unto thee i
the bowl crackles
upon the gloom arise purple pencils
fluent spires of fragrance
a flutter of stars
a turbulence of forms
delightful with indefinable flowering,
the air is
deep with desirable flowers
thou lovest incense
for in the ambiguous faint aspirings
the indolent frail ascensions,
of thy smile rises the immaculate
of thy low
hair flutter the level litanies
unto thee i burn
incense,over the dim smoke
straining my lips are vague with
ecstasy my palpitating breasts inhale the
of thy beauty,my heart discovers thee
We receive the word "perfume" into English via the French, parfumer, and Old Italian parfumare which originate in the Latin prefix per-, meaning "through" and fumare, "to smoke." (American Heritage Dictionary) Today, perfume and incense are two separate things, but four thousand years ago, the inhabitants of the ancient world, from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt and perhaps beyond, were sending prayers to their gods per fumare, or through the smoke of burning aromatics.
In his book Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984), Edwin T. Morris notes that the most valuable and precious of all incenses in ancient Mesopotamia was the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. In fact, the word "Lebanon" derives from the Akkadian lubbuni, which means "incense." The fragrant cedars of Lebanon as well as pine, cypress, fir resins, and myrtle were imported to the city-states of the Tigris and Euphrates and were burned in ceremonies "to attract heavenly beings 'like flies' around the sacrificer." (p. 55) These notes live on in contemporary incense mixtures as well as in perfumes that employ wood notes, juniper berries, and other woody-green essences.
Wherever it began, it was in Egypt that the alchemical processes of perfumery came into widespread domestic as well as religious use. It was an ingredient in embalming rituals and a valuable commodity for trade with other nations. The female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut sent out great expeditions for incense materials and used them in ceremonies to honor the sun god, Amon-Ra. Morris notes on page 60 that two of the incense materials she prized most dearly were balsams: Boswellia papyrifera and Commiphora erythraea, two species of what we now know as frankincense and myrrh. Along with benzoin, Tolu and Peru balsams and a number of other aromatic substances, frankincense and myrrh are "pathological secretions" in that they are produced by plants and trees in response to injury. Morris explains the process on page 60 of Fragrance:
"The resins...are created by nature to protect the sap of the trees, or bushes from drying out in the harsh climate. The resin oozes over any cuts made by an insect or animal, or by the incense gatherers, and is initially thick but viscous. Later it hardens to a candylike substance that can be scraped off and transported over great distances."
These candylike formations were called "tears" by Ovid and many aromatics can be purchased in this form today, especially during the winter season when seasonal interest in frankincense and myrrh is at its height. In tear form, the incense is burned in a censer or dish with charcoal and the process of lighting and caring for a burning censer of incense can be deeply calming and mystical - even to those for whom it has no religious content.
The whitish tears of frankincense, (frequently known as olibanum from the Hebrew word lebonah, meaning "milk") have an earthy yet distant, almost dusty smell. It is said to be both "uplifting" and "grounding" and is reputed to help slow the breathing. Perhaps these characteristics are what have made it so widely loved in religious rituals. It is a powerful fragrance, so powerful that its smoke has been proven to "act on the brain cells in a manner similar to cannabis oil," as cited by Richard Stamelman in Perfume: Joy, Obsession, Scandal, Sin on pages 123 and 349. (Rizzoli, 2006)
The finest frankincense in the world is produced in Yemen and Oman, and that fact was honored by the Omani perfume concern Amouage, whose perfumes are developed with an unlimited budget using the finest natural resources available. Silver frankincense from Oman is the star ingredient. Amouage reports that legendary winged serpents were said to have guarded the trees which were cultivated and protected by a very select caste of workers. The trees, the incense, and the people who gathered the incense were all considered sacred. In her Natural Perfume Workbook (2003), Mandy Aftel reports that in ancient Arabia, "the collected frankincense was brought by camel to the town...where one gate was open for its reception; to turn from the road was prohibited under penalty of death. Until the priests had taken a tenth of the lot for the god Sabin, none could be sold."
Various perfumers have tried to capture the precious, transcendental qualities of Frankincense in their creations; the Japanese design group Comme des Garcons (CdG) famously released a series of five scents based on five incense-centers corresponding to five world religions. Among them is Avignon, a black aluminum container full of dim liquid smoke and purple pencils rising "upon the gloom" that E. E. Cummings' pictured in his early poem "unto thee i."
CdG Avignon is named for the French town that became the medieval center of Catholicism and the home to a papacy. The fragrance contains notes of Roman chamomile, cistus oil, elemi, frankincense, myrrh, vanilla, patchouli, palisander wood, and ambrette seeds. Despite being among gifts given to Baby Jesus by the wise men upon his birth as recorded in the New Testament, it was not until the Fifth Century that the Catholic Church officially adopted the practice of burning incense and the swung censer became an integral part of the Mass in the Thirteenth Century. And according to Septimus Piesse's The Art of Perfumery, the increased use of incense in cathedrals and abbeys was necessary to "neutralize the cadaverous odors" of those burial places.
