Better Writing Through Chemistry: Ancient Scents and Experiencing the Past Through the Senses 

“[H]e will be cured, unless God does not wish it.” – Hildegard von Bingen, Physica 

Because I’m still waist-deep in the final push for Children of Actium (hoping for a February 1st release date, but that might be subject to change because of some minor slowdowns with vendors coming out of the holiday break), I was looking for a “fun” (?) topic for a post rather than a research-intensive one. While trying to think of something that would fit the bill, I read my umpteenth ancient source referencing frankincense and myrrh and thought about how I acted like I knew what they smelled like, but did I really? This led to a whole bunch of rabbit holes about scents of ancient origin and eventually some quick purchases, and therefore this week I’m going to talk about four popular ancient scents: frankincensemyrrhspikenard, and hyssop. What they are, how they were used, and what people thought they did. But to make things more interesting, I’m going to be smelling them as we go (and in one case, tasting!), and because we haven’t invented Smell-O-Vision yet, I’ll give you my written impressions. Think of me as your ancient herbal sommelier. 

[Fun Side Fact: In middle school, I was given one of those career aptitude tests and my top result was sommelier. I think it was because sommeliers do the expressive write-ups on the labels of wines and it was tapping into my creative/descriptive writing skills, but it’s a heck of a career to suggest to a twelve year old…]

To spiritually help us along and further make this a multimedia experience, I’ll be leaning on 12th century polymath Hildegard von Bingen, who was known primarily in her own lifetime for her ecstatic religious visions, but was also an accomplished writer, composer, and healer. Among other sources, I’m going to reference her usage suggestions for our ancient ingredients from her Physica and below is a link to the Oxford Camerata singing a collection of her hymns for us to listen to as we talk.

And because as we discussed in my entry on Punt, frankincense and myrrh were of particular of interest to the ancient Egyptians, I’m going to use the Fighter Gods themselves as my divine lab assistants. Just to keep things interesting.

[Set: Behold, mortals. I have become adorable. BUT STILL EVIL! And observe, my nephew wears the hat of the chef to help us!]
[Horus: It’s the pschent, you idiot. Not that you’d know, having never worn it no matter how many times you’ve tried. And I am NOT adorable…]

We’re going to have so much fun! Let’s dig in!

Frankincense

Frankincense is a resin, produced from the sap of several species of tree in the Boswelliagenus, which are themselves commonly called Frankincense trees, or Olibanum. Found indigenously in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa/Sudan, and India, frankincense has been harvested and traded for upwards of five thousand years. The name frankincense comes from the Old French franc encens, meaning “noble/pure incense”; in Greek, the resin was called líbanos (λίβανος) and in Latin, lĭbănus, which was the cognate of Lebanon, where the ancient trade would have traversed with it. Incidentally, one of the names of the tree, olibanum, is a medieval gloss of lĭbănus, possibly crossed with the Arabic name of the resin, al-libān (اللبان).

[Dried frankincense resin]

The trees start producing resin at eight to ten years old and can be tapped up to three times a year. The more opaque the resin, the higher its quality, and usually the last tap of the year produces the best resin. The resin is dried into incense crystals that can be burned as is, crushed up into medicinals, or steam distilled into an essential oil (which is how I’ll be dealing with it). As one of humanity’s earliest antiseptics, frankincense was often used by ancient people as both a physical and spiritual cleanser. The ancient Egyptians used frankincense, as well as the upcoming myrrh, as an integral part of the preservation process during mummification, along with the salt natron, while the ancient Persians burned it to remove evil spirits from people and buildings. Frankincense is one of the earliest incenses mentioned in the Torah, used by the ancient Israelites in their temple offerings and proscribed as one of several spices to set before the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 30:34-38). And in the Christian New Testament, it is one of the gifts said to have been brought to the infant Jesus by the magi of the east. It is also common in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is called rǔ xiāng (乳香), used both as a topical antiseptic and orally. Unfortunately, the frankincense I’ve obtained isn’t graded for ingestion, so we’re not going to tempt fate. Heck, you’re looking at a girl who’s such an essential oil n00b that I didn’t know I couldn’t just slap it on my skin without reading the labels…

[Frankincense tree]

My impressions: Yikes, frankincense is strong. I went with this first expecting it to be one of the less intense scents, but it’s definitely the opposite. Just whiffing the bottle, one gets a snootful of bitter citrus and the outdoors. It smells alive, though, like a living plant. The bitterness gives it this undertone I associate with cleaners, so even to my modern nose it smells antiseptic. As you can see from my photos, I’m using a traditional incense burner rather than a defuser or nebulizer, and I will say that the harshness of frankincense’s scent was softened by heat defusion, but it was still a lot to take in.

