In the Beginning, There Were Four

By Jo Phillips

The whiff of smoke wafts, the resin lingers, and the woods permeate; emotional, intense, and resonating. These deeply religious aromas, elate the hearts, souls, and spirits of many when smelt both inside and outside of prayer and faith spaces. But why do we ignite these elixirs in religious practices and where did it all start? And anyway, how come it was that, In The Beginning, There Were Four?

All Images Jason

Image on left-hand side Carine Roitfeld Aurelien White floral absolutes meet Orange Blossom and Jasmine melds with resins expressing depth and mystery. The resins symbolize the Parisian elegance of black. Fleur D’Oranger, Jasmine, Benzoin, Myrrh, Opoponax, Patchouli and a Black Amber come together as opposite poles attracting.

In the Far East, in China, for example, aromatic products were recorded as having been used as long ago as 4,500 BCE. Meaning they have been part of the country’s traditions for millennia, but not always as a religious act. Although China is officially a secular country now, it has its own spiritual traditions, with religions accepted to practice including Christianity, Islam and native Taoism which started 4th Century Before the Common Era.

In the Taoist tradition, the smoke from the incense purifies the ritual space, alerts the gods that a ritual is about to be performed, and draws the gods to the altar. This smoke is also believed to resemble the swirling patterns of ‘cloudlike energies’ underlying all matter.

This may well be earlier than the hieroglyphics on Egyptian tombs (300 Century BCE) where cosmetics and perfumes were utilised. This is the traditional time frame most talk about as the earliest finds of perfumery. Yet here it was much more, to perfume the self, and also used for healing, than any kind of spiritual practice.

Churches (1st century CE) Mosques (610 CE) and Sikh (1469 CE) temples (Gurdwara,) traditionally use scent in their prayer spaces. Perfume in prayer has a story in almost every religion. Muslims burn Bakhoor in their homes, especially on Fridays before prayers and in most mosques. In the Hindu faith, (15thC B.C.E) the prayer space called Mandir is where attars (perfume oils) are utilised to welcome the deities (G-Ds).

“There is no worship without the charm of scent, faith and fragrance being partners in salvation for the Indian soul”

The Sufism (11 CE) religion is actually likened to perfumes, its top notes would be peace, freedom, compassion, humility, and unity; heart notes of purity, universal equality, devotion, sincerity and wisdom; with a sublime base note of unconditional love.

Script from The Veda is the central scripture of Hinduism

In Zoroastrian  (10th C BCE) in fire temples, broadly termed “Agiyaari”, priests conduct prayer ceremonies before the sacred fire, or “Atash,” where the major offering is sandalwood. Followers of Buddha (5th C BCE) perfumed their sacred spaces with incense and scented unguents (creams).

The Zoroastrian’s body of literature is called The Avesta

For Christians, burning incense is interpreted as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven, it’s swung around in a metal globe called a thurible whilst being burnt. In Christianity, Jesus is often referenced as being a scent or smell himself, alluding to the idea of scent and purity. In Buddhism, Jainism( 7th C BCE) and many other faith paths, aromatics symbolize purity and holiness, and scents are also used to elevate the prayer mood towards a meditative state. Often seen as a connected channel, a conduit if you like to the ‘heavens’.

But one of the few religions not to use scent in regular direct prayer spaces is Judaism (9th C BCE). The main time a perfumed scent is utilised in religious practice is in the home, on a Saturday night, after the Shabbat period (sabbath) comes to an end when spices are smelt, and not in the synagogue, (Prayer space).

Seta EDP by Moresque is inspired by Venice in the 1500s, the seaport town that was part of the silk and spice routes. Think lavish silks and warming spices. Find a burst of freshness with Bergamot, Lemon, and golden Saffron and descend into warmth, biblical Myrrh and delicate, floral Ylang Ylang, with a grounding base of rich Vanilla, resiny Benzoin, warm Amber, and softest Sandalwood. Whilst Notorious Oud by DS& Durga bought an ambery woody scent with this elixir where you can find golden Saffron, herbal, spicy, yet cooling Camphor, with finally ambery-green, sweet, balsamic, resinous biblical, White Galbanum, deeply rich and earthy smoke from Oud with fruity, rich Rose and soothing soft camphorous Lavender, finishing off with animalic Civet, woody musky ambery Cetalox and dry, earthy spice from Papyrus

Havdalah is the service performed in the home on a Saturday evening as the light fades bringing the close of Shabbat, so according to Jewish law, the smell of these sweet spices after the Shabbat ends, serves to ‘strengthen the soul’. Traditionally this is because the ‘special energy’ of Shabbat that is lost and diminished when Shabbat goes away.

