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Incense: From Papyri To Grimoires

A Knowledge Paper on Incense by Ioannis Marathakis for SOL

When I was a boy, obsessed with Egypt as I was, I came across a book named "On Isis and Osiris."

The author was Plutarch (AD 50-125), a Greek writer who was a priest of Apollo in Delphi. Originally excited with my discovery, I soon became disappointed, because most of the information on the Osirian myth contained in the book was already cited in encyclopedias. But a certain paragraph caught my attention:

"Kyphi is a mixture composed of sixteen ingredients; of honey and wine, raisins and galingale, (pine) resin and myrrh, aspalathos and seseli; moreover, of mastic and bitumen, bulrush and sorrel, together with the two kinds of juniper berries (of which one is called major and the other minor), cardamom and sweet flag. And these ingredients are not mixed by chance, but according to instructions cited in holy books, that are read to the incense makers while they mix them."

Plutarch, "De Iside et Osiride" ("On Isis and Osiris"), ch. 80.

[I have included an index with the scientific names of all plants mentioned at the end of this paper].

Although impressed, I was also disappointed because my botanical knowledge was very poor and I had no way of identifying the ingredients and of making this Kyphi. And "what sort of incense includes raisins?" I asked myself, and dismissed the whole subject. But I think that, subconsciously, this incident led me to engage with herbs and incenses. Fifteen years later, by chance (if there is such a thing), I came across more information about Kyphi. So I decided to close this circle of research on incenses, by writing this paper.

Incense in ancient Egypt

The word "Kyphi" is a Greek transliteration of the ancient Egyptian word "kapet", which means "incense" in general. Although the word occurs in the Pyramid Texts, the first "recipe" on how to prepare it, is contained in the medical Ebers Papyrus (1500 BC). It consisted of nine ingredients boiled in honey (Lise Manniche, Sacred luxuries, p. 55). Unfortunately, most of them cannot be identified with certainty. But about 1300 years later, the recipe for Kyphi seems to have changed. It now contained thirteen ingredients and the base for the paste was not solely honey, but also raisins, wine and oasis wine (probably made from dates). There is a recipe inscribed twice in the temple of Edfu and once in the temple of Philai. The ingredients are exactly the same in all three cases and vary only in their proportions. This is the Edfu 1 version:

"[Take 273 g each of mastic, pine resin, sweet flag, aspalathos, camel grass, mint and cinnamon.] Place the items in a mortar and grind them. Two-fifths of this will {turn out to} be in the form of liquid to be discarded. There remain three-fifths in the form of ground powder. [Take 1.5 lb each of cyperus, juniper berries, pine kernels and peker (unidentified)] Reduce the ingredients to powder. Moisten all these dry ingredients with [2.5 lb] wine in a copper vessel. Half of this wine will be absorbed by the powder [the rest is to be discarded].

Leave overnight. Moisten the [3.3 lb] raisins with [2.5 lb] oasis wine. Mix everything in a vessel and leave for five days. Boil to reduce by one-fifth. Place [3.3 lb] honey and [1,213 g] frankincense in a cauldron and reduce volume by one-fifth. Add to the honey and frankincense the kyphi macerated in wine. Leave overnight. Grind the [1,155 g] myrrh and add to the kyphi".

(Lise Manniche, Sacred luxuries, p. 51. See also Lise Manniche, An ancient Egyptian herbal, pp. 57-58.)

It seems that there were more than one recipes for making kyphi. The Greek physician Dioscorides (1st century AD) gives the following variation:

"Kyphi is a mixture of incenses dedicated to the Gods. Egyptian priests use it very often. It is also mixed with antidotes and is given in beverages to the asthmatic. There are many methods of preparation, one of which is the following: half a xestes (0.137 lt) of galingale; the same quantity of the major juniper berries; twelve mnai (5,239.2 g) of big stoned raisins; five mnai (2,183 g) of cleansed resin; one mna (436.6 g) each of sweet flag, aspalathos and lemon grass; twelve drachmai (48 g) of myrrh; nine xestes (2.466 lt) of old wine; two mnai (873.2 g) of honey.

Stone the raisins and chop them, and grind with wine and myrrh. Then grind and sieve the other ingredients and mix them with the aforementioned mixture. Let steep for one day. Then boil the honey until it thickens and mix thoroughly with the melted resin. Mix thoroughly with the other ingredients and store in an earthenware pot".

Dioscorides, "De materia medica" ("On the medicinal matter"), A, ch. 25.

