History of Nutmeg
Nutmeg, like cinnamon and cloves, was an important commodity during the Spice Trade of the 16th and 17th Centuries, so much so, that one of its bloodiest incidents occurred over this particular spice. But the world carried on, and with its sweet, delicate flavor, nutmeg made its way into cuisines from all over the world. Both sweet and potentially toxic, nutmeg has some surprising associations and properties. Magically it is tied to luck and prosperity. Nutmeg is also considered a Yule spice and is often used in Yule magick and food. Let’s take a look at the rich and disturbing history of nutmeg.
A Fragrant Seed
For starters, let’s look at what nutmeg is. Like cinnamon and cloves and all the other ‘spices’ at the supermarket, many of us don’t actually have a clue what the original form of the spice is. Nutmeg is the seed or nut of a tropical evergreen tree. The tree produces fruit, and inside that fruit is a seed (much the same size as an avocado or peach pit). The outer covering of the seed looks like a little net and is known as mace (no relation to the pepper spray) and is also used in cooking. The seed inside is nutmeg and that is what is ground up, either by hand with a grater or bought already powdered.
Nutmeg’s Latin name is Myristica fragrans. These two words have roughly the same connotation. Myristica comes from the Greek “myristikos”, which means “fragrant” or “for annointing”, and fragrans meaning “aromatic”, “fragrant”, or “odorous”. This of course reflects nutmeg’s sweet, aromatic smell that most bakers of holiday foods are familiar with. In English, the word “nutmeg” seems to come from an Old French description – “nois muguete”, meaning something along the lines of ‘a nut smelling like musk’. It was apparently included in a c. 1300 reference on “cookery” and was referred to as “note-mug”. No super exciting meanings hidden within these names for nutmeg, but from them we know that nutmeg has always been noticed and praised for its aroma.
One thing to keep in mind is that, like cinnamon, nutmeg has many different varieties that were grown after the spice trade collapsed and other places began producing nutmeg. The true nutmeg is the Myristica fragrans referenced above, but there are other varieties that are sometimes used to adulterate the true spice.
Origins of Nutmeg
Nutmeg originated in the Banda Islands, which are located in what the Europeans called the Spice Islands in Indonesia. Those native to the island grew the nutmeg trees with care, eating the fruit and selling the mace and nutmeg seed to China, India, and eventually the Arabs. Arab traders eventually gained the monopoly on selling and trading spices from these islands, nutmeg included. By the 1st Century, nutmeg had been introduced to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote about nutmeg, describing its aroma as a if cinnamon and pepper were mixed together. According to Greek theory, nutmeg was a “hot food” which was used to balance out “cold foods” like fish and veggies, so it was often paired with these items. It is also thought that Roman priests burned nutmeg as an incense. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the port city of Venice became the import location for the rest of Europe. Europeans believed nutmeg was a cure for viruses, and like the other spices (cinnamon, cloves) it was worth a fortune.
By the 1400s, Portugal had started trading in the Indian Ocean. They didn’t have complete monopoly, but their involvement eventually lead to a takeover by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th Century. We’ll talk about that terrible time period next.
The Bandas Massacre
The Dutch traders were not friendly and used ruthless tactics to gain control of the Spice Trade. In the case of the Bandas Islands and nutmeg, the Dutch were particularly cruel. Whereas the Arabs, Portuguese, and other traders had offered to trade with the Bandanese for nutmeg with comparable things like copper, porcelain, steel, or silver, the Dutch would only trade with useless items like wool clothes, which couldn’t be used in the tropics. This created tension and showed disrespect from the Dutch to the Bandanese.
Things went from bad to worse. The Eternal Treaty (not a promising name…) was a forcefully signed document giving the Dutch complete control of the Bandas spices. The Dutch also put more reinforcements at Fort Nassau, their stronghold on the island. The Bandanese retaliated and killed a Dutch admiral and kill 40 soldiers. The Dutch left no holds barred after this. Historians call what happened next a genocide on the Bandanese population. Before 1621 there were about 15,000 Bandanese on the island. The Dutch massacred most of this number, leaving only about 1,000 remaining, who were then forced to work as slaves in the nutmeg plantations.
Culinary Uses of Nutmeg
Once the Spice Trade fell, nutmeg, like the other spices, was grown in other places and became readily available all over the world. Despite this horribly bloody history, today nutmeg is thought of as a nice addition to holiday baking or as an ingredient in Indian or Chinese cuisine. Nutmeg has other uses, especially its essential oil, but overall, nutmeg is a culinary ‘herb’, so that’s what we will explore next.
Nutmeg is an interesting spice, because it works very well in many different flavor profiles. It can be used in cheese sauces as well as baked goods. It is also found in recipes from all over the world, making nutmeg a very versatile spice.
In India, nutmeg is used in garam masala, in sweet foods, and is also sometimes smoked. In the Middle East, it is usually used in savory foods. In Europe, nutmeg as used to flavor meats, soups, potatoes, and baked sweets. It is identified specifically in the colder winter month recipes for mulled wine and cider, and the holiday drink, eggnog. It is often sprinkled on top of coffee or hot chocolate as well.
One thing we may not be aware of (I know I wasn’t!), is that nutmeg is actually toxic, can be a danger to pregnant women, and can cause hallucinogenic effects. A large dose, which is apparently around 6 teaspoons or more can cause convulsions, nausea, dehydration, and heart palpitations. It can also cause mild euphoria, similar to MDMA…however using it to achieve a high is a bad idea. It doesn’t taste pleasant on its own, and it will cause the previous issues before any potential euphoria is felt. There is actually a term called “nutmeg poisoning”, during which a person is panicked, has an impending sense of doom, and is agitated. Nutmeg poisoning has resulted in death and is also considered an abortifacient in high doses.
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of nutmeg are just as varied as its culinary uses. Some relate to its history, while others play off its strong taste and potentially toxic effects. It can be used in the spellwork for:
- Legal matters
As always, I like to go a little non-specific with my suggestions for magickal applications because I think creativity is part of the beauty of spellwork. However, here a few ideas to get you started. One idea I love is to wear a whole nutmeg as a necklace. Put a specific intention related to one of the magickal properties into the nutmeg seed, then make a whole in the nutmeg and put a string through it. I also like the idea of anointing a green candle with nutmeg (and other prosperity spices) as part of a prosperity/money spell. You could also buy a lottery ticket and sprinkle nutmeg on it. A simple spell is to share a coffee/hot chocolate/eggnog with nutmeg sprinkled on top with a loved one to increase the bond between you. You can also use nutmeg in Yule celebrations and rituals.
I’ve been talking a lot about eggnog in this post, so here you go – homemade holiday eggnog! This drink is perfect for cold winter nights and for Yule or Winter Solstice gatherings. The touch of nutmeg in the drink and sprinkled on top is enough to get you in touch with the lucky, lovely, and rich properties of the herb.