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Studia Antiqua Volume 7 Number 1 Article 8 April 2009 An Odor of Sanctity : The Iconography, Magic, and Ritual of Egyptian Incense Elliott Wise Follow this and additional works at:
Studia Antiqua Volume 7 Number 1 Article 8 April 2009 An Odor of Sanctity : The Iconography, Magic, and Ritual of Egyptian Incense Elliott Wise Follow this and additional works at: Part of the History Commons BYU ScholarsArchive Citation Wise, Elliott. An Odor of Sanctity : The Iconography, Magic, and Ritual of Egyptian Incense. Studia Antiqua 7, no. 1 (2009). This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the All Journals at BYU ScholarsArchive. It has been accepted for inclusion in Studia Antiqua by an authorized administrator of BYU ScholarsArchive. For more information, please contact AN ODOR OF SANCTITY : THE ICONOGRAPHY, MAGIC, AND RITUAL OF EGYPTIAN INCENSE Elliott Wise Fragrance has permeated the land and culture of Egypt for millennia. Early graves dug into the hot sand still contain traces of resin, sweet-smelling lotus flowers blossom along the Nile, Coptic priests swing censers to purify their altars, and modern perfumeries export all over the world. 1 The numerous reliefs and papyri depicting fumigation ceremonies attest to the central role incense played in ancient Egypt. Art and ceremonies reverenced it as the embodiment of life and an aromatic manifestation of the gods. The pharaohs cultivated incense trees and imported expensive resins from the land of Punt to satisfy the needs of Egypt s prolific temples and tombs. The rise of Christianity in the first century ce temporarily censored incense, but before long Orthodox clerics began celebrating the liturgy in clouds of fragrant smoke. Some of incense s ancient properties of life and fertility were even persevered under the new theology. By examining the iconography and magic of incense, this paper will trace the themes of intercession, rejuvenation, and deification from their cultic and funerary origins to their reverberations in the monasteries and churches of Coptic Orthodoxy. The Fragrance of the Gods The most common depictions of incense in ancient Egypt come from tombs and temples where standard scenes present a pharaoh or priest fumigating a mummy or the statue of a god. The smoking censer often takes the shape of a human arm ending in a hand holding a charcoal-filled bowl. The officiator would select precious pellets of resin from a small compartment located halfway along the arm and throw them into the bowl. These censers proliferated during the middle and later dynasties of Egypt, and they imitate the derep 1. A. Lucas writes that traces of incense have been discovered in graves from the earliest to the latest eras of Egyptian history. A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1962), 96. 68 wise: egyptian incense hieroglyph for offering. 2 In addition to pictorially recalling the gift-giving nature of fumigation, the long, arm-shaped censer prevented burns from the hot charcoal and also protected the incense from being polluted by human hands.3 Although temple and tomb censing rites accomplished similar purposes, cultic and funeral incense should be considered separately in order to categorize the nuances of Egyptian religious symbolism. A 19th Dynasty relief from the temple of Seti I at Abydos provides a classic example of cultic fumigation (fig. 1). Seti leans forward towards a statue of Amun-Re, his right hand pouring water over a bouquet of lotus flowers while his left hand wafts smoke from an arm-shaped censer towards the god. Fig. 1: Relief from temple of Seti I (Abydos, 19th Dynasty) 2. Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1992), 53. In an article documenting the evolution of censers in ancient Egypt, Henry B. Fischer draws attention to Fourth Dynasty images of the dead seated before offering tables with hieroglyphs of arms holding offering bowls floating above. These are the ancestors of the arm-shaped censer, which also begins to float over offering tables in the images of the Fourth and Sixth dynasties. Henry G. Fischer, Varia Aegyptiaca: No. 4, The Evolution of the Armlike Censer, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963): Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art, 53. studia antiqua 7.1 spring The incense signifies reverence and prayer, but on a deeper level it also evokes the actual presence of the deity by creating the fragrance of the gods. 4 The temple text from the Ritual of Amon describes incense coming from the pores of Amun: The god comes with body adorned which he has fumigated with the eye of his body, the incense of the god which has issued from his flesh, the sweat of the god which has fallen to the ground, which he has given to all the gods.... It is the Horus eye. If it lives, the people live, thy flesh lives, they members are vigorous. 