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How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires - The New York Times

Not until Greek and Roman antiquity did the West learn of these treasures, as Arab traders became the intermediaries between the hemispheres. They tried to keep the origins of spices shrouded in mystery to prevent customers from finding or planting them on their own; in the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus reported tales of cassia gathered from a lake guarded by winged animals, much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant, and of cinnamon sticks knocked out of the nests of enormous birds, both in unknown Arabian locales. To the ancient Greeks, spices were the product of an exceptional union between the earth and the fire of the sun, the Belgian historian Marcel Detienne writes in The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology (1972) a literal embodiment of their often tropical origins. They served as emblems of all that lay beyond the known world, be that defined in terms of geographic distance or the more nebulous passage between life and death; the Greeks, Detienne argues, used spices to mediate between the near and the far-away and to link the above and the below, notably in funeral rites and sacred devotions. In one version of the phoenix myth, when death finally looms after a thousand years, the bird readies a nest of cinnamon and frankincense to help ensure its resurrection. During the Roman Empire, Nero burned a years supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his second wife, Poppaea, perhaps regretting that, as recorded by early historians, he himself had murdered her. (On a more earthly note, spices were also employed as tools of seduction Caesar was reportedly beguiled by the cinnamon wafting from Cleopatras hair and served practical purposes, mitigating the salt in preserved foods and masking bad breath and odors from poor sanitation.)