Perfume in the Judeo-Christian tradition

Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart… (Proverbs 27:9)

Many people associate perfume in the Bible with frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi to baby Jesus. In fact, perfume is more extensively described in the Jewish Bible (also known as the Tanakh or Old Testament) than it is in the Christian New Testament. The common roots of incense burning among Jewish and Christian worshippers traces to the book of Exodus, where we will start our journey into Judeo-Christian perfumery.

  Andrea Mantegna, "Adoration of the Magi" (1398)

Andrea Mantegna, "Adoration of the Magi" (1398)

In Exodus, the Lord gives Moses instructions to build an Ark of the Covenant, upon which his brother Aaron is told to burn incense: “And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it.” (Exodus 30:7) 

  Aaron, brother of Moses and the first High Priest of Israel

Aaron, brother of Moses and the first High Priest of Israel

“And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is up the testimony, that he die not” (Leviticus 16:12-13)

A recipe for holy oil is also given by the Lord to the people of Israel. It contains “pure sweet myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels. And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil hin: And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of apothecary: it shall be a holy anointing oil.” (Exodus 22:23-25)

Moses was instructed by the Lord to make a second holy oil with the following ingredients:

“Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, onycha and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight. And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy.” (Exodus 30:34-35)

The identity of “stacte” is unclear, but it is some form of tree resin such as styrax. “Onycha" is also subject to debate. Some believe that it is the claw-like operculum of a sea snail, ground and purified. However, sea shells don't smell good, and unscaled sea creatures were considered unclean by the Jews. A probable synonym for onycha is labdanum, a spicy, resinous sap produced by the rock rose (cistus) and common to Israel and Palestine. Galbanum is a well-known ingredient with an intensely green, dry, and diffusive scent that would have imparted a distinctly different character to the other spice and resin mixtures of the time.

The text is clear that holy incense and oils are intended for God’s glory alone - never for personal use. “And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:37-38)

  The Day of Atonement: the High Priest of Israel offering Ketoret incense before the Ark of the Covenant

The Day of Atonement: the High Priest of Israel offering Ketoret incense before the Ark of the Covenant

The Rabbis of the Talmud expanded upon the fragrant recipes given by the Lord to Moses. On Yom Kippur (also known as the Day of Atonement), Ketoret, a form of most holy incense, was burned at the base of the Ark by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest of Israel). According to Paul Heger’s “The Development of Incense Cult in Israel” (1997) the recipe for Ketoret follows:

“Eleven kinds of spices were in it, as follows: (1) stacte, (2) onycha, (3) galbanum, (4) frankincense - each weighing seventy mina [and each comprising 19.02% of the total weight]; (5) myrrh, (6) cassia, (7) spikenard, (8) saffron, each weighing sixteen mina [and each comprising 4.35% of the total weight]; (9) costus - twelve mina [comprising 3.26% of the total weight]; (10) aromatic bark - three [comprising 0.82% of the total weight]; and (11) cinnamon - nine [comprising 2.45% of the total weight]; [Additionally] Carshina lye, nine kab; Cyprus wine, three se'ah and three kab - if he has no Cyprus wine, he brings old white wine; Sodom salt, a quarter-kab; and a minute amount of maaleh ashan. Rabbi Nathan of Babylon says: Also a minute amount of Jordan amber. If he added honey, he invalidated it; if he [deliberately] omitted one of the spices, he was liable to the death penalty.”

  The operculum of sea snails, a possible source of "onchya" and a strange perfume, indeed

The operculum of sea snails, a possible source of "onchya" and a strange perfume, indeed

Deborah Green writes “ancient rabbis employed imagery of fragrance to propagate their social, theological, and religious claims.” According to her extensive research, “the rabbis had a tradition of how aroma operated and a deep cultural understanding of what particular scents meant.” Smell was associated with good and evil. Virtuous, holy people and places smelled good, whereas foul smelling people and places were considered unclean and unholy. Women obedient to God and their husbands are depicted as sweet smelling, whereas unchaste women are condemned for using perfume. Men who used perfume for unholy purposes are equally contemptible: “And thou wentest to the king with ointment, and didst increase thy perfumes, and didst send thy messengers far off, and didst debase thyself even unto hell.” (Isaiah 57:9)

  Dante Gabriel Rosetti's "The Beloved" (1865-66), illustrating the Song of Solomon

Dante Gabriel Rosetti's "The Beloved" (1865-66), illustrating the Song of Solomon

In the Song of Solomon, descriptions of perfume take on a positively erotic tone. Many scholars claim that reference to male and female lovers is a metaphor of the love between God and the people of Israel, wherein the reference to a woman is Israel herself and her lover is God. While this interpretation may be true, the text remains intensely romantic:

“Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon. 
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. 
Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; campfire, with spikenard, 
Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.” (Song of Solomon 4:11 - 5:1)

If ever a more romantic passage has been written about scent, please share it with me!

Perfume in the New Testament

 An Ethiopian orthodox priest blesses the faithful with incense during Ethiopia's Timket celebration to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist

An Ethiopian orthodox priest blesses the faithful with incense during Ethiopia's Timket celebration to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist

  The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c. 565, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c. 565, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Arguably the most emotional use of perfume in the New Testament is Mary Magdelene’s anointment of Jesus with nard, also known as spikenard:

“Then Mary took a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” (John 12:3)

  Detail of Peter Paul Rubens' "Mary Anointing Jesus' Feet" (1618)

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens' "Mary Anointing Jesus' Feet" (1618)

The Sanskrit words for spikenard include Jatila, meaning “difficult” and Tapasvini, meaning “concentration and devotion.” The plant was difficult to obtain and therefore expensive in ancient times. Mary’s alabaster box of essential oil would have cost nearly a year’s wages. It is no wonder that followers of Jesus expressed indignation at her luxury, arguing that such value should be distributed to the poor; but Jesus rebuked “She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.” (Mark 14:8)

  Jan van Scorel, "Mary Magdalene," circa 1530

Jan van Scorel, "Mary Magdalene," circa 1530

In another heart-wrenching tale, Nicodemus used costly perfumes to give Jesus a proper burial:

“And then there came also Nicodemus, which at first brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” (John 19:39-40)

  Sisto Badalocchio Rosa, "The Entombment of Christ,"1610

Sisto Badalocchio Rosa, "The Entombment of Christ,"1610

Here ends my overview of perfumery in the old Judeo-Christian tradition. In my next newsletter, I will continue the story with the decline of fragrance in Christian Europe, and the preservation of perfume by Islamic culture.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about perfume in the ancient world. Stay tuned for future articles on ingredients, artistry, and methods that make perfumery a wonderful experience for the senses.