Common Onion (Allium cepa)
Keywords: unity, macrocosm and microcosm, the ability to see the mulilayeredness of reality, balance between all elements, finding comfort in the earth, emotional release, the symbolism and magic of tears, needing to defend yourself in a memorable way, connection to and protection of soldiers, oaths, treasuring the “simple” joys of life
The common onion, often simply called “onion”, is one of the most universally used plants in world cuisine. Onion is an extremely versatile ingredient that can be prepared in a wide variety of ways from eaten raw, sauteed, pickled, pureed, and powdered. There are three main varieties grown for culinary use which are named for their color, white, yellow, and red. Yellow onions are more commonly used in Europe, while white onions are favored in Latin American cuisine, but all three varieties can be found the world over. Although mature bulbs are the most used part of the onion plant, immature plants can be picked whole and used as scallions.
Onions belong in the genus Allium along with leeks and garlic. Onions and garlic share much of the same mythology and folklore and totemically share similar attitudes about protection and defense (see link below for my essay on Garlic). Like garlic, onions are medicinally beneficial plants. Onion is thought to have properties that help guard against heart disease and cancer. Onions and garlic were considered to be foods that bestowed strength and endurance and were included in the diets of Egyptian slaves and Greek Olympians. One of the earliest mentions of onions is found in the Bible’s Book of Exodus wherein the Hebrews, during their long wanderings in the desert, list onions and garlic as two of the foods they missed most from their old home.
Because of their close biological relationship, onions and garlic work very well together in dishes. The same can be said regarding the partnership they can form on a totemic level. Onion possesses a similarly strong personality as Garlic that people find they love or hate with very little middle ground. Both plants are very protective, though their methods are slightly different. Onion is more proactive, more willing to attack threats as opposed to Garlic’s calm, steady shielding. This makes Onion seem more “powerful” by some standards but also means that Onion is more likely to leap into action when discretion might be the better choice. These two plants make a great team, tending to balance and enhance the other.
Onion’s sometimes feisty attitude is connected, in part, to the plant’s notorious ability to make people cry when they cut into it. This occurs when the plant’s cells are breached during cutting and the enzymes within break down which, in turn, creates a highly irritating gas. This gas produces a painful stinging sensation when it hits the surface of an eye and tears are produced as a defense mechanism to flush out the toxin. There have been many ideas on how to avoid this passed down through the ages, the best one seeming to be a suggestion to freeze the onions and cut them with a sharp knife while they are still cold.
Onion is intimately tied to the symbolism, mythology, and magic of tears. Although the tears produced by onions are purely for physical defense against an irritant, the totem Onion does teach lessons on emotional release which often comes with tears. Just as trying to hold back tears when cutting onions only makes the pain worse, sometimes holding back tears during sorrow and hurt can make emotional pain worse. Much of Western society values stoicism and looks down on people who give into the need to cry. But sometimes crying *is* a need. Just like tears help flush out physical toxins away from the eyes, tears can help flush out toxins in our hearts, minds, and souls. Onion can help you accept this need without shame or guilt. Tears have been considered a magical fluid in mythology and fairy tales, often bestowing or restoring life. If Onion is working with you on issues of emotional release via tears, it is suggested that you seek out these stories that show crying in a positive, even sacred, light.
The word “onion” is derived from the Latin word “unio” which means “unity” or “oneness”, and it is here that Onion’s most mystical teachings are found. The layers of onions have been referenced often in literature as a metaphor for discovering multiple facets of something or for uncovering a truth. Ancient Egyptians, who viewed the circles of the onion as a symbol for eternity, revered, perhaps even worshiped, onions. Onions were placed over the eyes of the dead or wrapped in cloth like a mummy and placed in tombs. Art has been found depicting priests carrying onions to be placed on an altar. The onion was so sacred to the Egyptians that oaths were sworn by placing the right hand on an onion. The connection between onions and eternity carried well past the days of the pyramids and is reflected in the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches.
If the ancients discovered the Macrocosm in the onion, then, in a way, we in modern times are given our first glimpses of Microcosm in the same plant. Viewing dyed onion cells under a microscope is one of the first examples young biology students are given of the complexity of life on a microscopic level. In an almost poetic way Onion has helped many of us view yet another layer to life.
If you choose (or are chosen) to become a student of Onion expect to learn much more than the lessons you first sought out. Onion is as multilayered spiritually as it is physically. Onion isn’t overly aggressive, but some of its lessons can come off as strong and stinging. Onion does sometimes have a tendency to cross boundaries a little too forcefully or a little too soon, but it is also a diplomatic totem who is likely to respect the concerns of its student. It will be important, however, to make sure you are able to exhibit Onion’s strength in your life without becoming too pushy. Onion is in equal measures earthy and mystical and students are likely to be asked to examine their lives in a very holistic manner that brings the two states into a harmonious union.
“Onion.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onion
“Onion Lore.” The Sweet Onion Source. http://www.sweetonionsource.com/lore.html
Stallsmith, Audrey. “Omnipresent Onion.” Thyme Will Tell: Celebrating Mystery, Romance, and the Powerful Grace of Heirloom Plants. http://www.thymewilltell.com/onion.html
Someshwar, Manreet Sodhi. “My Empire for an Onion.” The NY Times. Jan 19, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/opinion/20iht-Someshwar20.html?_r=0
“Vegetable Myth and Folklore.” Squidoo. http://www.squidoo.com/vegetable-myths#module143410491
- Garlic as Totem (totemist.wordpress.com)