Incense Ingredients by A. F. Trotter

Incense Ingredients
On Incense Ingredients.

At the old Port of Bereniké on the Red Sea the incense ships from the plains of Dhofur, from the ancient Shirite Empire of the Tubbas,1 unloaded their incense gums and resins from immemorial times. It was along this coast of Dhofur that the Shirite ambergris2 was found whose nature was confused with the resinous North Sea amber, and its presence on the Arabian coast added to the romantic reputation of the country. A singular reputation of wealth and luxury for a country in the main, bare, desert, and unprofitable.

Southern Arabia11 is the land of the luban or olibanum; the home of the half fabulous Queen Balkis; where still lie old (so called) "Sabean" temples* with their archaic ornamentations, ruined and unheeded in the sun; ruins perhaps of the same nature as the old buildings of Socotra5 and the ancient walls of the gold mines in Mashonaland. The fortresses of the later Mahomedan conquerors are ruined too; the old fortifications which replaced the earlier destroyed cities, and like the City of Zufar,6 which has moats leading to the sea, supplied the ships with better anchorage. It is a strange land now with huge buildings, many windowed, looking like sections of a street in Bayswater. Traces of old civilization lie underneath the retrograde Arab life like bones in the structure of a body, but when the men of the old kingdoms died out under the ravages of the later Mahomedan wars, the trade died out too. Very little care is now taken of the frankincense trees;' the wild tribes from the Gara Mountains collect the gum and bring it down to the Somalis at the coast cities. These trade with it in Bombay or carry it to the Berber market to be sent on from there. It was round this coast that the Alexandrian traveller Basiles, who is thought to have written the Periplus, sailed to the land of Ophir to obtain almug wood.
How far these old traders went we do not know, and we do not know the exact nature of their wares. Even to the present day drugs are brought from Persia, and strange seeds from Abyssinia and beyond, and from the East gums and resins which are used and recognised but whose origin is still obscure. The Arabs themselves, as one may imagine, care little for verification. Parcels of stuffs, packed in the bundles of the caravans, still, as they have done from immemorial times, come from one side of Africa to another, and no one can tell where they grew, or what is their local name, or exactly from what plant they are derived. The mystery is partly apathy, partly trade instinct now as in the past, but the old Sabean merchants who are said to have drawn a circle of secrecy round their wares, to have invented the Phcenix as the guardian of the frankincense tree, and to have said that their resins and gums gave off dangerous vapours,2 were perhaps more truthful than men knew. More than often they must have known little themselves of the wares with which they traded, and amongst these may easily have been gums of the sumac trees, which are widely known to have poisonous properties. Journeying so far as they did, it is not impossible that some of the Chinese or Formosan Rhus or sumac gums, the so-called lacquers, which have the power of producing swellings and boils,3 may have come into their experience. The upas tree itself was not more evil than the American poison ivy,* a Rhus and of the same species, which, if it climbs round the windows of a room, can produce delirium and coma in the dwellers within.

Dr. Karl Peters, in his Eldorado of the Ancients, takes his readers south from the Pungwe to the Sabi river, and points out the suggestiveness of the names. He holds with Dr. Glaser that the Sabean Empire had its centre of gravity in Yemen but that the rule of the Sabeans extended over the whole of the South African coast. The Punt, Pwnt or P6-net of the Egyptian inscriptions was not the name of a single state but the ethnographical term embracing the whole Punic world on the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf past Bab-el-Mendeb, and as far as the region beyond Abyssinia westwards and the coast of East Africa beyond Cape Coriuntes.
In the Ethiopian language, he points out, Saba is still the name for a man.

From the far-off days when King Assa of the Vth Dynasty went from Egypt1 to the Land of Punt, bringing back with him a pygmy dwarf; from King Sankaras' expedition sailing from a harbour in the red sea called Saba (about 2788 B.C.); from Queen Hatshepsus' great quest (about 1 540 B.C.) when she brought back baboons and ostrich eggs and ivory, to the last great incense expedition to Punt in the days of Ptolomes XIII. (80-52 B.C.),an unending trade had gone on, and tribute had been demanded of incense and incense trees, together with ivory, gold and slaves, by Egypt from the Divine land of Punt.

