Fragrance Friday: Incense

Fragrance Friday: Incense

A little over a week ago, I had started writing a post about fragrance gifts, in particular how to give someone a fragrance when you’re not sure what that person might like, or whether the recipient might want to try something new. Then on Friday, December 15, we found out that my beloved mother-in-law had died early that morning. My post about holiday gifts suddenly seemed frivolous, and I didn’t have the heart to post anything that day or in the week since; we scrambled to get to her funeral, which was held in another state on Tuesday.

We have just returned home, and I’m trying to resume normal routines, as I know she would want us to do. So for this Fragrance Friday, I’ll write about the beautiful service that celebrated her life a few days ago. My mother-in-law was a devout Roman Catholic; church, faith, and family were central to her life. She and my father-in-law were married for 60 years. He knew exactly what she wanted for her memorial service: a mass, attended mostly by her large extended family and close friends. It was perfect. My mother-in-law loved Christmas and was one of those enthusiasts who decorated every surface with Christmas-themed items starting in mid-November. She often left them up until late January, which we loved, and she made us all many Christmas-themed items, like a handknit Christmas stocking for every grandchild, which are hanging right now from our mantel, and beautiful pieces of needlework like the birth samplers she also made for all her grandchildren. The church where her funeral service was held was filled with evergreens, including several simple trees, bare of all decoration except a few pine cones on their branches and bouquets of scented white flowers — lilies, roses, delphiniums — at their base. She would have loved that, as well as the snow that had fallen the day before, leaving a soft white blanket over the ground.

The priest led this traditional service very capably, including his use of a thurible to cense her casket. This is an ancient tradition in the Roman Catholic church; the fragrant smoke of the incense symbolizes the prayers of the faithful rising up to heaven, as in Psalm 141 (140), verse 2: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.”  It can also symbolize the soul rising to God. The priest swings the thurible, which is a type of censer used to contain burning incense, always in multiples of three times to stand for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The incense is often made with frankincensebenzoinmyrrhstyraxcopal or other aromatics. These are associated in many cultures with sacrifices, gifts to divinities, and purification, leading to the tradition that the Magi who came to find the newborn Jesus brought him those as gifts, recognizing that he was divine and also that he came to sacrifice himself to save and purify us.

The sadness of the funeral service was gentled by the music and beautiful surroundings, by the loving family gathered to honor my husband’s mother, and by traditions like the use of incense. Its fragrant smoke lingered in the air, sweet and aromatic, as we bade her goodbye. It seems impossible to understand that we won’t see her again in this life; but we are glad she is released from illness and suffering, and we pray we will see her in the next.

Pope Francis, incense, Mary, and Christ Child

Pope Francis, incense, Mary, and Christ Child

Fragrance Friday: Scents of the Ancient World

Fragrance Friday: Scents of the Ancient World

Nerd alert! I spent MANY years of my youth studying Latin and Ancient Greek, and my studious little soul still thrills to the occasional article about obscure aspects of the classical world. So it is my pleasure to bring you: Recreating the Aroma of the Ancient City: Incense in the Ancient Mediterranean. Last weekend, there was a conference in Rome where “archaeologists, historians and classicists gathered not only to explore the use of incense, perfume and scented oils in antiquity, but also to attempt to recreate the ephemeral smellscapes of the past.” Heaven!

I have visited the Minoan sites mentioned in the article (Crete, and Akrotiri on the island of Santorini — well worth visiting!). I don’t recall the article mentioning another site I have visited, however: Delphi, possibly because the most famous scented emissions there, the vapor that put the Pythia (oracle) into a trance, was not manmade:

It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch—who, we recall, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary—noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell—so ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia.

Professor Bond, author of the article about recreating ancient aromas, ties the use of incense, frankincense and other fragrant substances to Christian traditions too:

When the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh (Gr.σμύρνα) along with the gold to the baby Jesus, they were donating sacred substances to be used to make the newborn’s house and his body more fragrant. Although frankincense was usually placed in an incense burner, myrrh came from an Arabian tree and was often turned into an unguent used on the dead in ancient Egypt.

She goes on to describe things like ancient recipes for incenses, like one from Egypt called kyphi, which the conference scholars apparently tried to re-create. What a lovely goal — to put oneself as completely as possible into the mindset of the ancients, to understand better their history, literature and architecture.

Kyphi was a popular aromatic in Egyptian temples dedicated to Isis, but could also be used in the house before bed to help people get a good night’s sleep.

Imagining the bedrooms of the ancient world is completely different when you can actually smell the pungent sweetness of kyphi as you take in the colorful frescoes and cushioned furniture within the ancient bedrooms of places like Pompeii. Smelling these reconstructed substances in person is then a potent reminder that experiencing the ancient world is not just about modeling ancient buildings or putting on a wool toga.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall for this conference. I may just have to take up my Ancient Greek grammar book again …

Delphi Pythia

Priestess at Delphi, by John Collier (1891)