Aromas of Cheopia
The ancients were absolutelty *mad* for pleasant aromas. The trade caravans
that cross the high desert of Cheopia carry many valuable and rare substances
used in artisanry, cosmetically, medicinally, as food spices and so forth.
In this installment, however, we're going to try to focus on substances
valued primarily for their aromas. These include incense, perfumes, and
unguents (oils). Also, though there is a plethora of such substances
available both today and in ancient times, I will try to concentrate on
commodities used in ancient Egypt and Arabia.
Incense - the Breath of the Gods
Within their houses and temples of worship, the ancient peoples burned
substances in a brazier or censer that released pleasantly scented smoke.
It wafted upwards, carrying the prayers and messages of men and women to
the gods. That smoke was a physical, psychological, and spiritual link
between their tangible world and the intangible realms beyond the senses.
Substances used in such activity eventually became known collectively as
"incense", a term derived from the Latin incendere "to set afire". Incense
includes scented wood, berries, spices, herbs, seeds, roots, flowers, and
aromatic resins blended together. Most incense recipes are intended to
generate a positive, spiritual, peaceful, sense of well-being.
In ancient times, the harvesting, processing, mixing, curing and forming of
incense into sticks, bricks, powders, and cones became a thriving commercial
activity that continues even today. Ancient caravans carried loads of incense
for sale or trade. The tradition and business of producing incense throughout
Arabia successfully continues long centuries since the dust from the last
camel caravans settled upon the Silk Road. It is still the Arabic practice
of good manners and friendship to offer to guests incense or perfume before
they leave. The roving merchants of the suqs still sell frankincense in
various forms just as they did in olden times.
In ancient Egypt, immense quantities of incense were burned for religious and
healing purposes. Records indicate that during the thirty-one-year reign of
Pharaoh Ramses III, nearly two million pieces of incense were burned. So
important was incense that the Egyptians created an office within Pharaoh’s
Court, managed by the Chief of the House of Incense.
Egypt's penchant for producing unguents and incense was to become legendary.
A figure of King Thothraes IV, carved into the base of the Sphinx at Giza,
has been offering devotional incense and oil libations since 1425 bc, and
there is little doubt that Egyptian aromas were potent: calcite pots filled
with spices such as frankincense preserved in fat still gave off a faint odor
when opened in King Tutankhamen's tomb 3,000 years later. As depicted on wall
paintings, solid ointments of spikenard and other aromatics, called "bitcones,"
were placed on the heads of dancers and musicians, where they were allowed to
gradually-and dramatically-melt down over hair and body.
The Egyptians held several incenses, such as that called kyphi, in such high
esteem that it was burned only in their Temples. Plutarch explained the art
of compounding the sacred incense kyphi, which consisted of many aromatics
blended together during a secret ritual to the chants of sacred texts. Kyphi
induced peace and sleep, intensified dreams, relaxed the body, and soothed
anxieties, while generating harmony and order in all who inhaled the sacred
vapors. The Egyptians also used frankincense and terebinth gum on the hot
coals of incense burners to please both gods and humans.
Ancient Egyptian Traditional Kyphi Incense (Kyphi Tsa)
This recipe was reconstructed from ancient Egyptian papyrii. Although an
ingredient or two may not have translated correctly, this should be pretty
close to the actual incense used in Egyptian temples. Also see the
"Breath of the Gods" link.
3 parts Honey
1 parts Copal
1 parts Myrrh
1 parts Orris
4 parts Sandalwood
1 parts Storax
2 parts Frankincense
2 parts Cinnamon
Red Wine (enough to moisten mixture)
Benzoin (enough to roll balls in)
Fiction: Cheopian practitioners of divine magic will quickly learn
that an enchanted version of kyphi is available at their temples. Much like
holy water, the kyphi resonates with divine magic and can be crafted to
produce metamagic effects upon divine spells.
Some very important trade resins:
Frankincense - (aka Olibanum gum, Libanum) This is an ancient mystic
incense associated with the sun. The frankincense tree grows wild throughout
north east Africa, being native to the Red Sea area. A tree of great beauty,
it has clear green leaves like the mountain ash and bears flowers that are
star-shaped. The flowers are pink with yellow centers. The wood is heavy,
hard and quite durable and is used for many purposes. Once each year, the
bark is cut and a thin layer is peeled off. One month later this is done
again and resin flows out from the inner wood. The milky-white liquid called
Luban 'Milk of the Arabs' oozes from incisions in the bark and solidifies
into tear-shaped orange-brown lumps between a pea and a walnut in size.
