Friday, January 18, 2013

Procuring Ancient Arabian Essences

One of the delights of being a historian and a perfume writer is coming across excerpts which combine these two subjects. The Histories by Herodotus, the Greek "father of history", had been among my most beloved childhood readings; the wrapping of detailed cultural observations and travelogues (Herodotus was a great traveller) into the grander scheme of the clash of two civilizations and the ideals they represented had been especially exciting to my impressionable mind. Releafing through them for another project I again come across the passage about Arabia and the ancient aromatic essences produced in this most fragrant of lands.

Let's hear it from the man himself:

"Again, the most southerly country is Arabia; and Arabia is the only place that produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon and the gum called ledanon. All these, except myrrh, cause the Arabians a lot of trouble to collect. When they gather frankincense, they burn styrax (the gum which is brought into Greece by the Phoenicians) in order to raise a smoke to drive off the flying snakes; these snakes, the same which attempt to invade Egypt, are small in size and of various colors, and great umbers of them keep guard over the trees which bear the frankincense, and the only way to get rid of them is by smoking them out with storax. [...]
When the Arabians go out to collect cassia*, they cover their bodies and faces, all but their eyes, with ox-hides and other skins. The plant grows in a shallow lake, which together with the ground about it, is infested by winged creatures very like bats, which screech alarmingly and are very pugnacious. They have to be kept from attacking the men's eyes while they are cutting the cassia. [...]
The process of collecting cinnamon* is still more remarkable. Where it comes from, and what country produces it, they do not know; the best some of them can do is to make a fair guess that it grows somewhere in the region that Dionysus was brought ip.What they say is that the dry sticks, which we have learned from the Phoenicians to call cinnamon, are brought by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices, which no man can climb, and that the method the Arabians have invented for getting hold of them is to cut up the bodies of dead oxen or donkeys, or dead animals into large joints,  which they carry to the spot in question and leave on the ground near the nests. Then they retire to a safe distance and the birds fly down and carry off the joints of meat to their nests, which not bring strong enough to bear the weight, break and fall to the ground. Then the men come along and pick up the cinnamon, which is subsequently exported to other countries. [...]
Still more surprising is the way to get ledanon -or ladanum, as the Arabians call it. Sweet-smelling substance thought it is, it is found in a most malodorous place; sticking, namely, like glue in the beards of he-goats who have been browsing in the bushes. It is used as an ingredient in many kinds of perfume, and is what the Arabians chiefly burn as incense. So much for perfumes; let me only add that the whole country exhales an odor marvelously sweet. "
  ~Herodotus, The Histories, book III. (Translation in English by Aubrey de Selincourt)

*Cassia and cinnamon come from the same tree, the only difference being that cinnamon is properly the branch with the bark on, whereas cassia is the bark without the branch. Ever since the former ceased to be traded, the latter has usurped the name, therefore "our" cinnamon is the cassia of the ancients. Pliny's description of the cassia agrees with the real cinnamon. (Therefore the "cinnamon" mentioned by Herodotys if not altogether a fable should be the calamus, or aromatic reed, mentioned by Diodorus and in Exodus.) The Phoenician word was probably identical with the Hebrew, cinamom, hence the Greek κινάμμωμον,  and the Latin 'cinnamum'.
Samuel Bochart [Geographia Sacra seu Phaleg et Canaan (Caen 1646) II.iii] observes that all Greek names of spices are of Semitic origin. As the Phoenicians imported all those spices into Greece they would naturally be known to the Greeks by their Phoenician names.


  1. Fascinating post. Don't forget cassia buds which were much used in the middle ages and Renaissance. They look a bit like cloves but have a bright cinnamony flavor that is a bit like red hot candy. I think they get better with age as they mellow. Some of my favorites are a few years old.

  2. Thank you D!

    This tackles the BC chronology rather than the AD, but you're right that cassia buds are fascinating and should have their own spotlight. So they do keep well? Fancy that. (Have a cassia tree up the street, should gather some and experiment)

  3. Another Herodotus fan! :) I adore Herodotus for precisely the same reasons you do - he tells some very tall tales, but he tells them exceedingly well. Another fascinating aspect of the ancient world and aromatics is Pliny's Natural History, not least for recording something about the ancient perfume trade, as well as perfumes such as the 'Parthian' and the 'Panthenaeon'. According to Pliny, Athens was famous for its perfumes, as was Alexandria. But there's one more strange source - stranger still, since it's not widely known outside academic circles - *The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea', that tells of the many items traded to and from fabled India, whose treasures were likewise guarded by dangerous creatures - and tall tales! Always the best kind - even in fragrant fairy tales! ;)

  4. Wonderful piece! Too bad flying snakes are a bit too much for the current public - otherwise it could have been used by current perfume press releases, those of blue poppies handpicked at midnight by virgins in the Himalaya and similar supposed ingredient sources.

    Herodotus got the labdanum right, but then it was, as you described in some older post, in Cyprus, not Arabia.

    Incidentally, some fancy spice companies here in the US have come to use the term cassia for the common, harsher varieties of cinnamon, usually from Vietnam or similar places, and cinnamon for the sweeter and smoother variety, almost invariably from Sri Lanka. (of course supermarket spiceracks just call everything cinnamon)


  5. Miss Heliotrope21:43

    (I commented yesterday, but it's vanished).

    Mostly that we all seem to have been inspired to re-read Herodotus, which has to be a win, but also that the the typo "infested by winged creatures very like brats, which screech alarmingly and are very pugnacious" with bRats rather than bats made me smile...

  6. Tarleisio,

    absolutely brilliant, yes, you're a kindred spirit (We probably studied the same things? I don't recall exactly, forgive me.)

    The Periplus (περίπλους) is a mighty fine idea! Thank you. The ancient spice route is such a complicated and rich subject. I should also devote some space to the tale of the creatures that metamorphosed into gems and scents in Indian mythology.

  7. M,

    true!!! :-D :-D

    The Himalayan blue poppies copy reminds me of Poeme! (remember??)

    I think Herodotus had only witnessed labdanum being collected in Arabia and therefore reports it as it being there. Since he's devoting such an inordinate amount of text to the regions of Babylon, Arabia and Egypt (as strongholds of the Persian civilization and examples of being seized by its despotism), perhaps his interest and awe are not without focused purpose. To focus on Cyprus -which had been hellenic since forever (and therefore well known to his audience)- would be more or less futile, not useful. Perhaps therefore his interest in the perfumed wares didn't stretch to an area that he considered trodden path for his market. This is purely a theory of mine.

    We do know from archaeological evidence (which are irrefutable) that Cypriot perfume workshops were using the stuff. In Crete, no less, even today shepherds collect the resin from the goats' hair.

    As to cassia-cinnamon, I guess, it all has to do with supply and with any market demand/discernment. It was like that in ancient times too, it seems!

  8. C,

    those darn bratty bats, they're so undisciplined!!!


    Seriously, thanks for the correction. See what happens when fingers have a will of their own? Hilarity!


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