5 Some texts identify deities with specific scents or types of incense. Secret recipes for incense carved onto the walls of the temple of Horus at Edfu explain that the finest myrrh springs from the eye of Re, while other grades of myrrh come from the eyes of Thoth and Osiris, the back of Horus, the divine limbs, the spittle, and the bone of the gods. 6 The Egyptians worshipped several patrons of fragrance, including Merehet, goddess of unguents; Chesmou, deity of perfume production; and Nefertum, the lion-headed god of incense described as the lotus in the nostril of Re. 7 The Egyptians carefully bought, transported, and stored their frankincense and myrrh, treating the pieces of resin like emblems of their gods bodies. Hatshepsut immortalized her expensive expeditions to Punt on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-bahri. Rows of men carry incense trees back to Egypt so that the sacred precinct could have the odor of the divine land. 8 A New Kingdom priest named Hepusonb considered his temple duties of storing and offering incense so important that he included images of the resin trade in his tomb along with inscriptions detailing the amount of incense required by Amun each day. 9 The monetary worth of incense doubtlessly signified the depth of Egypt s devotion, and fittingly, the priests burned these expensive gifts before equally expensive cult statues made of gold and precious stones. Religious secrecy veiled the process for making incense and unguents, which required 4. Richard H. Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 92; G. Elliot Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon (Manchester, U.K.: The University Press, 1919), Ritual of Amon 12.11, in Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, Lise Manniche, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 27, Michel Malaise, Les Parfums en Égypt, L Art du Parfum (1993): 42. Like many of the other deities, Nefertum seems to have physically embodied incense and perfumes. Perfume jars frequently take the shape of the cat goddess, Bastet, and scholars explain that this might be because Bastet is Nefertum s mother. As a jar, she symbolically carries her son inside her in the form of perfume. Joann Fletcher, Oils and Perfumes of Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1998), Malaise, Les Parfums en Égypt, Nina M. Davies, A Fragment of a Punt Scene, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47 (December, 1961), 20. 70 wise: egyptian incense a set number of days, symbolic ingredients, and magical spells. 10 Perhaps the priests believed that as they compounded fragrant resins with honey, wine, and raisins, they were mysteriously creating the body of the gods. Thus in burning resins before the temple statues, the pharaoh and his priests sacramentally offer the god to the god, a concept which surfaces again in Christianity. Incense becomes the sensory equivalent of the cult statue a manifestation in scent that complements the visual manifestation in gold or wood. Incense embodies Amun, the Hidden One, particularly well since both smoke and god can permeate the sanctuary invisibly. 11 Myth and legends recount how other gods reveal their divinity through scent. In Plutarch s Isis and Osiris, the queen of Byblos sees through Isis s disguise only when she smells the ambrosia -like fragrance of the goddess, and the Coffin Texts mention the fumes and scent of the god Shu, described as the storm of half-light, or byproduct of incense. 12 Osiris has a particularly ancient connection to incense. Scholars believe his name used to mean place of the eye in reference to the legend of Horus offering his sweet smelling Eye to his father as a token of victory over Seth. 13 Egyptians equated the Eye of Horus with incense, and they sometimes linked it specifically to the sticky juices of labdanum incense, which fell as tears from the god s Eye onto gum-cistus bushes. 14 Osiris became equated with these bushes the literal place of the [labdanum] eye and the Egyptians reverenced the goats wandering through the gum-cistus patches as manifestations of the Osirian ram of Mendes. 15 As they ate the bushes, the goats beards became caked with hardened labdanum, and the incense could be harvested by cutting off their beards. Alternatively, ribbons of goatskin attached to flails were pulled over the gum-cistus plants to catch drops of labdanum. Osiris s attributes of a goat beard and a flail connect him to the incense harvest and underscore the ancient centrality of scent in Egyptian religion. 16 Pharaoh s ceremonial beard and flail may have also carried incense connotations. Scholars hypothesize that the king s crook represented his role as shepherd over his people while the flail 10. See Plutarch, Isis and Osiris (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), 5.187; Manniche, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, Fletcher, Oils and Perfumes of Ancient Egypt, Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 5.41; The Coffin Texts, in William W. Hallo, ed., The Context of Scripture (New York: Brill, 1997), 1.12 (Spell 80). 