It appears that in ancient Egypt the onion was a primary source of divination. This worship seems to have arisen from the belief that its spherical shape and concentric structure might symbolize eternal life. Traces of onions were found in burial sites, as in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.
The onion itself, known as the common onion (genus allium), along with its brethren, the Japanese bunching onion, the tree onion, and the Canada onion, as well as the Egyptian onion; are typically fleshy, hollow, and cylindrical with one flattened side. They are at their widest about a quarter of the way up beyond which they taper toward a blunt tip.
The onion leaf grows out of a basal disk. As the onion matures food reserves begin to accumulate in the leaf bases and the bulb of the onion swells. In the autumn, the onion is basically a biennial but is grown as an annual, the leaves die back and the outer scales of the bulb become dry and brittle.
Onions, somewhat uniquely, have particularly large cells that are readily observed under low magnification. As a result, their cells are easily separated for educational, experimental, and breeding purposes.
Additional uses for the onion include:
Teaching the use of the microscope
As a moth repellent
To prevent insect bites
To promote hair growth
To reduce freckling
To polish glass and copperware
To prevent iron rust
To increase resistance to plant pests
To repel moles and insects from plants
As a yellow-brown dye
Ancient Greek athletes ate large quantities of onions, as they believed the onion helped to lighten the balance of blood flow. Roman gladiators rubbed onion on their bodies to firm their muscles, and, in the middle ages, onions were proscribed to facilitate bowel movement and erections, and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebites, and hair loss.
Aside from its uses in cooking, one of the most common associations we have to the onion is its ability to cause tearing in our eyes, much as an artwork that may strike us very personally. This eye stinging induced by the onion is brought on by the release of a volatile gas: syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas is produced by a chain reaction that occurs as follows:
Chopping or cutting the onion damages the onion’s cells.
Enzymes (alliinoses) are released.
There is a breakdown of amino acid sulfoxides.
Sulfenic acids are generated.
1-propenesulfenic acid is acted on by lacrimatory factor synthase (LFS).
Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is produced.
Gas diffuses through the air and reaches the eyes.
The diffused gas activates sensory neurons.
Tears are produced.
Which in an obtuse, but also synchronic way, brings us full circle to the subject of cromniancy, divination by onion.
Again, there appears to be evidence that its sphere-within-a-sphere structure caused the ancient Egyptians to observe the onion as a much-revered symbol of spirituality and eternity. They would take sacred oaths while placing their right hands on the onion. They divined the weather, sought romantic advice, and answers to important questions by inscribing names or words on onions, placing them on sacred altars, and waiting to see which ones would sprout first.
One of the things that interests me most about this veneration of the onion is that such reverence seems to be based, as previously stated, on the spherical concentricity of the onion’s structure; yet this is a structure that, at least in those times, could never be completely observed.
In order to perceive the onion’s systematic yet harmonious structure, and its unique rhythms, even perhaps through our tears, it is necessary to abuse the object, perhaps to destroy it. Even then, as we divine ourselves into its secrets, we never see the entirety of each sphere, the inner and outer sides, as a whole.
I am personally struck by the qualities of a single horizontal slice, about 1/8” to 3/16” thick. I try to punch out each ring, wholly, in order to observe each ring’s singular dynamism. Yet I still imagine how wonderful it would be to hold, in the palm of one hand, the “unbearable lightness” of a single whole interior onion sphere, and in the other, equally comfortably, the nucleus of art.