, both the bride and groom wore garlands of strong-smelling flowers, garlic, and herbs around their necks to symbolize long life and fertility. Garlic was also associated with fighting strength and spirit due to its fiery taste. It was considered to be sacred to Mars, the god of war so was much linked to soldiers.

Which is why it ended up all over Europe and even made it to England where it received its name. Garlic is believed to originate from Old English ‘gar’, meaning spear, and ‘leac’ meaning leek. The name we now use for the whole onion family including garlic, ‘allium’, is however said to come from the Greek αλεω, ‘to avoid’, because of their smell. The Oxford English Dictionary, however disagrees and gives it a strictly latin etymology.

That Charlemagne Again

We’ll have to skip some years now and move ahead to 800 CE when Charlemagne, whose empire spread from the north of Europe to the Mediterranean, enacted a charter in which he prescribed the 90 types of vegetable and fruit tree that should be grown in gardens around his empire; among them were onions, leeks, shallots, bunching (or Welsh) onions and garlic. This meant that the full range of popular alliums were grown in the gardens of all monasteries and in some of the larger estates of the nobility.

Garlic was very popular in the medieval period. It appeared in the recipe books of the nobility including the English Forme of Cury from the 14th Century and was also eaten by all classes as it was much cheaper than the spices that graced the King’s table. Sauces were an important element of aristocratic cuisine, and very wealth households might have their own ‘sawsery’, a special office in the kitchen manned by a professional saucier. Garlic was an important addition to these sauces. Le Viandier, a French recipe collection dating from around 1300, lists several different recipes for garlic sauce.

True Love of Garlic

It hadn’t lost its popularity in Europe by 1491 as this quote from a letter from Beatrice D’Este, Duchess of Milan to Isabella D’Este, Duchess of Mantua

“I cannot enjoy any pleasure or happiness unless I share it with you. And I must tell you that I have had a whole field of garlic planted for your benefit so that when you come we may be able to have plenty of your favourite dishes”

Its popularity did however start to wane as a culinary ingredient in England although it retained its place as a healing herb and in folklore as we shall see shortly. It does not appear in the newly popular recipe books of the 18th century and of course the Victorians couldn’t stand the smell. Onions remained popular with the poor but garlic had long lost its culinary superstar status on our damp island at least. It didn’t really come back until the wonderful Elizabeth David repolularised mediterranean ingredients in the 1950s as the UK was desperate to move away from post rationing cuisine (meat rationing did not end until 1954). She spun tales of glorious food in sun kissed countries using now popular ingredients. In the introduction of her book Mediterranean Food published in 1950, David quotes gastronome and cookbook author Marcel Boulestin:

“It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.”

A History Round-Up

So that’s my not so quick round up of garlic in European history, obviously there is even more global history but I simply didn’t have time to fully research or share it with you. I do have a couple of interesting non-European history facts though: the bulb garlic that we know now as garlic did not exist in North or South America and it went over with immigration. There was however many types of wild garlic and Jacques Marquette, who founded the first colony in Michigan, ate some of this in 1673 on his journey up the Mississippi to what is now Chicago. The name of the city derives from shika-kwaa, a Native American term meaning ‘place of the wild garlic’.

A Demon Lord

There is also a collection of ancient Sanskrit documents now known as the Bower Manuscript after the British army office who bought them from a trader which contain an incomplete treatise on garlic and its medical uses and includes a mythical origin story for garlic explaining that the king of the demons drank the elixir of immortality, and that Lord Vishnu cut off his head as a punishment. The drops of blood became garlic when they fell to earth.

This is why Brahmins are forbidden to eat it, because it originates from a body, that of the demon king. However it also includes a work around to absorb the goodness of garlic it is forbidden to you because of your religion: you simply stop the cow from eating for three days, and then feed her one part garlic stalks to two parts grass. Those forbidden the herb itself would be permitted to eat the curds and ghee made from the cow’s garlic-infused milk. It does seem a little unfair on the cow though.