But though the expeditions of Egypt in quest of incense stamp her as loving it most of all, the people of Babylon and Assyria used incense as well. The Babylonians had an incense tribute from Arabia; frankincense it would have been, and myrrh, and perhaps storax, and aloes wood, the costly scented eagle wood (aguilaria) from Singapore, and the less understood incense resins from the Zanzibari coast. The Semitic people had gum acacia and used it in amulets, for to them the acacia was a woman, a divine tree.2 Babylonian incense included oil of balsam, and oil of cedar. A hundred talents weight of incense was burnt on the greater altar of Bel Marduk alone at his yearly festival.3

Sweet smelling incense had its practical side. Mr. Bent tells us how the smell of the bilge water in the ship in which they sailed round the coast of Southern Arabia was made endurable by burning huge braziers of Olibanum.* The myrrh, aloes and cassia of the ivory palaces of kings were the simple luxuries of a Semitic people whose austere
art seems to belie their alleged sensuousness. Some of these aromatic plants would have been brought from far, others could be grown near by.1 Storax or styrax, which is a benzoin2 like resin from the stem of a plant (the Styrax Officinale) is now grown in Greece, Italy and the South of France, as well as in Syria and Asia Minor. Ladanum would have come from Cyprus and Crete and was more than likely amongst the tribute which the five Kings of Cyprus paid to the Assyrian Sargon.8

In the time of Herodotus the Styrax travelled by way of the Phoenician traders, if we may believe anything of his gloriously wild statements. "Arabia," says he, "is the last of inhabited lands to the South," a statement which may dimly show that the Arabian land of frankincense was known not to be Arabia proper.

It is the only land which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and ladanum. The frankincense they produce by means of the gum styrax which the Greeks obtain from the Phoenicians, this they burn and thereby obtain the spice. For the trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours, whereof vast numbers hang about every tree. They are of the same kind as the serpents which invade Egypt and there is nothing but the smoke of the styrax which will drive them from the tree.

Were the " serpents" after all only a form of mosquito? It is almost disquieting to find that his account of Ladanum, which sounds at first as odd as the rest, is substantially true.

Ledanum [says Herodotus], which the Arabs call Ladanum, is procured in a yet stranger fashion. Found in a most inodorous place it is the sweetest scented of all substances. It is gathered from the beards of he-goats where it is found sticking like gum having come from the bushes whereon they browse. It is used in many sorts of unguents and is what the Arabs use chiefly as incense.*

The story by a modern scientific man is quite as romantic. Ladanum6 is, says Mr. Holmes of the Pharmaceutical Society, the soft resinous matter exuded from the glandular hairs of a species of Rock Rose. It collects on the beards of the goats, and the bells and fleeces of the sheep that browse upon the foliage. In Cyprus the Shepherds collect it by scraping the fleeces with a wooden comb, or with a double layer of stout strings . . . which is used to draw gently over the foliage of the shrubs. .... In Crete a similar instrument called a Ladanisterion having slender leather thongs instead of strings has been employed, certainly from the time of Dioscorides (a.d. 77) and probably from time immemorial.

One gets it now—the purest in a sticky brown lump—and it has a faint aromatic haunting scent, which seems full of sunshine and blue sky and hot scarped rocks, and there is a distinct satisfaction in realizing that your bearded Assyrian of the bas-reliefs probably had it too, and burnt it on his altar of incense, after his lion hunt perhaps or the terrible punishing of his victims of war.

Incense as a Jewish ritual1 practice is thought to date from the comparatively late time of Jeremiah. But noble Jews would incense their beds and houses, and passed round Mugmar or incense after meals on a brazier. We know the exact mixture of the Jewish ritual incense. Natif or Stacte, the first ingredient, is thought to be storax. Precisely what was meant by stacte is now not known, for though the word is still used in the East for a fine resin, old writers speak of it as a kind of liquid myrrh, and descriptions of the soft resins of some olibanum trees more nearly approach it. Another theory of liquid storax is that it was compounded of solid storax, resin, wine and oil beaten up together.2 Another that it was obtained from the island of Cobros in the Red Sea and was the resin boiled out of a bark and again liquefied in boiling water, after which both the bark and the liquefaction were sent to Mocca. There was also Styrax calamita. so called, because it was brought from Pamphilia enclosed in reeds. The modern storax is sold in masses of small purple grains and has a pleasant perfume.

Shahalet or Onycha, the second incense ingredient, was thought to be the fragrant operculum of a shell found in the Red Sea, and still used by the Arabs. But there is another stuff known amongst incense mixers from time immemorial which it may really denote. This is a fragrant Benzoin, or Benjamin as our old writers call it.1 The tears of the Benzoin have a shiny bright brown coat and break with a peculiar opacity disclosing a white finger-nail-like interior which is extraordinarily aromatic. Since shellfish were from the time of Moses looked on by the Israelites as unclean, there is a great probability in this latter suggestion. Helbanan or Galbanum, the third ingredient, is the name given to the resinous juice of the ferula herb. It is of three kinds. The yellowish opaque grains were probably the holy anointing oil of Scripture. The others have a turpentiny quality. The ordinary galbanum of commerce seems to contain all three substances, and has a very clinging, not a quite pleasant scent.

The last ingredient is true frankincense or Olibanum.2 It is a small stiff shrub of the Boswellia order, grown in mountainous places.