The sense of loss here refers to the loss of extra ‘spiritual power’ that comes with the rest period of Shabbat. The spices that can be included in a Havdalah set are Cinnamon chips, Orange peel, Rosebuds, Cloves, and green Cardamom pods.

When we look back in history to where perfumes first started we often find mention of Eygpt over 5000 years ago. The Hindu scriptures mention in both the Atharva-Veda and the Rigveda (holy books) mention methods of making incense. However, in Torah (the old testament) from the First Temple period, (970 C BCE)  in the book of Exodus, we find what could be considered one of the oldest recorded incense recipes.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together [salted], pure and holy. And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you

However, there was also a note of caution. Not there to be worn or even enjoyed by the community, but to be made to please G-D only. So certainly an incense for religious purposes, and not a pleasurable perfume for the self.

“it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which you shall make, you shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto you holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto it, to enjoy the smell thereof, shall even be cut off from his people”.

The ‘notes’ that make up the biblical incense or to call it by its historical name Ketoret ( קְטֹרֶת) also contain some of the same notes used in the Christian church, even today. Both Frankincense and Myrrh, were also, of course, two of the three gifts brought by The Wise Men to the baby Jesus. It was later religions like Islam that the use of Musks entered into religious practice. In Medieval Arabic literature, Musk is discussed first in every book that deals with perfumes.

The original biblical blend from the Torah made of sweet spices and aromatic condiments was a carefully guarded secret fully known only by the compounders of the incense. The makers, the priests of the House of Avtinas went down a familial line, as to prevent its replication in the worship of foreign G-ds and so they kept the technique and exact proportions secret; the exact measurements died out with the family line.

So, in the beginning, there were four, Stace, Frankincense, Galbanum and Onycha and of course three of the four are well known, and still included in modern perfumery but one ingredient is a bit of a mystery.

Stace, what we now call Myrrh, its Hebrew name Nataf, is a resin which is a sticky substance taken from the Commiphora tree, a small, thorny tree or shrub with its earthy and resinous facets and sometimes a citrus lilt or pine-like greenness; going all the way from bitter to sweet. Still used in many perfumes today, especially Amber perfumes. Think Dior Eau Savage Parfum, Tome Fords Rose de Chine or Carolina Hererra’s Gold Myrrh Absolute.

The biblical name Nataf translates to ‘drops’ and could well relate to how small tear-shaped drops would have been taken from tiny incisions from the tree.

Acqua Di Parma Note di Colonia 111
Bright Mandarin, fiery Ginger meet here with grassy Vetiver, the deep greenness of Olibanum, and floral highs from Jasmine. This elixir finishes with rich and creamy warmth from Tonka Bean, resiny biblical Myrrh, spicy, amber, and balsamic Ciste with a touch of floral to echo the heart. La Collection Privée Christian Dior Bois D’Argent  Powdery earthy elegance of Iris blends with sensual Musks plunged into smoky Incense. Opening with enigmatic Iris, green Cypress and fruity Juniper Berries, dipping into historic resinous Myrhh and earthy Patchouli with notes of Wood, Honey, Vanilla, Amber, Resins, Musk and Leather to bring the scent to a finale. Trudon Mortel, a sexy spicy skin-like scent. Opening with lively Pimento and hot Black Pepper where it meets up with biblical Somalian Frankincense, woody and spicy, yet green Mystikal whilst finishing off with Benzoin Resin, with musky, sweet balsamic aroma, and slightly herbaceous Cistus, and resinous religious Myrrh

Frankincense, its biblical name Levonah, often known in modern perfumery as Olibanum, is a note in perfumery that is said to be grounding but also ‘lifts us’ up. This may well give rise to why it was used in religious ceremonies, linking the idea that scent rises bringing man and heaven ‘together as one’. It is also used in burial rituals and for embalming including for mummification.  