As the resin hardens it becomes brittle, shiny and has a bitter taste.
Frankincense is the finest incense in the world and the name means
Myrrh - An excellent antiseptic. The powder is used to brush the teeth
and freshen the breath. Burning myrrh is believed to send evil spirits
on their way, bring good fortune and money. The trunk of these shrubs
or small trees exudes a natural oleoresin, a pale yellow liquid which
hardens into reddish-brown tears (myrrh). Collectors make incisions in
the bark to increase the yeild. They have sturdy knotted branches,
clusters of aromatic leaves and small white flowers found growing in
north east Africa and along the coastline of the Red Sea in the southern
area of Arabia. The resinoid is a dark reddish-brown viscous mass, with
a warm, rich, spicy-balsamic odor. It is not pourable at room temperature.
The essential oil is a pale yellow to amber oily liquid. It blends well
with many other incenses and spices. This aromatic gum has been gathered
and sold at market as a spice or medicine since earliest times. Myrrh was
an ingredient for holy anointing oil and was often used in funeary rites
in ancient times.
Fiction: Like its historical namesake, the nation of Himyar
harvests and exports large amounts of Frankinsence and Myrrh. And much
like the Egypt of old, the Kingdom of Omolara is eager for this product.
Prices will fluctuate, but just as in times long ago, these two resins can
command far more than their weight in gold. One difference I have created -
unlike ancient Yemen, the Himyar of Cheopia is landlocked, so there is not
a good sea route as an alternative to the Bedouin caravans. He who controls the spice controls Arakis!
Some Other Famous Aromatics of the Ancient Medeterranean World:
- Ainse - The scent of Anise is spicy and sweet. The oil is a pale
yellow liquid. Anise is native to Greece and Egypt. Chewing on the seed
after meals help aide in digestion and sweetens breath. This oil also
helps ease headaches and soothes respiratory problems. Uses: Massage,
bath, skin care, inhalation, meditation, and diffusing other aromatics.
A muscle relaxant that clarifyies the mind as well.
- Aloewood - Eaglewood or aloe is referred to in the Old Testament
and is native to tropical Asia. Agallochum is the heartwood of the tree.
The tree's form is big and spreading with a dark-colored substance in its
center trunk that is very fragrant. Younger branches are white without
scent. Found in northern India, the tree grows as tall one hundred twenty
feet. This lign has an ancient history and was noted by Herodotus for
producing a substance of great value. In the East its beautifully grained
wood was desired above all others. It could be finished with polish and
this added to its beauty. Precious stones were set in the softer inner
wood. In the ancient world aloe wood was worth its weight in gold. Once
a popular belief was that this was the only tree descended to mankind
from the garden of Eden. The legend says that Adam carried one of its
shoots from the garden, transplanted it where he settled and every aloe
tree has come from this shoot. Shoot of Paradise or Paradise Wood are
other names given this tree.
- Ambergris - Known today as the rockrose, a shrub which produces
beautiful, five-petal flowers; this plant was very famous in ancient Egypt.
The whole genus, Cistus, is highly resistant to heat and drought. They
have come into the warmer landscape as a staple flowering shrub that grows
where few other plants stand a chance. It is a native of the Mediterranean
region. Plants contain aromatic oils in abundance. The scent of rock rose
oil is very powerful and distinctive. This oil of rock rose has since
antiquity been of great value. It is called ladanum, which is reflected
in the name of the most oil rich species, Cistus ladaniferus. What made
ladanum so coveted is that its properties and scent were similar to
ambergris, a byproduct of sperm whales. Collecting ladanum from wild
rockroses was done through two methods. First was a process by which
special absorptive materials such as cloth or hair was brushed over the
top of the plants so that the oil built up on the fibers. It was then
heated to release the oils under a more controlled extraction process.
It is believed that the flail seen in the hands of gods and pharaohs of
ancient Egypt was actually a ladanisterion, or ladanum collecting device.
The second method of harvest utilized the herds of goats that are so
prevalent in this part of the world. As the goats browsed on rockroses,
the oil accumulated in their beards. Each year the long beards of the
goats were cut and the oil extracted. For the pharaohs, the false beards
glued to the chin were in fact these ladanum-rich goat beards which would
surround the man with the desired scent. This is origin of the name for
such facial hair, the goatee.