Olibanum trees are incised in their bark, and the resin exudes and is collected from the beginning of May until the first rains of September. The young trees yield the finest resin, the older ones, a clear transparent fluid, like copal. Gardafui resin is said to come rarely to Europe. It is traded by the Somali to Yemen and Jeddah ports. A considerable quantity of olibanum, however, is shipped to Europe, and you may buy frankincense by the pound at a wholesale chemist.

To the Jewish ritual incense were later added other scented things: myrrh, cassia, the flower of nard, cinnamon, kostus, and a substance (probably ambergris) called Amber from the Jordan. The myrrh of Genesis is not really myrrh but Ladanum from the Cistus Ladanijerous or the Cistus Creticits. With frankincense, myrrh is one of the oldest known of resins.1 The fragrant myrrh Bissabol of Bombay, the Habaghadi of the Somalis, is probably the myrrh of Solomon's Song. It is still used in Chinese joss-sticks. But though myrrh and bdellium have been known from immemorial times in Eastern trade our exact knowledge of their botanical source is very imperfect. Specimens of the plant brought to Europe are uncertain. There is Somali myrrh from near Cape Gardafui, Fadhli myrrh from the east of Aden, Yemen myrrh from Southern Arabia, and five distinct bdellium myrrhs. Bdellium grows much further from the coast than the true myrrh. Pictures of the tree show it not unlike an English hawthorn with short stiff leaves and long thorns. There are many different varieties; indeed some sixty species of bdellium. The genus is called Commiphora or Balsamodendron. Another oleo resin from a myrrh-like tree is the Balsam of Mecca, which is thought to be the Balm of Gilead of Scripture. It is from the Balsamodendron Opobalsam, and is liquid. True myrrh is very bitter as its Hebrew name implies, and is serviceable only in medicine. Bdellium seems to have been used as a size for walls from the eailiest times, either mixed with lime or brushed over limewashed walls, the gum being beaten into an emulsion with water.

The other incense ingredients may be briefly taken in turn. Cassia wood is the bark of a tree called Canellijora Indica,1 a kind of cinnamon. Out of the wood is also distilled an oil which has a strong cinnamon-like scent. Cassia oil is now imported from China, and is usually of a bright yellow colour, but this is caused by some colouring matter, and if pure it would be nearly white. It is a strong solvent for many resins. Kostus is given in one ancient glossary as a synonym for cassia (" Cassia similis coste."2 The same list gives cassia also as a pigment, "Gutta genus pigmenti cassia similiter," and one finds in the same Glossary "Zmurne Calami id est Cassie fistula? "). Kostus is now held to be the scented root of a Persian plant. Cassia is however a difficult plant to track. Another glossary confounds it with aloes wood. (Xilia-Cassia. . . . Inde xilocassia id est lignum aloes).5 Cassia leaves are equivalent to senna in the Materia Medico*; and are imported from Alexandria. According to Herodotus the manner of collecting cassia is as follows. The cassia hunters, as we may call them,

cover all their body and their face with the hides of oxen and other skins, leaving only holes for the eyes, and thus protected go in search of the cassia which grows in a lake of no great depth. All round the shores and in the lake itself there dwell a number of winged animals which screech horribly and are very valiant. These creatures they must keep from their eyes all the while they gather the cassia.
Of cinnamon, Herodotus has yet another marvellous tale. It is, he says, collected entirely from the nests of huge birds which, when baited with pieces of meat, fly with them to their nests, which are fastened to a sheer face of rock, " which not being able to support the weight break off and fall to the ground. Hereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon which is afterwards carried from Arabia into other countries." In reality canella, cassia lignea, and cinnamon, are all different names for the same thing. The spice was carried in large quantities by Chinese ships to Ormuz, and from thence to Alexandria and Europe. At one time it was thought that the Chinese bought in Ceylon all the cinnamon which they traded to the Persians. Authorities now hold that the ancient cinnamon was the Chinese cassia lignea, which Chinese traders brought to the ports of Western Asia. The cloves mentioned by Marco Polo were probably cassia buds.

In all this list the resin which is perhaps the most interesting of all has been left out, the copal. Our name for it is taken from the Mexican word copalli—incense. It must early have found its way into the caravan trade of the East as a rare gum.* It has been sold as fine incense in the Market of Jerusalem. It would doubtless have been amongst the heaped incense from the "glorious land of Punt" of the Egyptian quest. Copal trees are still growing and produce the raw copal which is mostly sent to China. But the finest is found in fossil lumps beneath the ground all along the Zanzibari shores and the East African coast and islands, from Ras Gomani S, lat. 300 to Ras Dalgado 10° 41 and for thirty miles inland.8 It is the remains of great forests long since rotted to decay. And if you burn it, it still gives off the faint sweet smell of its ancient aromatic life. Left out too is any mention of the gifts laid before the Child of Bethlehem; yet perhaps underlying the fascination of the subject is the memory that these simple things have been thought worthy to come into the radiance of that Immortal Story.

Incense Ingredients by A. F. Trotter*

8Additional Footnotes to be found by clicking the above