[Set: Yes!! We have fire!!]

Reporting from the Middle Ages, Hildegard’s medical tradition would have followed the humorism developed by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC, and expanded by Galen in the 2nd century and by Arabic physicians like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) in the 11th century. In humorism, not only were people categorized by the four humors, but so was the natural world and the things in it. Frankincense was considered a hotter substance, so it would have been used to balance out coldness. Running her abbey’s infirmary, Hildegard used it largely as a topical treatment for congestion and headaches. She recommends mixing ground frankincense with whole wheat flour and egg whites to form little cakes dried out in the sun or on a warm tile. Once you had a solid cake, you breathed in its scent to dispel congestion or tied it to your head overnight to relieve a headache. And I will admit a few whiffs of frankincense did clear out my nose pretty rapidly (I can immediately imagine it being enough to cover up the smell of a corpse or chase anything out of your house). Speaking of, Hildegard’s recipe for clearing evil spirits is a mixture of ground frankincense and deer antler. She also suggests a mixture of frankincense and spearmint in a plaster applied to the navel for quotidian (recurring) fevers; and a mixture of frankincense, chervil (a relative of parsley), fern, elecampane (a weed), sulphur, and pork fat to treat ulcers. I’m guessing she figures it can’t smell worse than your putrid ulcers… 

Myrrh

Like frankincense, myrrh is also a tree resin, though this time from the genus Commiphora, more specifically Commiphora myrrha. Native to the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, the name “myrrh” is Semitic in origin, meaning “bitter” (the name Mara(h) comes from the same root). Myrrh is also incredibly ancient, having being used by all of the previously mentioned civilizations, coveted as an incense and perfume. In the Torah and the Old Testament, despite its bitter name, myrrh is usually depicted as desirable: Esther is bathed in oil of myrrh to prepare her to ascend to the queenship of Persia, and the Beloved of the Song of Songs bathes her hands in myrrh for her lover. The ancient Hebrews also used myrrh as an anointing oil in the Temple and for their kings. Traditional Chinese medicine uses myrrh much as it uses frankincense, as does Ayurvedic medicine in India. Indeed, the idea of frankincense and myrrh as a pair long predates their Christmas grab bag, in part because they share many of the same properties. As they are both resins, they could be easily combined for similar results.

[Myrrh tree]

In Greece, myrrh was tied to their mythology through the ancient Phoenician/Semitic roots of the Adonis myth. As so helpfully recounted to us by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Myrrha was the daughter of Cinyras, the king of Cyprus. She disastrously falls in love with her father and after struggling to overcome her feelings, finally tricks him into sleeping with her under a cover of darkness and plentiful alcohol. When Cinyras sobers up and realizes what he’s done, he tries to kill Myrrha on the spot, but she escapes and wanders the earth begging the gods to release her from her crime. They take pity on her and change her into a myrrh tree, the weeping myrrh resin being the princess’ endless tears. But Myrrha’s incestuous union with her father left her pregnant and nine months later, Myrrha’s fragrant bark splits open and nymphs pull the preternaturally beautiful Adonis from her. Which doesn’t seem like the best advertisement against incest, but Adonis’ story is ultimately a tragic one, so the bitter legacy of his mother may have rubbed off on him.

[Horus: Adonis’ story is, of course, another version of the Osiris death/resurrection myth cycle.]

My impressions: Ooh, I like myrrh much more on first whiff than frankincense. It’s musky and dark-smelling, which may be where its “bitter” designation comes from, because to me it’s much less bitter-smelling than frankincense. It smells like wood (as opposed to a living tree) and is much more of what you might be imagining when someone says “incense.” In fact, I suspect many of you might have smelled myrrh, even if you didn’t realize it, because it is a common scent used in censers, especially by (unsurprisingly) the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. If you’ve been in a church where a priest is swinging incense around, that was probably myrrh you were smelling. As a result, even to my Lutheran-raised nose, myrrh smells “churchy.”