According to Robin of Now Smell this, CdG Avignon:
"...starts dark, gloomy, and rather strong, approximating the immediate effect of a priest swinging the censer during prayers. The early dry down has a bitter green resinous edge; as it continues to calm, it gets much softer and more meditative, with mild wood undertones and very light, dry notes of patchouli and vanilla joining into the smoky blend.
Of the five fragrances in the series, it has the most direct focus on the frankincense note, and so for many Westerners (even those who have no association with the Roman Catholic church) it will come closest to the aroma traditionally associated with incense." (From 9 January 2006)
At Lucky Scent the description is a little more mystical: "It's the scent of Gothic cathedrals and papal palaces, of tapestries imbued with centuries of incense. Of cold marble steps, holy relics and dark confessions." Either way, it's a very hefty dose of frankincense and myrrh and wearing it is about as Holy and Roman as I will ever be. And here's a confession: I don't really like the smell of frankincense by itself. I love lots of other resins and incense materials, even those that would likely drive my husband from the house were I to burn them in an enclosed space, but frankincense has always felt a little cold and musty to me. This is not to say, though, that I don't enjoy it in the right proportions. It is an important element in many perfumes, partially because it is an excellent fixative, meaning it slows the volatility of other perfume notes and helps form a lasting base for the various light, sharp, or floral notes in the mixture.
So why write about frankincense, why now? Aside from the "We Three Kings of Orient Are" playing in every store and the red velvet boxes of frankincense in Christian gift shops "to celebrate the reason for the season," (traditions which, in the words of Stephen Colbert, are so deeply Christian that the predate Christianity) I had not intended to write about the same stuff that I expect most perfume writers and critics to focus on at this time of the year. Chandler Burr already posted his review of three incense-related fragrances in the New York Times, and that seemed like a good enough reason to find something else to write about.
However, as I was reading poetry this week, I came across E. E. (Edward Estlin) Cummings' ode to incense for the first time (Yes, his name is correctly capitalized; it is only spelled lowercase as a signature to his poems.) It was published in his first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923, which was skewered by critics for, among other things, "fleshy realism" and for what would have appeared to be scorn for every poetic convention popularly in use at that time. None of his first four books of poetry were popular successes until much later in his career. Here, though, as is not the case in his later work, he presents his subject in clear, linear phrases, beginning with the mysterious "unto thee i," a thee he never quite defines, all the way down to the naming of olbanum (frankincense) at its base.
What most intrigues me about Cummings' poem are his images of flowering, fluttering, and crackling incense into which he invests his reverence, sorrow, and ambiguity. With the language of joy, he seeks to convey deep understanding of the paradox of joy within sorrow. "i think / thou lovest incense" he says, "for in the ambiguous faint aspirings" of the incense, the sorrow of the Beloved Other's immaculate smile is reflected. The worshiper, "vague with ecstasy" does not intend to invoke the intellect, but to share in a moment of wonder, in a moment of beauty that is beyond description and even beyond emotion. It is a perfumed paradox, a moment through the smoke, and a moment that is perfectly evoked in the gnosticism we find ourselves confronting when we speak of sensations as they relate to revelation, memory, and desire. Our thoughts explode in "a flutter of stars" and "a turbulence of forms" and they are never, quite, to be repeated. We recreate moments rather than reliving them, and the burning of incense - the using of finite, valuable substances, recalls the sacredness of the moment in which we dedicate ourselves to any "thou" whether it is an idea or an absence or celebration of that moment itself.
I love this flutter of stars and I love the moment in which a scent becomes an idea. I love the gloom at the bottom of wonder and the air, full of "deep desirable flowers" which are not flowers. Though there are other forms of incense I prefer, and though incense was not a part of my religious upbringing, I can smell in frankincense the thing that has made it sacred to so many through the millenia. It is a fragrance of faraway, and of great intimacy, of frailness and of power. It is equally at home in the small chamber and wide space. It is the very concrete, earthly form that connects us with a mystical world above the earth. The smoke of incense is a form in which all that is oneself and all that is Other can be discovered, explored, and celebrated by simply breathing.
- "Slav Epic" by Alfons Mucha, 1928, from www.goodart.org
- "Salaambo" by Alfons Mucha available at Art.com
- "Frankincense Tears" via Yellow Pearl Trading at Alibaba.com
- Photo of statue and gargoyle at the Cathedrale Notre Dame des Doms in Avignon from Roxane Photo
- Photo of E. E. Cummings from Harvard Square Library