The Strange Way Ancient Romans Used Butter As Medicine

Made by separating fat from buttermilk in a process called churning, butter has been a staple of many kitchen tables and bakeries for a lot longer than many of us might realize. Historians believe butter stretches back as far as 10,000 years, corresponding with the domestication of milk-producing animals like cows. Around 5,500 years later, instructions for what might have been the first-ever butter recipe appeared on a limestone tablet somewhere in the ancient world. 

In ancient Europe, evidence of the culinary preferences of ancient cultures shows that butter may have been first enjoyed as a food source by Northern peoples like the Scandinavians. This may have been partly due to the ability of those in Northern climates to keep butter from melting, but it may also explain why the Ancient Romans thought of butter as much more than a spread. 

While the Ancient Romans expressed disdain for the consumption of butter, they did approve of its use for other purposes. In order to remedy a scratchy throat, the Romans actually relied on butter to help relieve their pain. Even though many of today's health professionals warn that the acidity found in dairy products may do more to exacerbate the pain of a sore throat than soothe it, the salty, fatty taste of a mouthful of butter may have offered the people of Rome some much-needed momentary pain relief when nothing else was available.

Butter's uses, from pain relief to holy offering

Oral pain wasn't the only form of discomfort the Romans turned to butter for relief from, as the fat was commonly rubbed into the skin to offer respite from muscle pain. While butter isn't known for containing any anti-inflammatory or natural pain-relieving properties, it's not hard to imagine how butter melting under the warm Roman sun could have been used as a makeshift massage oil. 

The ancient Romans weren't the only ones to use butter in a variety of unique ways as scientists have found evidence of its use all around the ancient world. In ancient India, butter was used as an offering to the gods, a tradition that Hindus still keep alive today. The ancient Irish were also known to use butter as a sacrifice to the divine, as evidenced by a 2016 discovery of a 2,000-year-old hunk of butter discovered in an Irish bog (via CNN).

While downing a wad of butter when you're feeling under the weather or slathering it on your skin after a hard workout may not be advisable today, there are still plenty of modern uses for butter that don't involve the kitchen. The next time you find yourself faced with a creaky door hinge or unsightly brittle nail beds, butter may just be the ancient cure-all you need.