Garlic: An Origin Story

Now we have broached some mythology of garlic I feel I can now move on to some more of the same. Garlic is very rich in mythology and has many origin stories. I love this one from Palestine where garlic is connected to fertility and the Tree of Life and how it had to be made small to reduce the numbers of people multiplying on the earth:

“Once, ladies, long ago the Garlic grew very tall, so tall that the top of it couldn’t be seen. Then this blessing became a curse, for there were too many people in the world. – there was no room in the world for them all. So God in His Mercy shortened the Garlic and it has been small ever since. But it is still good to eat for health and long life and good, too, against the “Eye”. Those must have been strange days you say, when the Garlic was tall.”

More Demons

According to some old Christian myths, garlic is demonic, springing from Satan’s left footprint, upon his first step on earth after being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Some sources say that this is mirrored in Mohammed’s writings too. Mohammed definitely recommended staying away from the Mosque after eating garlic, onions and leeks although this more likely to be about practicing good hygiene and consideration for others.

I’ve already mentioned the Greek origin story with Asclepius but there a some Greek nymphs who I have forgotten to mention. Neriades were beautiful half-divine, half-human creatures who envied the joys of wedlock and childbirth and their jealous behaviour could mean the ruin of an unprotected wife or mother-to-be. Protection consisted of wearing amulets made of garlic and placing bunches of garlic over the door of the homes where women were kept confined during the 40 day period before marriage.

Garlic = Protection

Garlic is used for protection often throughout all of Europe. In Greece, garlic is believed to keep away evil spirits and devils, as it scares them. Traditionally Greeks carried it in their clothes or hung it in braided bunches in the eaves of their homes to keep away malevolent forces. In Spain bullfighters traditionally carry garlic to protect themselves from the bull’s charge. I can’t imagine it being that effective when there is a bull trampling on your head but what do I know. In Sweden, bridegrooms used to sew a clove of garlic and a sprig of rosemary into their wedding clothes to avert the evil eye.

Huldra Talle-Maja

Another tale from Sweden features the Huldra who shared some characteristics of the Neriades but had the tendency to go after women’s husbands rather than the women themselves. In this instance the Huldra Talle-Maja (or Pine Tree Spirit) had used her powers to attract and seduce a husband. Every night this husband went to her in the forest to frolic together until he was too exhausted to work the next day .

His wife had no power to keep him in the house once the Huldra had called to him. Extremely annoyed by the loss of her love and her income, one night the wife went out and met the Huldra before she reached the house, and asked the Huldra how one could keep a bull from wandering off at night. The Huldra told her to give the bull garlic, grass from the north side of the chimney and other ingredients. The wife gave this to her man-bull and he stopped responding to the Huldra’s call.

Love Spells

There is apparently a Romany love spell that calls for a lovesick person to plant garlic in a red clay pot while repeating the name of the person they desire. Every day at sunrise and sunset, the person should water the plant and recite the following incantation: “As this root grows, let the heart of (insert name here) turn unto me.” A variation of this spell calls for the spell caster to include a drop of his or her own blood. This could take some time as garlic is quite slow growing. If the spell works but you realise they are not the one for you you can use this method to get rid of your love: stick two crossed pins in a garlic bulb and place it at a crossroads. Bring the unrequited lover to the place and when they cross it, they will lose interest.”

Garlic Dreams

As well as bringing protection in person, dreaming of garlic has been interpreted as a sign that the dreamer is searching for security in love, and that they will heed their head over their heart. A dream of wandering through a garlic patch signifies that a woman will marry for practicality rather than love. To dream that you are walking through a garlic patch suggests that you will rise from poverty to prosperity.

I appreciate that I have avoided the folklore Elephant in the Room, Vampires. I was going to ignore them completely because everyone knows that garlic and vampires don’t mix but I did find some slightly different folklore beliefs to share. Did you know that there is a vampire known as The Dakhanavar from the folklore of Armenia? It is said to protect the valley around Mount Ararat from intruders. Travellers in the area carry cloves of garlic in their pockets and mashed garlic paste on their shoes.