About a century after Dioscorides, another Greek physician, Claudius Galen (129-201 AD), in his work "On Antidotes", provides another variation. These are the only existing recipes for Kyphi in the ancient world.

Well, I am sure it would smell nice, but I kept wondering "why these ingredients?" Is there a certain "quality" attributed to each of these plants? Can we correspond these substances to the planets, the zodiacal signs or the Gods? (I have a thing with correspondences; I probably read too much Agrippa when I was young).

The only attribution I managed to find is again inscribed in the temple of Edfu. According to the inscription there are eleven kinds of resin proper for the Gods, some connected with a certain God. It seems that the inscription is not wholly readable, so only six are attributed to specific Gods. Moreover, they are not identified, so one can only assume. Three of them, golden in colour, are said to spring from the eye of Ra (there is a suggestion that one is galbanum). One, red in colour, is said to spring from the left eye of Osiris (there is a suggestion that this is myrrh). One is said to come from the white of the eye of Thoth, and one from the back of Horus (no suggestions in either case) (Lise Manniche, Sacred luxuries, p. 27).

Incense in ancient Israel

Kyphi was not the only famous fragrant mixture in the ancient world. The Old Testament informs us about the sacred composite incense used by the priests for the worship of Jehova:

Ex. 30:34 And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight. 35 And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy. 36 And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. 37 And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. 38 Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.

Ex. 30, 34-38. King James translation.

The first thing we observe is the absence of a conjoining agent (such as honey or a fruity paste as in kyphi). The reason for this is probably the Jewish notion of honey and fruits as being unsuitable for burnt offerings:

Lev. 2:11 No meat offering, which ye shall bring unto the Lord, shall be made with leaven: for ye shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire. 12 As for the oblation of the firstfruits, ye shall offer them unto the Lord: but they shall not be burnt on the altar for a sweet savour.

Lev. 2, 11-12. King James translation.

Galbanum, stacte and frankinsence are more or less familiar, but what is onycha? It is defined by the same name in both the Vulgate and king James translation. My conclusion is that translators simply copied the Greek Septuaginta translation of the 3rd century BC. The Hebrew word for it, "Shecheleth", appears only once in the Old Testament. Its translation, "onycha", is the accusative cause of the ancient Greek word "onyx" which means "fingernail". I think that the substance meant by the word "onycha" is Bdellium; Dioscorides mentions that Bdellium "resembles a fingernail" (De materia medica, A, 67). Aleister Crowley, in 777 (Explanation of Column XLII) says that "Its origin is somehow connected with a certain shellfish", but I think he was misinformed.

In the same paragraph Crowley gives an elemental attribution to the aforementioned ingredients. Galbanum represents the element of Air, onycha the element of Water, olibanum (frankinsence) Fire, and storax Earth (he takes stacte for storax). I don't know if this attribution is based on another book or if it is originally Crowley's idea.

Incense in Roman Greece

The only reference to incense I found in the Greek tradition is included in the Orphic Hymns, a work that dates as late as the 3rd century AD. There are 87 (or 88, depending on the edition) hymns in total, each dedicated to a specific deity, aspect of deity or group of deities. Next to these hymns are the proper incenses that must be offered to each deity.

Storax is to be offered to the following 11 deities: Prothyraia (an aspect of Artemis), Zeus, Zeus Keraunios (Zeus of the Thunderbolts), Proteus (a sea god with many appearances), Dionysos, Demeter of Eleusis, Mise (a hermaphrodite god/goddess, connected with the Mysteries of Eleusis), Semele (mother of Dionysos), Hipta (the nanny of Dionysos), Hermes Chthonios (Hermes of the Underworld), Charites (the Graces).

Myrrh is to be offered to the following 5 deities: Protogonos (Phanes, the first-born god), Poseidon, Nephelai (goddesses of the Clouds), Nereus (a sea god), Leto (mother of Apollo and Artemis).

Francincense is to be offered to the following 17 deities: Ouranos (Uranus, the Sky), Heracles, Hermes, Titanes (the Titans), Couretes (the followers of Cybele), Corybas (a god connected with the Mysteries of Samothrace), Dice (goddess of Justice), Dicaiosyne (another goddess of Justice), Ares, Tyche (goddess of Luck), Daimon (an aspect of Zeus), Mousai (the Muses), Mnemosyne (goddess of Memory), Themis (goddess of the Law), Boreas (the North Wind), Zephyros (the West Wind) and Notos (the South Wind).

