Thursday 1 October 2015

Acorns in ancient texts

A few months ago I have published several articles about oaks and acorns and their almost symbiotic link with people since Palaeolithic times.

In my first post entitled "Oaks", I tried to answer the question why were oak trees and oak groves considered sacred in the past? I proposed that the reason for this veneration could be the fact that the oaks are one of the most useful trees in the world. At the end of the post I mentioned that the oaks were particularly valued as a source of acorns which were in the past used as human food world wide.

In my second post entitled "Acorns in archaeology" I presented archaeological evidence we have for human consumption of acorns during the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Copper age, Bronze age and Iron age.

In my third post entitled "How did oaks repopulate Europe" I discussed the possibility that it was people who brought oaks back into Europe after the last ice age. I argued that people venturing up north, brought acorns with them as food and either deliberately or accidentally planted them.

In my fourth post entitled "Eating acorns" I tried to answer the question whether the acorn was the original corn and whether this is why are Thunder deities which are linked with oaks are also linked with agricultural grain cults?

In my fifth post entitled "Christmas trees from garden of Eden" I talked about the origin of Christmas trees (pine and oak). I discussed the possibility that these trees were considered the trees of life because they were the main sources of food during the Mesolithic. I ask whether these two trees are somehow connected to the ancient idea of the garden of Eden, the Golden age "when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of social egalitarianism"?

Finally in my sixth post entitled "Bulaun stones" I wrote about the possibility that the so called Bulaun stones from Ireland are ancient acorn grinding stones, like the ones we find in North America.

In this post I will list all the references to the human consumption of acorns found in ancient (pre medieval) texts. I will present the list of references to the human consumption of acorns found in medieval and modern historical and ethnographic texts in my next post.

This is a coin minted in Arcadia, Mantineia; c. 420-385 BC.

Nicochares, who lived in the 4th century BC, was an Athenian poet of the Old Comedy. In one of his plays we find this line: “Tomorrow we will boil acorns instead of cabbage To treat our hangover.” I want to thank "SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE" blog for pointing this fragment to me.

Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd century BC) in Argonautica, talks about the time when only acorn eating Arcadians lived in Greece. 

“...when not all the orbs were yet in the heavens, before the Danai and Deukalion races came into existence, and only the Arcadians lived, of whom it is said that they dwelt on mountains and fed on acorns, before there was a moon.”

Diodorus Siculus (60 - 30 BC), a Greek historian, in his "Library of History"  talks about wild Arcadian acorn eating warriors.

"When the Lacedaemonians were setting out to conquer Arcadia,1 they received the following oracle:

Arcadia dost thou demand of me?
A high demand, nor will I give it thee.
For many warriors, acorn-eaters all,
Dwell in Arcadia, and they will ward
Thee off. Yet for my part I grudge thee not.
Tegea’s land, smitten with tripping feet,
I’ll give to thee, wherein to dance and plot
The fertile plain with measuring-line for tilth."

Pausanias (110 - 180 AD), a Greek Geographer, in his Description of Greece, described the founding of the kingdom of Arcadia by Pelasgus.

"...Pelasgus on becoming king invented huts that humans should not shiver, or be soaked by rain, or oppressed by heat. Moreover; he it was who first thought of coats of sheep-skins, such as poor folk still wear in Euboea and Phocis. He too it was who checked the habit of eating green leaves, grasses, and roots always inedible and sometimes poisonous. But he introduced as food the nuts of trees, not those of all trees but only the acorns of the edible oak. Some people have followed this diet so closely since the time of Pelasgus that even the Pythian priestess, when she forbade the Lacedaemonians to touch the land of the Arcadians, uttered the following verses:

In Arcadia are many men who eat acorns, who will prevent you;

It is said that it was in the reign of Pelasgus that the land was called Pelasgia..."

Though Pausanias was writing about what to him was antiquity, he notes that still in his own time, the Arcadians were fond of acorns.

Claudius Aelianus (175 – 235 AD), often seen as just Aelian, a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric, in his Various History. Book III, also writes that Arcadians ate acorns.

"The Arcadians fed on Acorns, the Argives on Pears, the Athenians on Figs, the Tyrinthians on wild Figs,24 the Indians on Canes, the Carmans on Dates, the Maotians and Sauromatians on Millet, the Persians on Turpentine and Cardamum."

Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus (129 – 216 AD), better known as Galen, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher, wrote "acorns afford as good nourishment as many sorts of grain; that in ancient times men lived on acorns alone, and that the Arcadians continued to eat them, long after the rest of Greece had made use of bread corn."

Strabo (63 BC - 24 AD), a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, in his Geography writes about Lusitanians in Iberia that they ate acorn as staple food for two thirds of the year.

"...that they lead a simple life, are water-drinkers, sleep on the ground, and let their hair stream down in thick masses after the manner of women, though before going into battle they bind their hair about the forehead. They eat goat's-meat mostly, and to Ares they sacrifice a he-goat and also the prisoners and horses; and they also offer hecatombs of each kind, after the Greek fashion — as Pindar himself says, "to sacrifice a hundred of every kind." They also hold contests, for light-armed and heavy-armed soldiers and cavalry, in boxing, in running, in skirmishing, and in fighting by squads. And the mountaineers, for two-thirds of the year, eat acorns, which they have first dried and crushed, and then ground up and made into a bread that may be stored away for a long time..."

Virgil (70 - 19 BC), a Roman poet, in his Georgics claims that acorns were the first human staple food which was later replaced by corn.

"O Liber [Dionysos] and bounteous Ceres [Demeter], if by your grace Earth changed Chaonia’s acorn for the rich corn ear, and blended draughts of Achelous [water] with the newfound grapes."

"Ceres [Demeter] was the first to teach men to turn the earth with iron, when the acorns and the arbutes of the sacred wood began to fail, and Dodona withheld her food [acorns]."

Apuleius (124 - 170 AD), a Roman writer, in his The Golden Ass hails Ceres for replacing the barbaric diet of acorns with the civilized diet of grain.

"At one time you [Egyptian Isis] appear in the guise of Ceres [Demeter], bountiful and primeval bearer of crops. In your delight at recovering your daughter [Persephone], you dispensed with the ancient, barbaric diet of acorns and schooled us in civilizes fare; now you dwell in the fields of Eleusis."

Ovid (43 BC - 18 AD), a Roman Poet, in his Amores repeats that acorns were the original human staple food and that Dodona was goddess of old agriculture (oaks and acorns) just like  Ceres was the goddess of new agriculture (corn).

"Here comes the annual festival of Ceres:
my girl lies alone in an empty bed.
Golden Ceres, fine hair wreathed with ears of wheat,
why must your rituals spoil our pleasure?
All peoples, wherever, speak of your bounty, Goddess,
no other begrudges good to humanity less.
Before you, the bearded farmers parched no corn,
the word threshing-floor was unknown on the Earth,
but oak-trees, the first oracles, carried acorns:
these and tender herbs in the grass were our food.
Ceres first taught the seeds to swell in the fields,
and first with sickles cut the ripened sheaves:
first bowed the necks of oxen under the yoke,
and scarred the ancient earth with curved blade."

Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 AD), a Roman writer and naturalist, in his Natural History gives detailed description of various known types of oaks and their acorns and explains which of them can be used as food. One of the oak types he lists is called Æsculus which means edible. He also says:

"It is a well-known fact that acorns at this very day constitute the wealth of many nations, and that, too, even amid these times of peace. Sometimes, also, when there is a scarcity of corn they are dried and ground, the meal being employed for making a kind of bread. Even to this very day, in the provinces of Spain, we find the acorn introduced at table in the second course: it is thought to be sweeter when roasted in the ashes. By the law of the Twelve Tables, there is a provision made that it shall be lawful for a man to gather his acorns when they have fallen upon the land of another.

The varieties of the glandiferous trees are numerous, and they are found to differ in fruit, locality, sex, and taste; the acorn of the beech having one shape, that of the quercus another, and that, again, of the holm-oak another. The various species also, among themselves, offer a considerable number of varieties. In addition to this, some of these trees are of a wild nature, while the fruits of others are of a less acrid flavour, owing to a more careful cultivation. Then, too, there is a difference between the varieties which grow on the mountains and those of the plains; the males differ from the females, and there are considerable modifications in the flavour of their fruit. That of the beech is the sweetest of all; so much so, that, according to Cornelius Alexander, the people of the city of Chios, when besieged, supported themselves wholly on mast. The different varieties cannot possibly be distinguished by their respective names, which vary according to their several localities. The quercus and the robur we see growing everywhere, but not so with the æsculus; while a fourth kind, known as the cerrus, is not so much as known throughout the greater part of Italy. We shall distinguish them, therefore, by their characteristic features, and when circumstances render it necessary, shall give their Greek names as well."