13. T. J. Colin Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17 (November 1931): Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, 222; Percy E. Newberry, The Shepherd s Crook and the So-Called Flail or Scourge of Osiris, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (May 1929): Newberry explains another connection between Osiris and incense. Osiris absorbed the attributes of Andety, god of the nome Audet, a geographical area named for labdanum. Newberry, The Shepherd s Crook and the So-Called Flail or Scourge of Osiris, 94. studia antiqua 7.1 spring reminded him of his duty to the gods. 17 As tools for collecting labdanum, the flail and beard may have likened the king s intercession for his people to gathering incense for the temple altars and then using the clouds of smoke to mediate between heaven and earth. The decoration of many arm-shaped censers again references pharaoh s role as chief intercessor with the gods. A miniature image of the king sometimes crouches behind the container for resin, located halfway along the length of the censer. Since the priest-king could not officiate at all of Egypt s temples, these small sculptures may have endowed the priests with authority to fumigate the gods in place of pharaoh. In this way, the king s presence could be magically invoked, regardless of who actually burned the resin. The Egyptians depended on myrrh and frankincense trees for much of their incense, gathering the resinous tears and sweat of the gods as they exuded from the bark. These fruitful trees were venerated as mother goddesses, their resin described as divine menstrual blood. 18 Other gods also offered lifesustaining fluids through tree bark. Illustrations from the Book of the Dead frequently show goddesses like Hathor encased in trees, refreshing the dead with a stream of water. In addition to appearing as a gum-cistus bush, Osiris s djed sign implies that he evolved from a tree god, and spell 15 from the Book of the Dead calls him lord of the naret-tree. 19 Plutarch adds that a bush of heather enclosed the god s coffin until the king of Byblos cut the wood down to use as a column in his palace. Isis retrieved her husband s corpse from inside the trunk and wrapped the remaining heather in scented linen for the people to worship. 20 Osiris s coffin parallels the sacred trees that secrete aromatic resins. Fragrance wafts from his corpse, from the heather blossoms surrounding it, and finally from the layers of perfumed linen. The Egyptians associated all the life-giving fluids that seeped out from Osiris s decaying body with the resinous tears and sweat of the other gods. The connection between incense and divine trees gains additional support from scholarship hypothesizing that the incense lamps used for offering light and aroma to the dead intentionally took a cone shape to imitate sycamores, incense trees sacred to Osiris. 21 Their light-producing function imitates the sun, 17. Newberry, The Shepherd s Crook and the So-Called Flail or Scourge of Osiris, Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, 37, 38. Lucas notes that the solidified drops of both myrrh and frankincense are shaped like tears. A. Lucas, Notes on Myrrh and Stacte, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 23 (June 1937): Pliny emphasizes the reddish color of frankincense in his Natural History, in Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 29. The color probably led the Egyptians to associate the resin with blood. 19. Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, 221; Spell 15 in The Book of the Dead, in The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. Raymond O. Faulkner; ed. Carol Andrews; Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 40. Baly connects Osiris s tree god prototype to a Memphite god. Baly, A Note on the Origin of Osiris, Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, N. de Garis Davies, A Peculiar form of New Kingdom Lamp, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (April 1924): 72 wise: egyptian incense and their triangular form recalls the symbolic sunrays streaming down the sides of pyramids and obelisks. In the Pyramid Texts, the the scent of Horus s eye clearly symbolizes the sun since the falcon god uses the sun and moon as his eyes. 22 Significantly, Re first appeared in a lotus blossom, the symbol for the incense god Nefertum, and the fragrance of that flower rises each morning like a fumigation to the sun god. 23 These solar associations endowed the censing rites with the magic to vivify the statues of the gods. The Egyptian priests symbolically offered animating sunlight to their gods in the form of the fragrant Eye of Horus. Like the aromatic sweat of Amum that wafts life into all the deities of the cosmos, the censer could breathe vitality into lifeless statues. 24 The incense transferred the warmth and odor of the living body to inanimate objects, infusing wood or metal with the moisture of sweat. 25 Libations of water assisted the incense in creating bodily fluids for the statues, and the Egyptians sometimes interpreted pellets of resin as the tears of Isis that resurrected Osiris and commanded the life-giving Nile to rise each year. 26 As a result, incense resins became emblematic for the power that breathed life back into the mummified god of the underworld. 