- Balm of Gilead - An aromatic ointment made from the Gilead balsam,
which now grows in southern Arabia. In Bible times, the balsam and the
medication were common in Gilead, on the east side of the River Jordan.
This medication was well-known in the ancient Near East, and was used as
an article of trade. Its soothing and healing properties made it a
respected and potent part of ancient medical practice.
- Benzoin - Gum Benzoin is a resin used as a base note in perfumery. This
means that is acts as a fixative to help soaps and perfumes retain their fragrance on
the body longer. All the way from Sumatra, it has a rich luscious odor all its own.
- Calamus - The Latin for cane, is one of the ingredients in holy
anointing oil. It is also called "sweet cane". It has an aromatic smell,
and when its knotted stalk is cut and dried and reduced to powder, it
forms an ingredient in the most precious perfumes. It grew in Arabia
and India. It was probably that which is now known in India by the name
of "lemon grass" or "ginger grass," the Andropogon schoenanthus.
- Camphor - (Camphire, Henna) is lauded by King Solomon for its
wonderful fragrance. It is also referred to as the cypress flower and
is the alhenna of the Arabs. It has creamy-white blossoms that are
highly scented, hanging in clusters as grapes and growing in Palestine,
Egypt, Arabia and a large portion of northern Africa. The henna,
sometimes growing to a height of ten feet, was valuable for its rich
dye, especially by the women of Egypt. They used it to stain their palms
and the soles of their feet. It is also a check to excessive perspiration.
Camphire has been traded for centuries. This fact is substantiated by
three thousand year old mummies that still retain the dye used in life
on their nails.
- Cardamom - Cardamom is a relative of ginger from the Middle and
Far East, where it flavors Turkish coffee and East Indian chai tea. The
seeds were a valued export item in ancient Greece.
- Cedarwood - A tall tree growing in the higher elevations of the
Lebanese mountains. The tree was primarily used for building because it
was strong. It was used for building Solomon's Temple. Small branches
were used in the purification ceremonies as for lepers together with
hyssop. In ancient times, ropes and clothing were anointed with cedar
oil to protect them from humidity.
- Cinnamon - An aromatic plant that is used primarily for its smell.
It is a component of incense, perfume and Oil if Anointing. Two varieties
are named in the Bible : cinnamon (KINAMON) and cassia (KEDA or KEZIA).
In both cases, we are dealing with the same spice as today's cinnamon :
cinnamomum zeylanicum. The cinnamon is the outer bark, and the cassia
the inner one. Maimonides explains that cinnamon is "a reed as thin as
straw that comes from the Indian Islands".
- Cypress - Like the cedar, it is a very tall tree growing in the
Lebanon Mountains. It was known for its aromatic sap and strong odor.
- Galbanum - A prime component in the important ancient Egyptian
perfume trade. Galbanum was a key ingredient in ancient Egypt's famed
fragrances. Egyptian perfume was particularly prized because of its
reputation for a lengthy shelf life: galbanum was an important contributing
factor. Galbanum is an excellent fixative, meaning that it extends the
life of other more fleeting fragrances, when blended together. It was
valued not only as a component of perfume, but also when burned as incense,
Egypt's original olfactory art. Galbanum possesses an unusual and elusive
scent. It is simultaneously green, spicy, woody, balsamic and musky, a
fragrance of great depth and complexity. It is a very sophisticated, even
adult, scent, evocative rather than merely pretty or beautiful. To
experience the fragrance of galbanum first-hand is to possess a sense of
how sophisticated and subtle was the ancient Egyptian taste for perfumery.
- Ginger - Zingiber officinale releases a fresh, fruity, spicy scent,
which complements many incense and essential oil blends.
- Hyssop - Hebrew EZOV, an important Biblical aromatic and medicinal
herb. It is referred to various ritual contexts, and used as as a whole
herb. Most, if not all, authorities identify it as origanum Majorum,
known popularly in the Middle East as zaatar or zahatar. Felix comments
that the plant contains a strong odorous oil, i.e. an essential oil,
used till today in the perfume industry. In the book of Exodus, the
herb was used for painting the doorposts with blood (XII:22). The herb
is several forking groups of branches, shaped much like a brush or broom.
Hertz comments that "it was a convenient instrument for sprinkling, as
its leaves readily absorb the liquid and freely give it out when shaken."
In the book of Leviticus, the hyssop is used with the sacrifices to
purify the impure (leper and red heifer). The use is a practical one :
there is in the hyssop a component that prevents blood clotting : very
important when the ceremony calls for the blood to run off the altar!