Manna is to be offered to the following 10 deities: Nice (goddess of Victory), Apollo, Artemis, Licnetes (baby Dionysos), Silenus satyr and Bacchai, Asclepios, Hygieia (goddess of Health), Palaimon (a sea god connected with Dionysos), Heos (goddess of the Dawn) and Thanatos (god of Death).

Libanomanna is to be offered to the following 4 deities: Helios (the Sun), Zeus Astrapaios (Zeus of the Lightning), Tethys (the consort of Oceanos) and Hephaistos.

No incense is mentioned in connection to the following 11 Gods: Hecate, Pluto, Persephone, Couretes (there is another hymn to Couretes with the indication "francincense"), Athena, Dionysos Bassareus Trietericos (Dionysos whose celebration is every three years), Lysios Lenaios (Dionysos the Saviour and Dionysos of the Wine), Aphrodite, Nemesis, Nomos (god of the Law).

There are also 21 deities whose incense is discribed by the general term "perfumes": Asteres (the Stars), Selene (the Moon), Physis (Nature), Rhea, Hera, Nereides, Mother Antaia (an aspect of Demeter), Horai (the Seasons), Bacchos Pericionios (Dionysos of the Column), Sabazios, Nymphai, Trietericus (Dionysos of the three years), Adonis, Heros (god of Love), Moirai (the Fates), Eumenidai (the Beneficent Goddesses, a euphemism of the Erinyai), Melinoe (daughter of Persephone), Leucothea (a sea goddess), Oceanos (the Ocean), Hestia and Oneiros (god of Dreams).

Apart from the above, pine wood is to be offered to Nyx (goddess of the Night), saffron to Aither (Ether), opium to Hypnos (god of Sleep); any seed except broad beans to Gaia (Earth); any incense except frankincense to Amphietes (Dionysos whose celebration is twice a year). "A variety (of perfumes)" are to be offered to Pan and to the Mother of Gods (an aspect of Rhea).

I have tried to classify the various gods according to their incense. But I could not come to a conclusion. I think that there is no certain philosophy in the attribution of the incenses to the Gods in the Orphic Hymns.

Greek Magical Papyri

The Greek Magical Papyri are a corpus of papyri that derive from Graeco-Roman Egypt dating from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. These papyri cite various magical operations and are something like Grimoires of the Graeco-Roman times. Many magical operations involve the use of a specific incense, mainly myrrh and frankincense. The compositions remind us of kyphi, as they contain honey, wine and some fruity paste as well. The also texts refer to composite incenses that include animal parts, dung etc., but these recipes fall out of the intention of the present paper.

I found one recipe that gives the portions of the ingredients in detail. It is from an operation called "The Sword of Dardanos" that intends to "attract the soul of anybody you want". It involves the construction of a certain talisman, and the incense that ensouls the talisman is the following:

"4 drachmai (16 g) of manna, 4 drachmai of storax, 4 drachmai of opium, 4 drachmai of myrrh; half a drachme (2 g) each of frankinsence, saffron, and bdellium. Mix with a plump dried fig; add an equal proportion of fragrant wine and use."

Greek Magical Papyri, IV, verses 1832-1839.

Other recipes are not so detailed and do not provide the exact proportions. The following recipe is from a "Slander spell to Selene" which intends "to attract somebody in one hour, to send dreams, to cause sickness, to kill enemies". The operation lasts three days. The first two days one is to use this beneficent Lunar incense, while during the third one is to use a coercive one.

"The beneficent incense: Uncut (?) frankinsence, bay, myrtle, fruit pits, lowsewort, malabathron, costos. Pound all these and mix with mendesian wine and honey. Shape into pellets the size of broad beans."

Greek Magical Papyri, IV, verses 2675-2684.

Another Lunar incense is from a "Prayer to Selene, for every magical operation":

"Incense for this prosedure. For beneficent deeds: storax, myrrh, sage, frankinsence, fruit pits."

Greek Magical Papyri, IV, verses 2871-2875.

But I think that the most important element concerning incense in the Greek Magical Papyri is not the recipes, but the first attribution of odoriferous substances to the seven planets. This attribution is from "A sacred book called 'Monad' or 'Eighth Book of Moses', concerning the Holy Name":

"The proper incense for Saturn is storax, because it is heavy and fragrant. For Jupiter, malabathron. For Mars, costus. For the Sun, frankinsence. For Venus, spikenard. For Mercury, cassia. For the Moon, myrrh".

