Incense Stories

The ancient kingdom of Saba cast a spell over the Greeks and Romans. Cut off by the sun-scorched deserts of central Arabia,these remote southern regions with their exotic exports of incense and spices were considered mysterious and fantastic by the early classical writers. And the Sabeans played up the mystery. They guarded their myrrh and frankincense groves fiercely, deliberately spreading rumours that the groves were watched over not only by them, but also by winged quadrupeds and serpents. Fabulous tales and mythologies sprang up about Arabian perfumes and Indian spices: cinnamon was said to be gathered from the nests of phoenixes, and bats were rumoured to snatch out the eyes of anyone who went cassia picking. Stories like these kept the prices high and the trespassers away, which was exactly what was intended.

As early as 2000 BC incense was considered essential for eternal life; it was thought to be the gateway to the spirit world and, by 450 BC, Herodotus was recording that Arabia ‘was the only place producing frankincense,myrrh .. . and cinnamon,, The privilege of tending the trees and gathering the incense was the preserve of three thousand families who cloaked the whole process in religion and mystery, which also helped maintain its high price. Herodotus wrote that ‘The [men]…of these families are called sacred and are not allowed to …[meet] a woman or [to attend] funeral processions when they are engaged in making incisions in the trees in order to obtain the frankincense.’

Incense was used not only as a spiritual cleanser but also as an early form of hygiene. Strabo mentions the Assyrian post-coital custom of burning incense for purification, while in other parts of the classical world incense was burnt to arouse passions before sex. Writers such as Sappho and Ovid emphasize the erotic properties of incense, and it is said that Egyptian women used to fumigate their vaginas with myrrh smoke. Yemeni women today still stand with their skirts over incense burners.

The Scythians, the trans-asiatic nomads of the Steppes, were addicted to perfume. Herodotus wrote that ‘The Scythian women bruise under a stone wood of the cypress and cedar, with frankincense; upon this they pour water until it becomes of a certain consistency. This imparts an agreeable odour and gives the skin a soft and beautiful appearance.’ They invented a novel vapour-bath too by throwing this paste and some hemp seed on to hot stones beside the bath. It is said that the Scythians enjoyed these scents so much that they squealed with pleasure.

The Greeks attributed a fabulous origin to the resin of myrrh, telling that it came from the tears of Myrrha, daughter of the King of Cyprus, who had been metamorphosed into a shrub after she fell in love with her father and tricked him into sleeping with her for twelve nights.

Myrrh was also believed to have magical effects; its elusive fragrance was thought to have supernatural powers and the ability to banish bad luck, and incense burners filled with juniper and myrrh were placed on thresholds to protect the household from evil spirits.

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