Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On the Use of Aloe

Aloe socotora or Aloe vera was used by many ancient cultures for healing properties.  The earliest reference to its use is in Egyptian drawings of aloe plants on the walls of the temples.  They considered the plant to have divine properties that could procure immortality. Nefertiti and Cleopatra used aloe as a beauty treatment for their skin. Egyptians hung aloe in the doorway of their homes to protect ward off evil and misfortune.

When a Pharaoh died, only those who could tithe a pound of aloe were allowed to attend the funeral ceremony.  Aloe and myrrh were combined and used in embalming the body of the deceased and placed with the burial clothes.  A man’s wealth and esteem were judged by the amount of aloe brought to his funeral.  Alexander the Great conquered the island of Socotra in order to take over their supply of aloe.   Hindus, Russians and Native Americans all considered it to have healing and rejuvenating powers.

The leaves of the aloe plant contain a substance which when dissolved in water and added to myrrh is perfect for embalming and preserving the body of the deceased from decay.  In ancient Egypt and Arabia the inner gel and sap were extracted and set in the sun until it became a powder that could be traded.    

The De Materia Medica, written c. 50 CE recommends aloe for treating boils, dry skin, gum and throat irritations, bruises and burns, and to stop bleeding wounds.  It was also used to control perspiration and to alleviate the symptoms of leprosy and tuberculosis.  The 7th century Chinese manuscript, the Materia Medicas, prescribed the use of aloe for sinusitis and other skin conditions.     

The Bible mentions the use of aloe in both the Old and New Testament. “All your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia” (Psalm 45:8a).  “As gardens by the river-side, as aloes which Yahweh hath planted, as cedar-trees beside the waters” (Numbers 24:6).  “There came also Nicodemus, he who at the first came to him at night, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) 

The Jesuit priests of Spain introduced aloe into the Americas in the 15th century and the Franciscan padres used it in the Spanish missions used it to comfort the sick.  Christopher Columbus considered four plants to be essential for well-being: wheat, grapes, olives and aloe.  After synthetic drugs were invented for curing the sick, the healing properties of aloe were nearly forgotten in the America, but in the 1970’s it enjoyed a resurgence of popularity as a home remedy. 

Today aloe gel is commonly used to speed up the healing of burns and other wounds by improving blood circulation and preventing cell death.   Aloe sales generate billions of dollars annually.  The United States government produces and stores large quantities of aloe because it is the only treatment known to be effective in healing burns from radiation and atomic blasts.