Coming from the Boswellia sacra tree, and so again is another type of resin, bringing with it earthy, woody, piney, or balsamic facets, and at the same time soft, sweet, and citrusy notes. As well as being used in multiple modern perfumes, such as Opsis by Diptyque, Vanilla Barka from Amouage and Electimuss’s Puritas for its wide scent facets it also works as a fixative, meaning it helps other fragrance ingredients to last longer, it sort of helps the scent ‘explode’.

Next of the four, comes delicious Galbanum its biblical name Chelbenla, which is yet another aromatic gum resin.  It comes from an umbelliferous half-circular-headed Persian grass (more commonly known as the celery, carrot or parsley family) and can vary from amber-coloured to dark green.

Laboratorio Olfattivo Alkemi opens with floral notes of Ylang-Ylang, and warm Amber that joins together with scriptural Frankincense, earthy rich Patchouli, resinous Myrrh, with a base of Cashmere wood, Amber creamy Vanilla, and soft wooded Sandalwood. BDK Ambre Safeano is deliciously evocative with light spice of Saffron accord Black pepper oil from Madagascar and fruity Plum accord, that melds with rich Rose Absolute from Turkey, green Olibanum absolute and smokey Black leather accord. All of this finishes with rich slightly spicy Oakwood, gently wrapping Sandalwood and a gentle sweet note of Vanilla. Initio Psychedelic Love smells and feels like a ‘sexier’ second skin. It opens with a bright hit of Bergamot and historic Myrrh. The powdery aromas of Rose, earthy Pachouli heavenly Hedione and Heliotropin. Softened with Vanilla, the addition of Almonds adds another dimension of creaminess that feels comforting and seductive..

Its scent profile is rich and with depth from, green and woody parts, with balsamic, resinous, hints of freshness, all the way to ambery-green, sweet, and balsamic elegance. In some ancient Jewish texts the talk of it is as ‘bitter’ and this was maybe why it was included in the incense; as a reminder of deliberate and unrepentant sinners.

It is still considered very important in modern perfumery and is thought to be part of the origin of the “Green” family of scents, from early fragrances like Balmian’s 1945 “Vent Vert’, “the Chanel opus No. 19”, and “Vol De Nuit” by Guerlain.

And so to the mysterious last ingredient in the original fab four called Onycha, or its Ancient name Sheħeleth, meaning “fingernail” or “claw”. However, there are still many questions as to what this may well actually be. Most consider it to be part of a sea snail, found in the Red Sea, but this is where things get very complicated.

So, some ancient priestly robes were thought to have been dyed from the shells of this mollusc, Hexaplex Trunculus, because it produced a regal blue-violet colour. So many consider the ‘lip’ between the shell and the snail to be where the Onycha ingredient came from.

One of the earliest niche perfumers was Annick Goutal and here in Nuit Et Confidences (meaning nights and secrets) opening with brightness from Bergamot and Mandarin from Italy whilst the middle of the scent opens to spicy Black pepper from Madagascar, deep sensual Incense, and soft florals of Orchids. Jusbox’s Black Power is an ode to pop music which some would consider not particularly spiritual here the artist in particular is Kurt Kobain and his general rebellious nature. A softly spiced fruit opening with Blackcurrant, crispy Apple, and Pimento is followed by a heart of smoky resinous herbal notes made up of Suede, Tobacco leaves, and biblical Frankincense whilst its finale is gentle Sandalwood, creamy Tonka beans, and Earthy Patchouli

Now all that would have made sense in Christian Churches and other religions that used the colour purple for pious clothing, but for the Jewish community and even some in the Shi-Muslim community, shellfish is not Kosher but treyf (not allowed), not halal it is Haram (not allowed), and therefore not only can these animals not be eaten, but they also can’t be touched either; anyone simply touching them becomes ‘unclean’. hence the question mark of it being the biblical ingredient.

So the question lies, could this really be the fourth of the group in the recipe? Well, an ancient Ugaritic text (Northwest Semitic language) lists Onycha among different types of vegetables.

