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
7 Raisins
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 Links:

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 "free lighting."

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 prosperity.
  • 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 other aromatics.
  • 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 and incenses.
  • 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.