27 In a sense, Egyptian priests regarded their gods as corpses constantly needing to be resurrected. 28 In an image of Seti I fumigating statues of Horus and Osiris, the angled direction of the flames rising from the censer indicates that the pharaoh directs the incense towards the gods by blowing through the censer (Fig. 2). 29 In this way, he bestows life on the images through his own breath. Besides animating the cult statues, incense had other important functions in the cult. Fumigation cleansed the temple and bestowed life and divinity on offerings, making them fit for the consumption of the living gods. 30 The concentrated scent 22. E. A. Wallis Budge, Books on Egypt and Chaldaea (The Liturgy of Funerary Offerings: The Egyptian Texts with English Translations 25; London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Company, 1909), 49; Pyramid text from the burial chamber and passage, north side of the Pyramid of Unis, printed in James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), Veronica Ions, Egyptian Mythology (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1988), Ritual of Amon 12.11, in Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, 36. Osiris also can also ritually nourish the gods with his sweat, giving them life through fumigation rites. Aylward M. Blackman, The Significance of Incense and Libations in Funerary and Temple Ritual, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 50 (1912): Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic, Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, 55. Smith mentions that the Arabic term for a type of Egyptian incense a-a-nete may preserve the tear symbolism because it translates to tree-eyes. 27. Smith, The Evolution of the Dragon, 38. Some Egyptian legends claim that Isis conducted a memorial service for each piece of Osiris mutilated body and buried them in separate locations all along the Nile. As a result, many temples claimed to have a relic of the god and a tomb dedicated to him. 28. Blackman, The Significance of Incense, 73, n Sh. Yeivin, Canaanite Ritual Vessels in Egyptian Cultic Practice, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 62 (1976): Blackman, The Significance of Incense, 74; Malaise, Les Parfums en Égypt, 39. studia antiqua 7.1 spring of incense can create a hypnotic stupor, a property which may have aided priests as they mediated with the gods. Plutarch writes that the odor of resin contains something forceful and stimulating that gently relax[es] the brain, which is by nature cold and frigid. 31 In other words, the incense alters a person s natural mental state, imposing an artificial sense of comfort and ease. Plutarch expounds on this numbing, relaxing power when he writes that kyphi causes a beneficent exhalation, by which the air is changed, and the body, being moved gently and softly by the current acquires a temperament conducive to sleep. 32 He associates this druglike sensation with wine and drunkenness. 33 It may be that Egyptians fumigated their gods in thick clouds of pungent smoke in order to lull them into a druglike trance. This would make it easier to manipulate the deities into assisting questionable or undeserving causes. Pharonic religion certainly has precedents for this type of divine deception. Spell 30b in the Book of the Dead prevents the heart of the deceased from confessing its evil deeds to the gods, and Spell 14 dissipates the anger of a deity with magic and offerings. 34 Fig. 2: Relief from temple of Seti I (Abydos, 19 th Dynasty) 31. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 185, Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 189. In his De Materia Medica, Dioscorides describes how the unnatural, calming effect of incense causes people to become drowsy by the odor of the aromatics. Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.128; Strabo, , in Newberry, The Shepherd s Crook and the So-Called Flail or Scourge of Osiris, 92 n Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, The Book of the Dead, Spells 30b and 14. 74 wise: egyptian incense If It Lives, the People Live The life-giving properties of incense take on new implications in the cult of the dead and especially in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, illustrated by papyri like Hunefer s nineteenth-dynasty Book of the Dead (fig. 3). In this image, the jackal-headed god Anubis presents a mummy to a group of mourners while a priest offers incense and libations from behind a pile of gifts. The Opening of the Mouth ceremony functioned similarly to the rites that animated statues of the gods, with the smoke infusing the corpse with the odour of the living. 35 It may at first seem eccentric for the Egyptians to single out scent as the most potent tool for restoring life. Scholar G. Elliot Smith writes that Egyptians naturally would have considered odor as a fundamental characteristic of living, breathing, h
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