All throughout the course of recorded time, smells of fragrant resins and perfumes have shaped the destiny of our lives and culture. The atmosphere provided by such scents seem provocative and tranquil. We often remember these moments with such clarity that they may almost seem like they are happening at this very moment. The smells might seem so pungent that they may overwhelm one’s senses. It’s not hard to see how such fragrances were considered so divine that even a society’s gods or idols might seek pleasure from them. The beginnings seem so humble and pure. Simple offerings from the season’s harvest. Pieces of our world itself, burnt up in a flicker.
The Ancient Civilization of Egypt
The origin of incense takes place far away in the Middle East, within the ancient civilizations of Egypt. Small balls of resin have been found by archeologists in prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna, and although this exact period of time was not recorded, it is quite clear that incense was at this time, in some way, used in their burial rituals. Neither do we know what sort of recipes they might have used during this time, however, one might assume that primarily local materials must have been used, as trade was not yet very prevalent. This would include ingredients such as frankincense, myrrh, camel grass, honey, date paste, pine resin, wine, juniper, or even common plants such as mint.
Official records from the pharaoh’s courts dictate that once trade began, they began to incorporate a large percentage of imported spices and material into their incense. Cedar-wood, harvested from Levant (Lebanon), for example, became quite popular.
Egypt is obviously a rather dry region and therefor, it was quite hard to find aromatic woods of equivalent quality. Hatshepsut herself even recorded a trading expedition on the walls of her temple in Deir el-Bahri to Punt, an ancient trading partner of Egypt.
Quite a few Greek historians and philosophers such as Plutarch, Dioscorides, Homer and Galen wrote about a substance referred to as Kyphi, which was burned in the evenings in Egypt. However, the ingredients they each claimed were used, differed greatly. According to a discord written by Plutarch, the Egyptian priest Manetho wrote a paper on how to craft this famous lost substance, but we have yet to find any surviving copies.
They often burned such incense as offerings to their gods and believed it would help bring wealth to their region. Sometimes these resins were even considered to have divine attributes. For example, the god Hathor, was associated with myrrh and Osiris with cedar. Nefertum, the lion-headed Egyptian god of perfume and fragrance was thought to embody the very essence of incense. It is said that he was birthed from a blue lotus bud at the beginning of creation.
From Egypt, incense traveled to other countries, notably China, India, and Japan, where the tradition would flourish and become the world-wide phenomenon it is today.
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