Fragrances in the Old and New Testament of the Bible, otherwise referred to as Biblical fragrances, are with us today in many subtle and unexpected ways, and they often lie just below the rim of consciousness.
In fact, the herbs, grains and greens we eat date back to diets of cultures that thrived during ancient times.
Surprisingly, a myriad of the favored fragrances formulated today by some of the world’s leading perfumers have their recorded roots in the narrative, poetry, mystical prophesy and glorious perfume components found in both the Old and New Testaments.
The following explores these ancient aromatic notes and how their influence allows the scented products we design today to reach back, while at the same time reach forward in new aromatic, innovative and modern ways.
The Secret Nature of Ancient Perfume
For centuries untold, until the advent of scientific advancements that rendered the ability to analyze the chemical aspects of smell, perfume formulation was a closely guarded secret passed down from one generation to the next.
Formulas were rarely, if ever published. Greek writer Theophrastus (c. 270–285 B.C.) in his Natural History opus included lists of both perfume ingredients and some discussion of the techniques and tools utilized to develop them.
Oils were used as carrier mediums in the perfumes of the ancient world and because they evaporated very quickly, the scent masters of the day created subtle fragrances that required close proximity to the nose in order to experience their true character.
In Greece and Rome, olive oil was the most popular because of its availability. In modern times, alcohol with essential oils are added to fragrance combined with fixatives, coloring agents and preservatives.
Ancient perfumes relied completely on natural products, which included essential oils gathered from flowers, spices, and fruits. It is known that perfume had a myriad of uses and many meanings.
In Egypt’s Golden Age, it was considered holy and sacred, as it was an important ingredient in worship, embalming and burial rituals. It also symbolized status and royalty.
Roman frescoes from Pompeii depict cupids mixing scents, and Egyptians art also illustrated perfume making in many murals and frescoes.
9 Biblical Fragrances That Still Thrive Today
Below are some biblical scents that are just as popular today as they were in their prime.
Indigenous to southern China and also known as Chinese cinnamon, this spice is derived from the aromatic bark of the Cassia tree, which can grow to the height of almost ten feet.
It is a primeval variety of cinnamon that was used in biblical times to scent garments. In the Hebrew language, cassia means to bow down the head; in Greek, it is a name for a baby girl and translates into cinnamon.
Cassia is one of the spices found in the holy anointing oil mentioned in the Book of Exodus (30:24).
In Psalm 45, it is also recorded as a primary ingredient in the Oil of Gladness that was used to scent the robes of Jesus.
In perfumery, the twigs, buds and foliage of the bark are usually steam-distilled, but they are also sometimes recreated by perfume masters.
When handled with the loving care it deserves, the resulting facet is potent, spicy and highly sensual, lending itself perfectly to fragrances within the ambery (formerly oriental) fragrance family, Scents are warm, heavy and rich, and they are known to linger on the skin.
This sector encompasses notes such as: dark, honeyed amber; creamy sandalwood; dense, sugary and nutty coumarin; floral, violet-nuanced orris; lush, elegant vanilla and balsamic and fruity gum resins.
This aromatic resin is at the heart of all incense.
It derives its name from the old French word, francencens, which means pure incense or pure lighting. Highly coveted in the ancient world, along with myrrh, it was worth its weight in gold and its high demand is believed to be responsible for the opening of the ancient trade routes connecting southern Arabia to India, the Mediterranean and the Silk Road in China.
The ancient Egyptians treasured frankincense, used it daily in their religious and embalming rituals and considered it to be the “sweat of the gods.”
The Pentateuch records that frankincense was a hallowed ingredient in the sanctuary incense burned by the early Hebrews.
The Book of Mathew records that it was one of the three gifts presented by the Magi to the infant Jesus on the night of his birth.
Today, perfume masters understand that the true potency of frankincense lies in its diverse nature as a raw material. It is as splendid when it is deftly combined with floral head notes as when it is employed as a dry down, with a resulting essence that is is lingering soft, smooth and earthy.
Rich, green, mysterious and woody, this sticky, brown and aromatic resin is extracted from plants that are in the same botanical family as carrots, celery and parsley.
Also known as Ferula gummosa; Galbano and Oleogum Resin, these plants thrive along the mountainous slopes of northern Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, and are known to reach about ten feet in height and diameter at maturity.
In the Old Testament, there is a reference to galbanum as one of the sacred ingredients found in holy incense (Exodus 30:34).
The mighty pharaohs of ancient Egypt imported this precious commodity from Persia in enormous quantities to create their holy perfume, Metopian, and Romans and Greeks burned it into incense sticks, added it to bath water and into popular skin balms and unguents.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, galbanum was an important ingredient in many formulas for medicines.
Galbanum presents a complicated mosaic of scent and a mode of application that is best left to master formulators.
Due to the fact that this facet evolves over the course of time, it requires a specific, precise touch.
It acts as a superior fixative that works well with spices and floral accords in tandem with piquant, green hyacinth, raspberry-nuanced iris; powdery violet; potent, rich narcissus and creamy, smooth gardenia.
Indigenous to very dry areas in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East, this sticky resin, which was also known as ladanan, black balsam and gum cistus, it was first used in perfumery in the glory days of ancient Egypt where it became a popular ingredient in the kypri blend of incense. Early Hebrews burned it in their sacred temples.
Used in many religious rituals and ceremonies, early formulations included facets of: deep, sweet wine; rich honey; sugary honeycomb and traces of earthy, musty elements.
Today, labdanum in absolute form is largely popular because it imitates the fragrance of ambergris, which is illegal to extract. For our master perfumers at Alpha Aromatics, it has no peer when formulating an amber scent.