- Jasmin - Jasminum sambac is a tender perennial, valued since
ancient times for its heady sweet fragrance. It is sometimes called
Arabian Jasmine. Jasmine is the sweetest and most celebrated flower of
North Africa, considered by many to be the most precious of floral
ingredients. Its white flowers are used to flavor tea. Dried flowers
are used in potpourri and sachets. Burned on charcoal cakes it is said
to bring relaxation, love and prophetic dreams in the night.
- Juniper - It is for its culinary, medicinal and ritual properties
that juniper is best known. The first two of these properties relate to
the juniper's berries. Strictly speaking these are in fact tiny fleshy
cones (like other cones they take two years to mature), and as such they
can be crushed and ground for use, as one would do with a peppercorn, as
well as pressed for any juice. Its culinary uses are many and varied.
The earliest recorded medicinal use of juniper berries occurs in an
Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC, in a recipe to cure tapeworm
infestations. An ointment made from the pressed juice of juniper
berries was used by Egyptians to darken the hair. Practical uses of the
juniper's wood are few, and it was most commonly used to burn, though
not for its heat, but rather for its smoke. Though burning juniper wood
gives off only minimal visible smoke, this smoke is highly aromatic, and
in ancient times it was used for the ritual purification of temples.
The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for
purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld.
- Mastic - From the Greek Island of Chios, the resin of Pistacia
lentiscus gives off a gentle, balsamic, pine-like aroma. Mastic was
burned to conjure beneficial spirits, stimulate or increase psychic
powers, and intensify sexual desires.
- Myrtle - Found growing wild in many parts of the Mediterranean
region, is a low-growing, evergreen shrub, with small, simple, dark-green,
thick leaves studded with numerous receptacles for oil. These leaves are
aromatic. It has a strange yellow-white flower and bears a
pleasant-tasting purplish berry.
- Narcissus - A bulbous plant with a yellow flower found growing
wild in the desert from the Mediterranean Sea to the center of Israel
and blooming in January. It is from this plant's strong floral essence
from which the word 'narcotic' derived. It soothes and relaxes, and is
a strong aphrodisiac.
- Ntyw - thought to be a synonym for myrrh - mentioned in the ancient
story of Gilgamesh.
- Oak moss - The Oakmoss lichen grows on oak twigs in temperate
Morocco. This lichen is an important ingredient in fine perfumes. The
thick sticky oil has an earthy-mossy aroma that adds richness and depth
to scent blends, and is an excellent fixative. Used as an incense on
charcoal cakes, this rich scent brings grounding, stability and financial
- Peppermint - In Egypt peppermint has been found in tombs dating
from 1000BC. This pale yellow liquid has a highly penetrating,
grassy-mint and camphor scent.
- Rose - The rose was used primarily for its fragrance, being
crushed in a carrier oil, the most common being olive, in order to absorb
its odor. Rose infused oil was used by nobility to ease aching muscles.
Rosewater was another use of this flower, as it is in the Middle East
down to the present.
- Orris root - Ancient Egyptians and Greeks discovered the potent
violet fragrance of the orris root which must be dried for two years to
develop. The root possess medicinal and breath freshening attributes.
- Sandalwood - The almost hypnotic sweet smooth buttery fragrance
of this beautiful wood (Santalum album) forms the foundation for many
fine incenses and perfumes. Chips of the sandalwood tree has been renowned
as an incense for more than 4,000 years. This tree is so valuable to
India that every tree is owned and controlled by the Indian government.
Sandalwood chips are burned on charcoal cakes or ground and mixed with
- Spikenard - Spikenard oil is obtained through stem distillation
of a perennial plant which grows in the wild to heights of up to two
feet, is found on the rocky ledges and open slopes of the himalayas
at altitudes between 10,000 to 16,500 feet. The spikenard oil is a
slightly viscous liquid of amber to greenish or deep blue. It has a
heavy, sweet, woody, and spicy animal odor, and can be used in perfumes
- Storax - Storax gum Liquidambar orientalis, gives a lasting rich,
sweet-balsamic note to incense blends.
- Thyme - A pungent herb of the mint family. Thyme oil is used for
perfumes as well as to flavor foods. The Greek word Thymos means "to perfume".
- Wormwood - A perennial herb, also called Absinthe or Green Ginger.
It is a very bitter herb that acts as a stimulant.