Friday, April 13, 2012

Olea Sancta: The Mysterious Alchemy of the Holy "Myhro"

Among the arcane fragrant mixes in existence, be it from antiquity or from more recent years, Olea Sancta (holy oil) is perhaps the most wide-spread and yet most elusive. This is the name given to what is commonly refered to among Orthodox Christians as "holy myhro" (though it's intricately more complex than simple myrrh, as you will see below); the scented oil used for the consecration of the Holy Chrism*, an annointing ritual of particular importance in the Orthodox Church as it is believed that the fragrant oil imparts the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the converts, following baptism. As the Orthodox Easter is drawing closer and the heavy-toll, mourning sounds of the church bells outside my windows is resounding on Good Friday, I am reminded of the ritual of the manufacturing of Olea Sancta which takes place during the Holy Week at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, roughly every ten years. But Olea Sancta has ancient uses beyond catechism: it was used for the coronation of Orthodox kings and emperors and during establishing new churches, sprinkled on the Holy Abode. And it's also used (in heavy dilution alas, as I can attest) on Holy Wednesday, when people gather at the church to hear the liturgy and partake in the "ιερό ευχέλαιο" and be reminded of the unknown woman who bathed Jesus's feet and scented him with spikenard from an alabaster...The mystagogy during this ritual, with the lamenting sounds of the Byzantine tradition sung in the distance, is hair-raising.

This year is one when the "holy myro" was prepared once again and indeed the Olea Sancta εψήθη/ was "cooked" in the Fanari neighbourhood, in the courtyard of the Patriarchate under a specially designed canopy, which prompted this posting of mine. The preparation of the Chrism in the Patriarchate is carried out by the college of the Kosmētores Myrepsoí (Κοσμήτορες Μυρεψοί, "Deans Perfumers"), presided by the Árchōn Myrepsós, the "Lord Perfumer". The incumbent Archon Myrepsos is biochemist Prodromos Thanasoglou.

The materials going into the manufacture of the Holy Chrism comprise ancient herbs, exotic peels and essential oils, of which the most important is Bulgarian rose absolute provided by the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria.The components of Olea Sancta with different variations and additions appear in catalogs from as far back as the 8th century AD until the late 19th century. The inspiration comes from the description by Moses in the book of Exodus and the holy anointment oil began being manufactured crudely in the 2nd century AD. Initially the ingredients were 13, as named in a Berber Code from the 8th century. In 1951, during the tenure of Athinagoras Ecumenical Patriarch, the recipe was established as including 57 ingredients, each with its own mystical, symbolic use.

The full recipe of Olea Sancta reads like a journey into the fragrant products of the Mediterranean and the Indian peninsula: extra virgin olive oil, wine, orange blossom water, cinnamon, iris rhizome, Chios mastic resin, bay leaves, Bulgarian rose absolute, angelica, marjoram (σάψιχο), lavender, nutmeg, citrus peel, cloves, rosemary, myrrh resin, elemi, labdanum, cassia, turpentine, styrax, oud (ξυλοβάλσαμο), cyperus, μυροβάλανος (a dried drupe fruit from India which exudes a myrrh-like aroma), black pepper, ginger, myrtle, spikenard (i.e. Nardostachys jatamansi),  and valerian root (also called Indian leaves). Also used is natural deer musk, the animal secretion from the gland of the male deer, procured many decades ago, and natural ambergris.

The "epsisis"(maceration) is just as intricate: it begins on Good Monday morning after Mass, when the basic ingredients of Chrism are sanctified during a special sequence, headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The sprinkling with holy water boilers, utensils and materials are sprinkled with holy water. Double and triple candlesticks are lit, illuminating each of the five boilers. The fire is fanned on wood coming from disfigured old icons only. Reading continues from bishops and priests who alternate at regular intervals.

The procedure follows the same standard layout on Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday, when the Oil now clear, is poured into a large silver urns, silver in small containers, as well as alabaster, then transferred to the Patriarchal Chapel of St. Andrew . From there on the morning of Holy Thursday the procession moves to the Patriarchal Church where 24 priests hold the 12 jars and 35 bishops hold silver and alabaster vessels while the patriarch who holds a silver bowl. During the liturgy the Chrism is consecrated. From then on, the Olea Sancta is ready to be safekept in the Myrofylakio, the "myro safe keeping" special reserve at the Patriarchate.

This fragrant tradition bears the mystery of old with every drop deposited on the forehead and the palms of the hands, remininding us that scent and man have travelled together through the eons.

