Trivia Time: Thieve’s Oil

Go into just about any health food store, or shop online from health food company and you can probably find Thieve’s Oil, typically a blend of Clove, Lemon, Eucalyptus and Cinnamon essential oils. Thieve’s Oil is a panacea or cure-all, an herbal concoction with many claimed uses. It’s reputed to have strong antiseptic and anti-microbial effects when used as a cleaning agent, diffused in the air, rubbed on the skin or even ingested.

Two big cautions:

Some essential oils are potentially toxic if ingested. You must do your own research on the Thieve’s Oil you buy to determine if it’s food grade and how much dilution it needs. I am not recommending ingesting any essential oil. It’s all on you.

Essential oils are also potentially caustic. They are typically added in small quantities to a carrier oil before applying them to the skin. Add a few drops to something like Olive Oil, Grapeseed Oil, etc. And test a patch of skin before using too much.

There is an interesting story behind how Thieve’s Oil got it’s name and what it’s original use was. The story goes like this, in medieval times there were four merchants or spice traders. (There are many variations of the story, and many different versions of exactly when and where this took place.) Their city was overran with the plague and they were destitute because of it. They decided to re-purpose the goods and clothing of some of their fallen comrades, ie. They turned to grave robbing. The endeavor was so lucrative that they authorities  became suspicious and the four thieves were arrested and dragged in front of the king.


He had only one question for them, why hadn’t they gotten sick? To save themselves from the gallows, they made him offer. Let them go and they’d reveal their secret.

The secret was Thieve’s Oil, a blend of spices that prevented them from catching the pestilence. The king kept notes on how to make it and for much of the late medieval period recipes for Thieve’s oil abound and many believed it would prevent the plague. And they may have been right, though not in the way they, or modern health nuts, believe.

Yersinias Pestis is a peculiar bacteria that can spread in a number of ways and causes more than one disease. It lives in both humans and rats. It can be spread directly from rats to humans by bite, and causes the Sylvanic plague, which remains endemic in many parts of the world. Sometimes it can get into a person’s lungs causing high fevers and racking coughs, which spread the plague. This is called pneumonic plague.

Rats, or more accurately, the fleas they carried, spread the black death.

Rats, or more accurately, the fleas they carried, spread the black death.

But the black death was neither of these. When yersinia pestis becomes lodged in a person’s lymph nodes it protects itself by forming a thick casing, or buboe. The lymph glands swell and turn black with buboes and blood, hence the “black” death. The afflicted would spike a high fever. Large black lumps would appear on their bodies and they would die.

This form of the plague is spread primarily from rats to humans via flea bites. The disease spreads first through the rat populations in medieval cities. As the rats died, the fleas on them would jump off looking for a new food source. Fleas don’t prefer humans, but in desperate times will feed on us. And then humans would sicken and die.

Grave robbers would douse their gloves and cuffs in fragrant herbal concoctions because they believed they had magic properties to ward off the curse of their crimes. They didn’t, but the thieve’s oil did repel fleas.

Later plague doctors would take it two steps further. The signature bird masks they wore had hollow beaks, which they would fill with fragrant herbs and dried flowers, to both mask the smells they faced and purify the air they breathed. They would wear heavy coats that were covered in wax or grease to create as thick of a barrier as possible between them and the miasma, the bad air they thought caused the plague. And they would dab their cuffs in thieve’s oil. The result was to make it hard for a hungry flea to find any exposed skin, or any tempting way in to exposed skin.

Source: Wikicommons

Source: Wikicommons

Does thieve’s oil work for the myriad ailments that people use it for today? That’s an open question. There are so many variations on the recipes and so many competing claims that it’s hard to know. As with my cautions above, it’s up to you to do your own research and make your own decisions. But you might want to add a bottle or two of thieve’s oil to your apocalypse bug out bag, you know, just in case you need to go “re-purposing.”

For more information on thieve’s oil and how to make it:

For another take on the legend:

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