Greek Magical Papyri, XIII, verses 17-22. Compare also with verses 352-355.

The mixture of these seven substances provides the composite incense for the magical procedure that follows. The writer claims that "from this book Hermes plagiarized when he named the seven kinds of incense". Another reference to Hermes and the seven planetary incenses occurs many centuries later, in the "Three Books of Occult Philosophy" by Cornelius Agrippa.

The Gnostics

The only reference I managed to find about the use of incense among the Gnostics is cited in the Bruce Codex. The edition I have is very unreliable, I am afraid, so I cannot give the numbering of verses, nor the chapters. I also feel quite uncertain about the correctness of the translation in general. But I would concider this article incomplete without some reference to the Gnostics. I know the text is contained in Carl Schmidt, The Books of JEU and The Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978 (but unfortunately I do not have access to the specific edition).

This text describes how Jesus performs the Baptism of Water, the Baptism of Fire and the Baptism of Spirit for the apostles. In each of these three "initiations", a separate fragrant mixture is used:

For the baptism of Water he places on the fire "juniper, cinnamon and spikenard".

For the baptism of Fire he uses "myrtle, frankincense, mastic, spikenard, cinnamon flowers and turpentine resin".
For the baptism of Spirit he uses "juniper, cinnamon flowers, saffron, mastic, myrrh, balsam and honey".

Incense in Western Europe

Various recipes for composite incenses were known in western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (see Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, ch. XLIII, where is a recipe for prophesying, two for summoning the spirits, two for driving them away, one for forcing them to guard treasures, etc. Compare also with recipes in "Liber Juratus" or "Sworn Book of Honorius", a famous magical book of the same era). One of the main interests in the West concerning incenses was their attribution to the planets and zodiacal signs. Agrippa dedicates seven chapters of his first book (XXIII-XXIX) to the seven planets and their correspondences in the animal, plant and mineral world (which are repeated in the latest versions of "Liber Juratus"). Chapter XLVI of his second book is dedicated to the talismans of the twenty eight mansions of the Moon, and most of these have their own incense. "Liber Juratus", on the other hand, quotes a certain paragraph with the specific incenses attributed to the thirty six Decans.

Agrippa (Book I, ch. XLIV) describes seven composite incenses of the planets (which are again repeated in "Liber Juratus"). The conjoining agent in each is blood or brains of a relevant to each planet animal (an eagle for the Sun, a goose for the Moon, etc.), which brings to mind the Graeco-Roman tradition of the Greek Magical Papyri. But after citing these recipes he gives a general rule for recognising the planetary correspondences of aromatic substances: All odoriferous roots are Saturnal, all odoriferous fruits are Jovial, all odoriferous wood is Martial, gums are Solar, flowers are Venerial, peels and seeds Mercurial, and finally, aromatic leaves Lunar.

Chapter XLIV ends with a reference to Hermes and his composite incense of the seven planetary substances (see Greek Magical Papyri, XIII, 17-22), which are quite different from the Greek text. This difference could be explained by errors in transcription (for instance, myrtle (myrtus) could be myrrh in the original), or simply by the eventual lack of some substances and their replacement with others, unknown during Graeco-Roman times. Curiously enough, in Liber Juratus pepperwort is substituted with costus.

In the following table I cite the planetary incenses according to all grimoires I have access to and contain such attributions: Heptameron (ascribed to Petro de Abano), Sepher Maphteah Shelomoh (a Hebrew magical book), The Veritable Clavicles of Solomon (a French version of the "Key of Solomon", quite different from Mathers' edition), together with the Greek Magical Papyri and the Agrippa/Liber Juratus attributions.

Planetary Incenses

Planet Greek Magical Papyri Heptameron Sepher Maphteah Shelomoh Agrippa Liber Juratus Veritable Clavicles of Solomon
Moon Myrrh (Lignum) aloes Lignum aloes Myrtle Myrtus (Myrtle) Loadstone (?!)
Mercury Cassia Mastic Mastic Cinnamon Cinnamon Juniper
Venus Spikenard Pepperwort Costus Saffron Crocus (Saffron) Musk
Sun Frankinsence Red wheat (probably red sandalwood) Red sandalwood Mastic Mastic Laurel
Mars Costus Pepper Pepper Lignum aloes Lignum aloes Storax
Jupiter Malabathron Saffron Saffron Nutmeg Mace Lignum aloes
Saturn Storax Sulphur Brimstone (Sulphur) Pepperwort Costus Sulphur

I found attributions for the zodiacal incenses only in Agrippa and Liber Juratus.