*It is similar to one of the three oils used in the Catholic tradition, but there it is prepared with just balsam instead [the Catholic holy oils include Oil of the Sick ("Oleum Infirmorum") Oil of Chrism ("Sanctum Chrisma"), and Oil of Catechumens( "Oleum Catechumenorum"), of which only Chrism is scented, the rest being simply sanctioned olive oil]

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: 
Joan of Arc and Egyptian Mummies Tied by Scent
The Mystery of Egyptian Elixirs

Traditional Greek Orthodox hymn "Mystifying" recited by actress Katerina Lehou, sung by Sophia Manou.


  1. Anonymous21:53

    wonderful article, elena!

    having been anointed with holy chrism many times (and as a scent lover), i have a fondness for it. so nice to see behind the veil to its intricate makings.

    musically speaking, some of the russian orthodox melodies are among the most haunting and powerful i've ever heard. they really know how to work the minor key.


  2. Anonymous12:26

    This is an absolutely wonderfully conceived, written, cross-referenced article, you should be proud.

    Best wishes & much respect, P from Scotland

  3. Anonymous13:18

    Very interesting article, Elena, and so apropo to Easter week. My birthday, this year, was on Easter Sunday (April 8) and I was born on Good Friday, long ago. Strange coincidence. I have a strong interest in, and real curiosity about, ancient perfume and incense formulas. I understand that a 4,000 year old perfume has been uncovered, by archeologists, intact, and still fragrant. That was in Cyprus, if I remember correctly. I read that some museum is investigating recreating this ancient perfume and selling it in museum shops, but are butting their heads against IFRA standards. The Oleo Sacrum probably wouldn't pass IFRA restictions, either. This is a sad state of affairs, really, when they have the power to prevent modern humans from purchasing, experiencing, and enjoying ancient, holy, and iconic fragrances. ~danoji~

  4. Anonymous14:16

    Sorry, I meant to type Olea Sancta in my above response. I just googled "oleo sacrum" and it seems to be lemon oil extracted with sugar from lemon peels and used as an ingrediant in some sort of alcohol based punch, and other cocktails ... But, I'm certain that it would run afoul of IFRA standards, as well, if someone decided to try to market it as a perfume :-( ~danoji~

  5. Cheryl15:51

    Lovely article...Thank you.

  6. A lot of ingredients and quite a procedure. Very nice article!

  7. Kyriaki21:38

    Kali Anastasi! Thank you for the detailed information about Olea Sancta and beautiful hymn.

  8. Morticia01:38

    Elena it doesn't get any better than this. Have you gotten your bread,soup and lamb ready. I know how long it all takes, hope you have help. Enjoy your Easter.

  9. J,

    thank you! Much appreciated you saying so.

    It's such an intricate process and so stepped into's lovely, isn't it?
    As to Orthodox music, it generally draws upon the Byzantine tradition which is immense and it has a spirituality that I find has been more or less "abandonded" by western music. Only in some clerical music from Asian countries can one find today such dematerialisation. It's an interesting antithesis between East and West, I find.

  10. P from Scotland,

    thank you very much for your wonderful compliment. I'm happy the article has been appreciated like that.

  11. D,

    happy belated birthday for one! :-)

    Yes, the scent factory was in Pyrgos, Cyprus. It makes total sense that an eastern Mediterranean island with exactly the rich flora demanded to provide for rich perfumes would be the caterer to the high demand of intricate perfumes in antiquity from Egypt, Greece and the Middle East.

    I have myself been in contact with the committee in the national museum about the project (being an historian and archeologist) but there are intricate beaureaucratical and regulations problems to bypass in order to even think about doing it. It's not that simple. Perhaps a single perfumer could do an experimental batch that would be more for displaying purposes (and occasional sniffing from visitors) than for personal use.

  12. D,

    oleo sacrum ain't half bad either! :D

  13. Cheryl,

    thanks for saying so!

  14. Civava,

    indeed! Who would have guessed?
    Thanks for commenting!

  15. Kyriaki,

    αληθώς ανέστη! Hope you had a good Easter. Thanks for commenting and your wishes! Glad you enjoyed the music too.

  16. M,

    thank you honey for your wonderful compliment!
    Thankfully we have had quite a few hands to chop up those little pieces of ophal and the "tsourekia" breads aromatize the whole house with their sweet cardamom and mastic scent. Yum!

  17. Anonymous21:42

    Scents of Time (David Pybus) was in the process of developing a "Chrism" perfume, in collaboration with Givaudan, announced in 2010. But he just posted on Scents of Time website that they are going out of business, and all remaining stock of his historical perfumes are being sold off to benefit various charities. They have halted all production as of April 15, 2012 :-( ~danoji~

  18. D,

    yes, I had reported on the DP closing business and he sent off a very appreciative & kind email saying the number people who got on the site because of that post was quite impressive (and wished they were there to support the business while alive). I am very sad that it had to come to that...I liked his artistic direction.


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