Hesiod (750 - 650 BC), a Greek poet, in his Works and Days, asserted that acorns were staple human food:

"But they who give straight judgements to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus never decrees cruel war against them. Neither famine nor disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly they tend the fields which are all their care. The earth bears them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns upon the top and bees in the midst. Their woolly sheep are laden with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents. They flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit."

Lucretius (99 - 55 BC), a The Roman poet and philosopher,  also tells us that acorn decked oak boughs were carried in procession in the rites of the Eluesian Mysteries, so important was the oak to people's lives. He also says in Of The Nature of Things that 

"during the savage period of mankind soft acorns were man's first and chiefest food".

Oribasius or Oreibasius (320 – 403 AD), a Greek medical writer, also wrote about the the acorns as human food (as quoted by Abu Rihan Burini, the 10th century Iranian scientist).

"Acorn’s nutritional value is superior to that of [other] fruits, and even approximates that of the grains with which bread is made; and in the past, people used to live on balūṭ alone."

4th century BC Greek philosopher 
Plato in his Republic, says that when Socrates imagines founding a city full of people who live moderately, he creates a menu for this city, and on it are berries, chickpeas, and, finally acorns...

In Assyrian records from the Harran district, from the time of the king Sargon the second (720 - 700 bc), we find inventory of "belut" (white oak) trees. We know from ethnographic records that acorns of these white oaks are used as food.
In Sumerian mythology and literature we find a character called Lugalbanda who features as the hero in two Sumerian stories dated to the Ur III period (21st century BCE), called by scholars Lugalbanda I (or Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave) and Lugalbanda II (or Lugalbanda and the Anzu Bird). In the story "Lugalbanda and the Anzud bird" we find the reference to eating acorns.

"...The banks of the mountain rivers, mothers of plenty, are widely separated. With my legs I stepped over them, I drank them like water from a waterskin; and then I snarled like a wolf, I grazed the water-meadows, I pecked at the ground like a wild pigeon, I ate the mountain acorns."

4th century AD Roman poet Prudentius comments that "acorn bread was imported into Rome from Sardinia when there was a shortage of grain"...

According to the 16th century Desiderius Erasmus’s Adagia, "Satis Quercus", literally "Enough of the Oak", is a Latin proverb alluding to a supposed acorn diet in the days before the use of corn was discovered, before people were civilised...

So these are all the ancient historical record of acorn eating which I managed to find so far.  I would be more than grateful to anyone who can send me any reference that I have missed so that I can update my post. I am particularly interested in ancient North African, Near and Far Eastern records. We know that people in these areas consumed acorns as staple starch food from Mesolithic time to the 20th century and in some areas they still do. So there must be more records of this in ancient texts from those areas.
Anyway stay happy and healthy. And keep smiling. 


  1. That was very interesting. Thanks so much for taking the time to do it. I've always wanted to try bread baked from acorns. Maybe I will do it myself one day.

  2. Remember to use the right kind of acorns--- from the white oak, right?

    1. Not necessarily. A lot of people who ate acorns as staple, actually preferred the bitter black oak acorns because they were more resistant to worms and bugs. You just need to leach them well.

  3. I am really enjoying reading your posts. I like the photo you included of the coin. I would like to share a photo of a bronze artefact I found whilst metal detecting in Scotland. It looks very old indeed and is in the design of an acorn. Our national museum has not seen anything else like it but could not give me much help. Just thought you might be interested.

    1. I am glad you are finding my posts interesting. I would definitely like to see the object you are talking about

  4. Thank you for sharing your time and your knowledge, this information was very helpful to my acorn research. I will definitely link back to you when I share

  5. Great article, thanks for sharing. I wonder, was it at the time easier to store acorns or grains.