Where there’s smoke there’s scent


OIL ON OAK Adoration of the Kings, Jan Gossaert (National Gallery of Art, London)

The Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem bringing to the Child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Everyone knows gold but frankincense and myrrh? Used in religious ceremonies, they came from faraway lands and were then more valuable than gold. They were worthy offerings to the King of Kings.

Frankincense and myrrh are resins or gum produced from the sap that flow when certain trees are “wounded” with cuts on their bark. They are burnt over charcoal in a censer or thurible attached to a chain swung in Roman Catholic benedictions, processions, and special masses. The smoke symbolizes prayers rising to heaven; the scent is secondary.

One of the largest censers still in use is the botafumeiro of Spain’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It’s a giant about 5’4” high and weighing some 80 kilos.  Swung by eight sacristans, it travels in an arch of up to 65 feet high and across the Cathedral’s transept. A recent news story, BTW, reported that two altar boys stuffed the botafumeiro with several kilos of marijuana, making the congregation happier, if not holier.

Apart from religious worship, incense is also used to perfume rooms, as an aid to meditation, for medicinal purposes, or just as plain deodorant and insect repellent. The brochure of an Egyptian aromatherapy shop describes the benefits of the Magi’s gifts:

  • Frankincense.  Slows down the pulse rate and deepens respiration, keeps focus when meditating, and helps the mind remain in prayer. Mentioned 22 times in the Bible, “it has the ability to calm and center the mind and to cease mental chatter, agitation, and worry, encourage our spirits to soar, freeing us from feelings of oppression, the mundane, and ties to the past. Strengthen our awareness of our own inner light.”
  • Myrrh. “It may raise consciousness and give a lift to feelings of weakness, apathy, and lack of incentive. It has a cooling effect on heated emotions and to strengthen the ability to endure difficult circumstances. Gift to Jesus at his birth and also handed to him on the cross mixed with wine… Myrrh’s nature is to assist us with a deeper understanding of the union of heaven and earth.”
The brochure also mentions beneficial oils of other flowers and woods, including: (a) orange blossoms – used when bathing or as foot massage oil, it reduces stress and generates an optimistic and happy feeling; and (b) sandalwood - rich with natural collagen, it reduces wrinkles and “crepe skin, relieves rheumatoid arthritis, muscular and joint aches and pains, sciatica, poor circulation, sprains, and cramps.

Close to home, Vicks was about as far as my Lola Trining got on aroma and herbal therapy. Smeared on my chest before bedtime as a little boy, sniffles would be gone by sunrise. Tia Julî was all for kata-kataká, bearing the name because little plants sprout from its leaves. Heated on a candle flame, its leaves cooled a feverish head. She also prescribed sábila (aloe vera) for stronger, thicker, and shinier hair. A camphor chest protected Nanay’s special garments like her wedding dress and elaborate baro’t saya. For everyday clothes, there were sprigs of tiny sinamumo flowers in between clothes in the aparadór to make them smell nice and strips of dried morás (a.k.a. vetiver) roots to keep tañgà (silverfish) and other insects away.

Europeans were not in the habit of taking frequent baths or showers possibly because of the cold weather, the voluminous clothes they wore, and the trouble and expense of having hot water. Instead, they accessorized with pomanders (small metal globes) filled with dried herbs and flowers, made good-smelling rooms with potpourris, made perfume-making a fine art and flourishing industry.

We had no such things here. Our ancestors lived along rivers and were constantly taking quick dips. Instead of potpourris, houses were surrounded with ylang-ylang, champaca, and citrus trees; sampaguita, jasmine, and rosál (gardenia) bushes; dama de noche vines; and sanggumay orchids, all with fragrant flowers.

Plucked, the scent of flowers fade in minutes unless processed with fixatives into lasting fragrances. Now that most of us live away from rivers that have unbathable water anyway, it would be nice if we could develop our sweet-smelling assets into a profitable industry.

Note: Frankincense is sourced among other places from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan; and myrrh from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia.

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