It is an excellent fixative that does not smother the original character of other facets.
It is usually either soft and leathery or sweet and nuanced by fruity, peachy plum. Labdanum blends well with many diverse essential oils.
These include but are not limited to: dry. cedar wood; warm cinnamon; aromatic frankincense; rosy geranium; mellow lavender; sugary mimosa; earthy oak moss; and spicy ginger.
Like frankincense, myrrh originates from the sap excreted by the Boswellia and Commiphora trees when the bark is cut.
Linked to death and burial rites, it was a vital ingredient in the embalming rituals of ancient Egypt and one of three gifts the Magi bestowed upon the infant, Jesus, on the night of his birth.
Myrrh was often burned with frankincense to create an extremely intense variety. Its aroma can be described as woody, warm, pungent and slightly medicinal.
As a perfume note, it is challenging, but extremely exciting at the same time. It literally bursts with character, and requires a highly skilled master perfumer to prevent its inclusion from overwhelming an entire formulation.
In the words of perfumer, Calice Becker: “Myrrh for a perfumer is like butter for a chef; it enriches the flavors. A proper balance of myrrh with other ingredients results in a sensual, haunting essence.”
Combined with other ancient elements, onycha was one of the ingredients found in the consecrated Ketoret incense, which is noted in the Torah book of Exodus (30:34-36), and was used in Jerusalem’s Solomon temple.
The old Testament also mentioned onycha as part of a godly command to Moses who was instructed to “take fragrant spices all in equal amounts and make a sweet smelling blend of incense…”
The name derives from a Latin word meaning fingernail or claw, and refers to the operculum or claw of a type of shellfish indigenous to the Red Sea that emits a sweet aroma when burned.
Woody, rich and creamy, onycha was originally reserved exclusively for incense and never used in any other way. Sometimes referred to as the “purple pearl,” onycha is an unusual note in perfumery because unlike others, it has the ability to stream throughout a fragrance’s entire unfolding.
The use of oudh dates back to the ancient scriptures of various religions.
The Prophet, Mohammad, referred to it as a precious item found in paradise and the Islamic world embraced the precious resin as both an essential oil and a perfume.
The Song of Solomon mentions oudh as a form of incense. When its use spread to Europe, King Louis IV of France was so enamored with its captivating fragrance that he soaked his clothes in it.
Oudh has earned its proper place in modern perfumery. It is most often a base note because of its tendency to remain on the skin long after other facets have faded (up to six hours or more).
It is dense and very rich, and its true power lies in its ability to both enhance other facets in a composition, and in some instances, to completely overwhelm them.
Oudh’s fragrance is pleasing and sugary rather than earthy, as are most woody notes. Most perfumers rely on a synthetic version for fine fragrances, as harvesting costs are prohibitive.
Spikenard, which is also known as nard, muskroot and nardin, is a woody, spicy, herbaceous, splendidly aromatic, warm and earthy perfume facet.
It is derived from a plant known as Nardostachys jatamansi that flourishes in the hills of northern India and goes by the name in that region as a medicinal ingredient known as jatamansi.
Ancient cultures believed it inspired devotion and soothed the human spirit by creating an inner balance between spirituality and emotion.
Spikenard is mentioned in the Book of Mark in the New Testament (14:3-9) as the oil a sinner used to anoint the head of Jesus before his crucifixion. It is also cited in John (12:3) and Song of Solomon (14).
Ancient Hebrews burned it as incense in the Jerusalem Temple. Perfumes and precious oils were often recorded in the Old Testament specifically for their use in the preparation of a body for burial.
Spikenard was costly, as oil extraction was complex and imported requiring time consuming shipment to the Holy Land.
Woody, spicy, earthy and musty, spikenard has grounding properties, which makes it ideal for both aromatherapy, massage and mediation.
In perfumery, it is commonly found in tandem with complementary oils such as: aromatic frankincense, hot, piquant clove; green, fresh and crisp juniper berry; warm, woody myrrh and deep, rich and sugary wild orange.
It also is a fine complement to floral essential oils like soothing, cool lavender and sharp, musty herbal geranium.
It is the roots of this perennial plant that are employed in perfumery, where it serves as a dazzling fixative in both chypre and ambery fragrances.
It equally complements potent, sensual and bark-like oak moss, green, musty vetiver, clean fresh lemon and zesty spice.
Also known as Friar’s Balm, and storax, these are synonyms for the balsamic resin known as benzoin. Their monikers derive from their point of origin; namely, the Styrax Benzoin tree.”
The Arabs of the 14th century were the first culture to describe benzoin as the “frankincense of Java.” Its use extended to incense, soaps, pomanders and pot pourri.
This natural compound renders a heaviness to many woody perfumes. Scents are rich, and they are known to linger on the skin.
This family of scents encompasses notes such as: dark, honeyed amber; creamy sandalwood; sweet, smooth and lush vanilla; sensual, creamy caramel, sugary and nutty coumarin; floral, violet-nuanced orris; balsamic, gummy resins; intense, roasted coffee and sweet, floral honey.
We are as much about history as all of the above mentioned notes!
While our roots may not stretch as far back as Biblical times, they were born during the aftermath of World War II and we continue to thrive as strong as the fragrances that permeated those ancient times.
Whether it’s fine, natural and designer fragrances, we create and supply scents for a myriad of personal care producers, candles and diffusers, home fragrances, private label brands, odor neutralizers, household cleaning products and superior customized perfumes for any setting.
Give our teams a call today and lend a note of history to a new signature scent or customized perfume.
Photo Credits: Pixabay, Shutterstock and Jonas Neilson