Zodiacal Incenses

Sign Liber Juratus Agrippa (I, XLIV)
Aries Myrrh Myrrh
Taurus Costus Pepperwort
Gemini Mastic Mastic
Cancer Camphor Camphor
Leo Thu Frankincense
Virgo Sanders Sanders
Libra Galbanum Galbanum
Scorpio Opoponax Opoponax
Lignum (aloes)
Lignum aloes
Capricorn Asam Gum benjamin
Aquarius Euphorbium Euphorbium
Pisces Armoniacum Red storax

Interestingly, in the latest Grimoires there is notably less tendency to classify incenses. Authors either always give the same mixture for all operations, or advise readers to use sweet odours in general. Thus:

In the Key of Solomon (Book II, chapter X in Mathers' edition) the perfumes inscribed are incense (probably frankincense), (lignum) aloes, nutmeg, gum benjamin, musk, and "other fragrant spices"
In the Key of Knowledge (an English 16th century version of the Key of Solomon, Book II, chapter XVIII) suffumigations are made with frankincense, lignum aloes, myrrh, but one can use other spices as well.

In Grimorium Verum the perfumes inscribed are lignum aloes, frankincense and mace.

In in all cases the reader is advised to recite a short prayer over the incense before use. This prayer is addressed to God in order to bless and cleanse the incense from evil spirits. In some cases the incense has to be sprinkled with holy water also, and even the fire (on which the incense is burnt) has to be blessed and cleansed with a similar prayer.

An interesting exception is the magical book named "The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage". Edited by Mathers in 1898, it contains a magical operation in order to achieve the "Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel". In Book II, chapter 11, there is a detailed preparation of the proper incense:

"The perfume shall be made thus: Take of incense (frankinsence is meant) in tears one part; of stacte (Mathers mentions: "or storax") half a part; of lign aloes a quarter of a part and not being able to get this wood you shall take that of cedar, or of rose, or of citron, or any other odoriferous wood. You shall reduce all these ingredients into a very fine powder, mix them well together; and keep the same in a box or other convenient vessel".

There is a more recent comparative edition however, in German (Abraham von Worms, Buch Abramelin, ed. G. Dehn, Saarbroken, 1995), that gives a different recipe:

"Take equal parts of balsam (probably lignum balsam is meant), galbanum and pure frankincense; and if you cannot find balsam, take lignum aloes, cedar or another odoriferous wood, grind them to powder and mix them".

I feel it somewhat lacking to conclude this article without mentioning Aleister Crowley and his 777. In this notorious book he tries to classify perfumes according to the seven planets, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the four elements and the ten Sephiroth. He even attributes incenses with the twenty-five sub-elements (he considers Spirit as an element also). Although based on tradition (Agrippa etc.), he did not restrict himself to it; in the Explanation of column XLII he states that some of his attributions are derived from clairvoyant observation and he generally encourages students to undertake personal investigation on perfumes. Personally, I like his point of view. I think that mere adherence to tradition or mere personal preference, are both excessive (though both may work for someone); but a very good knowledge of tradition is a steady basis for further investigation.


Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride.

Dioscorides, De materia medica.

(I used various Greek editions in both cases, which I think meaningless to refer to. I imagine that one can easily find an English translation of the whole texts. The passages were translated from ancient Greek by the present author).

Manniche L., Sacred luxuries: fragrance, aromatherapy and cosmetics in ancient Egypt, Opus Publishing Limited, London, 1999.

Manniche L., An ancient Egyptian herbal, British Museum Press, London, 1999.

Quandt G. (ed.), Orphei Hymni, Weidmann, Dublin/Zürich, 1973.

Preisendanz K., Papyri Graecae Magicae, B. G. Teubner, Stuttgart, 1973.

(Passages from the above two texts were translated from ancient Greek by the present author. But there is also an English translation of the Greek Magical Papyri: The Greek Magical Papyri in translation, edited by Hans Dieter Betz, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1992.)

Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, ed. Donald Tyson, Llewellyn Publications, 1997.

Aleister Crowley, 777, Level Press.

(All grimoires mentioned, Liber Juratus, Heptameron, Mafteah Shelomo, the Key of Solomon, the Key of Knowledge, the Veritable Clavicles of Solomon, Grimorium Verum and the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, are edited by Joseph H. Peterson in www.esotericarchives.com/esoteric.htm.

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