The word in Hebrew, Shecheleth (Onycha, meaning a form of rock rose/ Cistus plant) would have been Arabic “Ladana,” and Ladana is our Ladanum or as we know it now, Labdanum. A deliciously sticky brown resin obtained from the shrub Cistus Ladanife. In biblical times, maybe slightly weird to us, farmers would comb goats’ beards to get the oil because the animals would graze on this plant.

This shrub was, and still is known, for its flammability, and is used as a tinder. It was said to cause the aromatic smoke from the incense offering to ‘rise straight up to heaven’.

So it could be one of two smells. If it is the claw of the snail then it’s likely to have smelt leathery, animalic, and smokey. The nearest we have today is Castoreum, now commonly used in perfumery. However, if it is a plant, then the scent would be warm, earthy, and have a slightly sweet aroma with notes of honey, amber and musk accords.

So why In The Beginning There Were Four? Well, with most religious texts things get added to over the centuries, with new commentaries and additions to the key writings. So this list of four potent resins was actually added to in the first century AD, from writing by Flavius Josephus.

Josephus was a Roman–Jewish historian and military leader who wrote about incense used in the Temple, but his version numbered thirteen ingredients.

Now the recipe of the biblical scent-givers included Cinnamon, Saffron, Cassia (similar to cinnamon) Spikenard (from the honeysuckle family) Agarwood and Iris. And let’s be honest add these to the other four and you have quite a modern list of perfumery ingredients. Amazing that something so ancient and with such a sacred reach, is still so relevant.

Top Jaguar Era with its long-lasting dry down, combines suave Amber and Musk with sleek woods. The neat, soaring scent of Virginia Cedarwood essence and Cedar leaf brings structure. Patchouli Cedar Fusion adds velvety depth. Creamy, smoky Sandalwood essence weds the scent to the skin. Jaguar Stance EDT a bright shot of Mandarin and crisp, juicy Apple notes are textured by citrusy Cardamom at the opening. The heart reveals a potent blend of iconic woods. The smoke and flint of Vetiver. The velvety depth of Patchouli. The musky, sensual smoothness of Cashmere wood. In the dry down, Musk, Amber and Vanilla bring comfort and sensuality, adding another complex layer to the potent blend which like Era is built around ancient and modern spices.  Brinoni EDP Essential is a modern take on an amber-woody scent with the bright opening of Bergamot, Cardamom, and Tomato leaves with rich earthy notes of Patchouli, Tonka bean and a base with also a modern take on biblical smells via Incense, Amber, Sandalwood 

Each spiritual path has its own journey with scent, from ancient texts to relatively modern practices, so is there a reason why scent is so important in almost all practices?

Interestingly out of all of our five senses, our sense of smell is often considered the holiest. Certainly in the Abrahamic mono-theistic (one G-D) faiths of Judaism Christianity and Islam.

In Arabic Nafs means self/soul and is derived from the Arabic word “Nafas”, which means “breathing”. The very word for smell in biblical Hebrew, Reyach, is related to the word Ruach, or soul. Words in both Arabic and Hebrew have similar ‘roots’ when they are connected, hence the link.

G-d יהוה formed the Human from the soil’s humus, blowing into his nostrils the breath of life: the Human became a living being.

Book of Genesis 2.7

This may well translate to mean when G-D blew the soul of life into ‘man’s’ nostrils, and ‘man’ became a living being. The site of our ability to appreciate scents became the very site where the soul entered the first human, and then ‘man’ came alive. Fragrances then; are the very core of life.

For anyone that loves perfumes and considers them true elixirs of life totally connects with the idea that our sense of smell, perfumes and our souls are all as one.

We all know that many of the powerful constituents within scent are also used for healing the mind, body and spirit. Fragrance lovers will also know that intense feeling, when you breathe in the smoke, flowers, resins, green freshness, gourmands and woods of the rush, the high, the almost addictive quality and the utter joy that floods through mind, body and spirit. It’s fair to say, this moment is utterly and truly Divine.

Massive thanks for the help with this:- Jay, at profile, Sonia, at Simon plus Simon, Katie, at Dowal Walker, Harriet at Science Magic, Nicola and team at PR studio, Amanda at Diptyque, Jason and Team at UPPR, the Orange Square Team

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