Smelly sacred stuff

Another oldie but goody. 

Smell is perhaps our strongest sense and the one most keenly tied into memory. This afternoon I was shopping at the health food store when my partner handed me a canister of mulling spices to sniff. The citrus and cinnamon and other herbs instantly transported me back to my childhood when my mother would make cinnamon-scented ornaments for our Christmas tree, brew hot apple cider, and read to me from a scratch and sniff holiday book while I was nestled cozily in her lap. I hadn’t remembered any of that for probably ten years now – and yet all of those associations were stored away in my brain, waiting for that scent to unlock the floodgates of memory.

The perfume industry spends millions each year marketing new fragrances to make us more alluring to each other or to make us feel more confident and daring, because they understand that like other animals, scents trigger chemical reactions in the brain which we are neither consciously aware of nor capable of controlling. It should come as no surprise then that scent plays a large part in religion.

Historian Walter Burkert writes, “Nothing lends a more unique and unmistakable character to an occasion than a distinctive fragrance; fire speaks not only to eye, ear and physical sensation, but also to the sense of smell. The sacred is experienced as an atmosphere of fragrance.” (Greek Religion, pg. 62)

The use of special scents to enhance the setting of a religious observance goes back to the earliest period in Greek history when choice woods and leaves were used to light the sacred fires for the “fragrant altars of the gods,” as Homer puts it (Iliad 8.48). Patroklos scatters something in the fire as an offering to the gods (Iliad 9.220) and Apollo orders the Cretan sailors he has chosen to serve as his priests at Delphoi to “build an altar there where the sea’s surf breaks; upon it kindle a flame, offer white barley and pray while standing about it close by” (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 491). Sappho invokes Aphrodite to “come from Krete, down from heaven, come, for here your shrine in a charming grove of apple trees keeps its altars smoking with incense” (Fragment 2). Hesiod advocates, “Sacrifice to the deathless gods purely and cleanly, and burn rich meats also, and at other times propitiate them with libations and incense, both when you go to bed and when the holy light has come back, that they may be gracious to you in heart and spirit, and so you may buy another’s holding and not another yours.” (Works and Days 338)

The two most popular kinds of incense for the ancient Greeks were libanon (frankincense) and myrron (myrrh). These came to Greece from southern Arabia via Phoenician traders and retained their original Semitic names. Both were especially connected with the goddess Aphrodite. According to Apollodorus (3.14.4) and Ovid (Metamorphoses 10.519-559), Myrrha was originally a young woman who incurred the wrath of the goddess and was punished with an insatiable lust for her father. Aided by her nurse, Myrrha deceived her father into sleeping with her and when he discovered what she had tricked him into doing, he pursued her with his sword and would have killed her had the gods not heard the prayers of Myrrha and transformed her into the tree which bears her name. Her tears became the precious gum of the tree from which incense is made, and nine months later the myrrh tree split open and Adonis, who was to become the beloved of Aphrodite, was found within. Thus myrrh was burned in rites for the couple, as well as frankincense, the first attestation of which in Greek literature is to be found in the poem already quoted by Sappho.

While these two incenses were characteristic of the worship of Aphrodite, and may have come to the Greek mainland from her cult center in Cyprus, they soon passed into common usage in Greek cult everywhere. For as Burkert notes, “to strew a granule of frankincense in the flames is the most widespread, simplest, and also the cheapest act of offering.” (Greek Religion, pg. 62)

We also find frankincense being offered to Hermes, the Muses, and Apollo Musagetes in an inscription dating from 200 BCE at a school at Miletos (Syll 3 577) and the Greek Magical Papyri asserts that it is the proper incense for Helios (13.17-20).

The Orphic Hymns, which were composed probably in the early period of the Roman Empire and at Pergamon if the hypothesis of Otto Kern is correct, gives an extensive listing of deities for whom frankincense may be offered: Apollon, Ares, Artemis, Asklepios, Bakkhai, Dike, Eos, Hephaistos, Herakles, Hermes, Hygeia, Kouretes, Muses, Nike, Satyros, Silenos, Tethys, Themis and the Titans. In fact, the only deity that they specifically prohibit this incense for is Dionysos Khthonios.

Other incenses which the Orphic Hymns suggest are myrrh for Leto, Nereus and Poseidon, storax for Khthonic Hermes, Dionysos, Eleusinian Demeter, the Erinyes, the Graces, Kronos, Semele and Zeus, and aromatic herbs for Adonis, Athene, Eros, the Eumenides, the Fates, Hera, Hestia, the Horai, the Nereids, the Nymphs, Okeanos and Rheia.

In addition to frankincense for Helios, PGM 13.17-20 also proposes storax for Kronos “because it is heavy and fragrant; of Zeus, malabethron; of Ares, kostos, of Aphrodite, Indian nard; of Hermes, cassia, of Selene, myrrh. These are secret incenses.”

And Plutarch (On Isis and Osiris 383d-e) gives the following recipe for kyphi, the traditional Egyptian temple incense which was popular in Rome and the Greek east: “Kyphi is a compound composed of sixteen ingredients: honey, wine, raisins, cyperus, resin, myrrh, aspalathus, seselis, mastich, bitumen, rush, sorrel, and in addition to these both the junipers, of which they call one the larger and one the smaller, cardamum, and calamus. These are compounded, not at random, but while the sacred writings are being read to the perfumers as they mix the ingredients.”

This incense would be suitable for Dionysos and Demeter since he, like Herodotos, asserts that they are the same as the Osiris and Isis of the Egyptians.

Another scent which can be burned for Dionysos is pine, since the pine tree was sacred to him (Pausanias 2.27) as well as the myrtle (Scholium to Aristophanes’ Frogs 330) and any bark or leaf since, as Plutarch said, Dionysos was worshipped everywhere as the god of trees. (Symposium 5.3.1)

The leaves of the laurel, however, belong especially to Apollo for whom they were burnt in antiquity (Kallimakhos, Hymn to Apollo) in commemoration of his beloved Daphne who gave her name to the bay tree. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.452-567)

Barley-groats, in addition to being tossed on the altar as an aparchei or first-fruits offering, can be burned in the fire, along with wheat and other grains, for Demeter since these were her gifts to mankind. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter II)

Flowers, especially the narcissus, the lotus, and roses can be burned or ground up into an incense for Aphrodite, since these were said to spring up under her feet where she walked. (Homeric Hymn V)

There is an extensive literature on incenses and perfumes which may be used in the worship of our gods, but I have refrained from citing these since I have tried to stick with primary sources throughout this article. However, they can be invaluable resources, especially if you accept the Qabbalistic correspondences upon which they are usually based. The best volume to consult for this is Aleister Crowley’s 777 which provides extensive listings of perfumes, herbs, plants, gems, colors, etc. for each of the gods. However, for the untrained student who is not familiar with the Qabbalah and the spheres of the Tree of Life, his tables can be difficult to wade through, so I would recommend the companion volumes The Witches’ God and The Witches’ Goddess by Janet and Stewart Farrar which have compiled that information in easily accessible encyclopedic entries under the names of the respective deities. Another volume, which has great information on how to make your own incenses and perfumes, as well as recipes for a number of the gods, is Scott Cunningham’s Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews. Whatever faults the above authors may have in regards to other matters, when it comes to making things smell pretty they sure know their stuff!

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