Hildegard says: Myrrh, humoristically, is very dry, so it must be used carefully as a medicine and only to balance out the very cold (she suggests camphor gum). She generally doesn’t recommend ingesting it, except it can be mixed in warm wine for fevers (which on some level makes sense, a mild analgesic and alcohol might kill some microbes). Hildegard mainly uses myrrh in plasters—with olive tree bark and leaves applied to the stomach for abdominal ailments, and with crushed limestone for worms over the infected area. Or, heated myrrh can be worn to ward off evil magic, though she recommends balancing its effects with gold, because myrrh is melancholic on its own (maybe because of its bitter name). Perhaps because she thinks myrrh will suck the fun out of you, proper abbess and future saint Hildegard says applying myrrh to your chest or stomach will curb lustful thoughts as well. 

Spikenard

Moving away from the resins, spikenard (or simply nard) is derived from a flowering plant—Nardostachys jatamansi—related to honeysuckle, indigenous to Nepal, China, and India. Like frankincense and myrrh, spikenard has been used for centuries as a perfume and anointing oil, but unlike those two, spikenard is made by crushing the rhizomes (the subterranean root shoots) of its plant. Its name comes from the Greek nárdos (νᾰ́ρδος) and the Latin nardus, both of which may have come from the original Sanskrit for Indian spikenard, nálada (नलद). The “spike” part of the name refers to the fact that spikenard’s flowers grow in clusters out of a single stem (inflorescence).

[Nardostachys jatamansi]

According to Pliny the Elder, spikenard was used by the Romans as a wine flavorer, as well as perfume (unguentum nardinum). And indeed, perfume has been spikenard’s dominant historical usage—it’s popular because it smells nice, as opposed to having amazing health benefits. Though the homeopaths I bought mine from say it’ll calm my mind and help me sleep better. Because of its more exotic point of origin, spikenard is less common in the ancient Mediterranean than frankincense and myrrh, and is usually depicted as more costly. When an unnamed woman (sometimes held to be Mary Magdalene or Mary, the sister of Lazarus) spreads an entire jar of spikenard over Jesus’ head and feet in the Gospel of Mark (14:3), Judas claims that the amount she uses could have been sold for at least three hundred pieces of silver (likely Roman denarii), which is a lot. In the Song of Songs, it is when the Beloved sits at the king’s table that her scent is described as that of spikenard (1:12-14). This also bears out in my modern experience, as I tried to spend about the same amount on each oil and spikenard was still by far the most expensive by volume.

My impressions: As befitting something someone might wear as a perfume rather than hide a body with, spikenard is noticeably subtler than frankincense or myrrh. On a “brightness” of scent, I’d place it firmly between the other two: it’s more citrusy like frankincense, but a lot less forthright about it. It also has a faint, but distinct, floral note, rather than the super woodiness of the resins.

Hildegard says: Probably because of its rarity and expense, Hildegard doesn’t rely on spikenard very much in her remedies. The only recipe in the Physica that mentions it is one of the abbess’ many prescriptions for gicht—a medieval German term for a constellation of illnesses, including gout, arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, and sciatica. Aka, getting old, basically. You can almost hear her say, “Might as well throw some ground spikenard in and see if that helps.”

Hyssop

Hyssop is shrub from the mint family (Lamiaceae), native to southern Europe and the Middle East, and its same-named oils and herbs are derived from the plant’s dried leaves and flowers, the latter coming in shades of blue, pink, and white. Its name comes from the Greek hyssopos(ὕσσωπος), which may share a root with its Hebrew name, ezov (אזוב), but there is some debate whether what we know as hyssop is what the Torah is referring to as ezov. Regardless, hyssop as we know it was used as a cleanser and purifier, as ezov was. Egyptian priests used it as a purgative for religious rituals, and multiple cultures utilized it as a culinary herb as well as a medicine.