The Dakhanavar is known to his victims in their sleep and sucks the blood from their feet (hence the shoe garlic paste), so to protect themselves if forced to camp outside they roast entire garlic bulbs in the flames of their campfire. The combination apparently keeps the Dakhanavar away. Also you get roasted garlic to add interest to your camping snacks. I must add however that the original report of this vampire in 1854 doesn’t mention garlic at all. This only comes in from the author Jonathan Maberry in 2006.

Transylvania, Vampires and St Andrew

I suppose we should move to Transylvania as I’ve clearly been avoiding it. Most people know about Bram Stoker’s Dracula and how dangerous garlic is to his kind but did you know that St Andrew is supposed to be the person that gave garlic to mankind as a weapon against vampires. As well as the patron saint of Scotland, is also the patron saint of wolves and Romania and is said to protect against wolf attacks which would presumably be more useful in countries that actually have any wolves. It was a huge relief to me when I was small that the British Isles did not have any wolves. I was irrationally scared of them, too many fairy tales possibly. As far as I know there are no current plans to reintroduce them here.

Night of the Strigoi

Anyway lets pop back to Romania, on 29 November (St Andrew’s Eve) Night of the Strigoi is celebrated as it’s believed that the barrier between the visible and the invisible world disappears, allowing ghosts and spirits to pass through. To protect themselves, people eat a lot of garlic and spread garlic paste in “the shape of a crucifix on the front door.

At night, there’s a party known as the ‘Watch of the Garlic’ Party. The house selected to host the party is prepared in advance by smearing garlic around all the doors and windows. Every young woman brings three garlic bulbs to the party. The bulbs are collected and placed in a pot that’s guarded by candlelight by the oldest woman in the house during the party. People dance until dawn, when the pot is then taken outside and dancing resumes around it. After the dancing finishes the garlic is given out to all and taken home where it protects the inhabitants against illness or evil. Basil also used for protection and in the cooking on this night and poppy seed is spread around outside but we are all about the garlic.

Garlic Bread

Just in case you think all Romanian garlic traditions are about protection from vampires I have one that isn’t. Young women also baked knot-shaped breads and they put garlic in the middle on St Andrew’s Eve. At home they put this bread in a warm place. If within a week the garlic had risen they would be lucky in love and marriage.

I think I’ll stop there. There is so much more but I think we have to know where to leave gracefully possibly whilst I still have listeners. If all this garlic has given you an appetite then I resent this episode’s recipe: Spaghetti al olio e aglio – Spaghetti with oil & garlic but with a couple of added extras to make it sensational. I’ve essentially had to do two recipes in one so that people who are not fans of anchovy can still make it. It still tastes good but not quite so good. I must add that its not authentic but I’m not Italian so I suppose it doesn’t have to be.

Spaghetti al Olio E Aglio



Prep time


Cooking time



Spaghetti with Garlic & OLive Oil


  • 300g Spaghetti

  • 4 Cloves garlic sliced

  • 1 tin anchovies chopped

  • 100g fresh breadcrumbs

  • 2stp chilli flakes

  • 80ml extra virgin olive oil

  • Pasta water


  • Drain oil from anchovies and fry breadcrumbs until golden and crisp (if vegetarian just use 2 tblsp olive oil to fry breadcrumbs) and set aside.
  • Boil water and cook spaghetti according to packet instructions.
  • Whilst pasta is boiling, gently heat the chilli flakes, sliced garlic and chopped anchovy in the olive oil (no anchovy if vegetarian).
  • Retain a coffee cup of pasta water then strain spaghetti
  • Add spaghetti to pan with garlic and oil and add half the pasta water and stir vigorously. The sauce should come together and coast the pasta.
  • Serve the pasta into two dishes and add the crispy breadcrumbs and a grinding of black pepper. You can also add some grated parmesan or vegetarian hard italian cheese.
Further Reading

The Mystique of Garlic: History, Uses, Superstitions and Scientific Revelations – Alexandra H. Hicks from The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery 1984/5 Cookery: Science, Lore & Books
From Cedar to Hyssop, a study in the folklore of plants in Palestine – Grace Crowfoot
The Book of Garlic – Lloyd J Harris 1980
Onions and Garlic Martha Jay
The Little Book of Garlic – Alastau
Garlic, an Edible Biography – Robin Cherry