Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Mystery of Egyptian Elixirs

Stakte, Susinum, Cyprinum, the Mendesian, Kyphi...Ancient Egyptians used various unguents, essences and aromatic fumigations as a means of well-being and communication with the divine or the dead. Such was the identification of Egypt with perfume production, despite other ancient civilizations dabbling in perfume making, that during Julius Caesar's Roman triumphs, alabastra (essence vials, the term being alabastron/αλάβαστρον in Greek due to the material used, alabaster) were tossed to the crowd to demonstrate his mastery over Egypt!
Although aromatic substances were abundant in Egypt, accesible even to humble labourers, manufactured pefume was a rare commodity reserved for sacred rites, the rich or for export. Images of lotuses being worn and sniffed pose an embarrasment of riches in ancient Egyptian iconography and yet this indigenous and common at the time blossom does not feature in perfume formulae. On the contrary, imports like myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon and cassia were favoured, suggesting that either the extraction methodology was lacking or that tastes ran to the exotic (much like now!) opting for the essences of Arabia Felix (happy Arabia).

The perfumes for personal use had more or less a standard way of composition, resulting in an expected response from the consumer, much like today's customer knows what to expect from a specific commercial perfume: Susinum was based upon the aroma of lilies with myrrh and cinnamon in balanos oil. The Mendesian featured myrrh, cassia and assorted gums and resins steeped in oil and was named from the ancient city of Mendes (production soon went outside the borders of the city). Cyprinum was not named after Cyprus, the Greek island in the east Mediterranean, but based upon the scent of henna (Lawsonia inermis) along with cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh and southernwood. But who were the innovators who first thought about them? Egyptian perfumers from Canopus or olfactory artists from Ashkelon, Cyprus or Sidon? Pliny and Dioscorides regarded the Egyptian product to be superior over all others at any rate. Mendesian is named after the ancient city of Mendes, although eventually that perfume would be created elsewhere, even outside Egyptian borders. The Mendesian featured myrrh, cassia and assorted gums and resins steeped in oil. Stakte contained an even stronger aroma of myrrh ~the formula demanded bruised myrrh itself, or the resin added to balanos oil.

Sacred perfumes were forbidden to use by common folks. The infamous Kyphi (depicted above, recreated by Sandrine Videault) which is documented from Greek authors of antiquity ~indeed the word kyphi is Greek in itself~ such as Dioscorides, Plutarch (in Isis and Osiris) and Galen with slight variations is perhaps the best known. Unfortunately for us the Egyptian priest Manetho's treatise Preparation of Kyphi is lost. Recreations have been attempted by various perfumers, including Sandrine Videault (interviewed on these pages). But kyphi is not the only sacred one.

Another sacred perfume has been discovered by archeologists on the walls of the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu, in the valley of the Nile at Louxor. Based on styrax extract, it was reserved for assuaging the ancient deities of Egypt. The long preparation demanded at least 6 months for the ingredients to mature properly!

The formula included:

- 0,575 litre of carob sugar (Ceratonia siliqua)

- 1010 grams of dry frankincense

- 600 grams of styrax

- 25 grammes de aromatic calamus (Acorus calamus L.)*

- 10 grams of lentisque (mastic) resin

- 15 grams of violet grains

- 0,5 litre of mixed wine and water

From all the forms of ancient Egyptian methods of aromatizing (fumigation, incense burning, pomade and fragranced oils) only one seems consistent with what we consider perfume today: aromatic perfume-oils. Vegetable oils were used as a carrier oil for the essences and two were favoured above all others by the ancient perfumers: balanos and ben. The reason was their naturally neutral odour which would minimally interfere with the final fragrance and the fact that they would keep fragrance longest. Balanos oil comes from the fruit of the Balanites aegyptiaca tree although nowadays no oil is commercially produced from it. Ben oil also circulated under the names moringa, behen, baq or horseradish tree oil (Moringa pterygosperma or M. aptera.) and was used in various therapeutic purposes as well.

The flacon containing perfume was as impotant then as it is now. Alabaster, according to Pliny, was the finest material for the safe-keeping of scent due to its non porous nature. Egyptian alabaster is a very fine grained variety of re-crystallized Eocene limestone (calcite,CaCO3) whereas in modern usage alabaster is a fine-grained, massive variety of gypsum (hydrated calcium sulfate, CaSO4.2H2O).
Varied perfume flacons have been excavated in large numbers. One of the most romantic excavations has been the Ulu Barun (at the Turkish coastline), a big galley loaded with fragant materials which dates to the time of Nefertiti. Chronologizing it was possible thanks to the fortunate discovery of a gold signet ring with Nefertiti's cartouche on it, which suggests a royal commission. Along with the fragrant materials, bars of blue glass were unintentionally designated to the depths. One could dreamingly hypothesize that the amazingly similar to modern aromatherapists' vials colour of the glass could be intended for perfume bottles, however no such evidence exists.

*It's interesting to note that although calamus is also referenced in the Bible (Exodus 30,23) as entering the composition of a sacred perfume for God made by Moses, it must be some other fragrant plant, as Moses was in the middle of the desert.

If you have an interest in ancient Egypt and the perfumes adorning its lifestyle, I highly recommend Lise Manniche's Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press, 1999 which contains actual ancient perfume recipes.

Related reading on PerfumeShrine: Ten Monoliths (Kyphi), Djeji by Guerlain, Saffron's history in perfumery, Chypres' origins, Fragrance History articles.

Formula ref: "Parfums de Rêve", Editions Atlas 1997
Pic of the temple of Edfu in Louxor, Egypt coutesy of
webshots.com; alabastra drawnings via biblepicturegallery.com; pic of Kyphi recreation by S.Videault copyright Jean François Gaté, used by permission


  1. Fiordiligi15:45

    Wonderful article, thank you dear E! As a fellow archaeologist/perfumista, with a special interest in Egyptology, I found this absolutely fascinating! I have sniffed kyphi, which looked rather like a sugar body scrub but had a deliciously mystical fragrance. Sounds like I should get hold of Ms Manniche's book, too.

  2. Hello.
    Estou absolutamente fascinada pelo texto.Ansiosa por mais informações sobre balanos e ben!
    No brasil existe pouca literatura sobre perfumes. Lamentável.
    Meu inglês também é lamentável rsss.
    Parabéns pelo belo texto. Beijos Elisabeth

    Tranlator-Babel Fish-:
    Hello.I am absolutelly fascinated by the text.Anxious for more information on balanos and ben!In Brazil little literature exists on perfumes. Lamentable.
    My English also is lamentable -rsrsrs. Sorry.
    Congratulations for the beautiful text. Kisses Elisabeth

  3. My dear D,

    thank you so much! I knew you'd appreciate that sort of article. I find myself drawn to those old practices, as befits my occupation of course.
    It's interesting to see that the Kyphi you saw was grainy. Then again, that's the very nature of the thing. It's not like today's drained liquids.
    Do get a look at the book, I am sure the library has it.

  4. Dear Elisabeth,

    thank you very much for commenting and please, if I undestand everything you say, you must be doing something right!! :-) Don't worry for you English, it's fine!
    I will try to provide more info as available. Thanks so much for your kind words, I appreciate your support and like your own page.

    Warmest regards!

  5. So exquisite.
    It moves me to tears.

  6. Those essences and rituals do hold a very powerful grip on the modern mind, I find, dear I. It's amazing when you think that we're connected to millenia of history through a sensory experience, huh?

  7. Wonderful article, bravo!


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