[Hyssop]

Medicinally, hyssop was and is used as a mild natural antiseptic, as well as a cough suppressant and expectorant. Modern homeopaths claim it’ll help everything from sore throats to UTIs, but obviously evidence is anecdotal at best. But hyssop’s more ingestible nature means that for this one, I was able to get both an oil and a tea, so for our final scent we’re going to do a taste test as well!

[Hmm… better read the warnings on the box… Oh, that’s very vague…]
[Full disclosure: I looked up possible hyssop medication interactions and the main consensus seems to be you’ll be okay if you’re not pregnant or on anti-seizure, cholesterol-lowering, diabetes, or antiviral medication. I’m not, but otherwise proceed with caution.]

My impressions (smell): I saved hyssop for last because as the only oil whose scent was making it out of its bottle without opening it, I was afraid it would be the strongest of the group. But it turns out that it is probably the least aggressive, which is also probably why it’s made its way into the more “normal” essential oil scents like lavender and basil. Hyssop is very minty on first contact, which based on what we just discussed of its plant genealogy makes sense, but it’s also much more grassy and earthy than mint. Beneath this, there is a noticeable undertone of lemon, as opposed to the vague citrusiness of the frankincense and spikenard. This is the one I let go on the burner for the longest, because it was the least overwhelming in the air as well. Okay, now let’s spill about the tea…

My teabags were individually packaged and out of the wrapper, the hyssop has a strong fruity smell, almost like mango. Once the hot water hit the bag, that big grassy scent took over and you could recognize it as the same plant as the oil. Directions said to steep three to six minutes; I generally find oversteeping brings out bitterness in most types of tea, so I did four and a half. Once the bag was removed, the grassiness was still there, but it wasn’t as strong. As far as taste, I was expecting more of a mint tea, but it is definitely closer to a basic lemongrass tea, with that hint of lemon I smelled in the oil coming out in the taste of the tea. I’m more of a black and green kind of girl, but if you like lemongrass teas or herbal teas in general, you’d probably like this quite a lot.

Hildegard says: First of all, I’m not sure Hildegard would approve of our tea, seeing how she states that hyssop taken “with only water is harmed more than helped by it.” That could be because hyssop is another dry, moderately hot plant and in her mind needs more than water to provide a proper balance. But when combined with wine or meat, especially young chicken, she says it can be healthful for the lungs and liver. And if you’re fresh out of clucks and vino, you could try blackberry brambles or whale meat. She also recommends a mixture of ginger and hyssop spread across the eyelids to restore failing eyesight, even going so far as to say that if you get some in your eyes it’s okay.

[She probably figures if you’re already blind, it doesn’t really matter…]

She also suggests making a paste of hyssop and wormwood (absinthe) to stick in your ears to flush out any “ear vermin” (eww), and a mixture of hyssop and asarum (wild ginger’s rhizomes) to fix up your Hansen’s disease. Considering how many warnings about miscarriage I saw in modern hyssop literature, it’s notable that she doesn’t make any mention of that in her book, but as a God-fearing nun, Hildegard tends to remain silent about any medicine’s abortifacient properties in her texts. But primarily she thinks hyssop’s greatest strength is as a cure against melancholy, which checks with its place in the calming herbal tea market. And while I said I wasn’t a big lemongrass tea drinker, as I sipped my cup trying to clear all of the heady oil out of my nose and contemplated what I was going to do with what will easily be a lifetime supply of frankincense, I will admit that I felt pretty relaxed and at peace with the world.

So what have we learned? If I had to rank the four scents, I would probably do so in reverse order, with hyssop being the one I liked the most and frankincense the one I liked the least. Myrrh smells wonderfully rich and deep, but it quickly becomes too much of a good thing, and spikenard is almost a better balanced frankincense. I probably won’t be a regular drinker of hyssop tea, but it’s far from the most unpleasant tea I’ve ever drunk. Taste and smell are some of the most individualized of our senses and how much you’d enjoy any of these ancient scents and flavors depends on your personal tolerance for the kinds of notes each has. But regardless, it was fun for me as a writer and reader of older literature to finally have a tangible understanding of what these scents, which heretofore had been words on the page, were actually like. Now, you must excuse me while I go wrestle a tea light out of the paws and feathers of two very fractious gods before they burn my house down…

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