Sacred Scents: on the alchemy of scent in Heka and worshipping the Gods

I’ve touched this subject only briefly before and thought it’s high time to expand on it.

Scent and perfume is of primary importance in the art of Heka and worshipping the Egyptian Deities.

It is said the the Gods themselves ooze perfume from every pore and that incense is the Eye of Horus itself restored to full health by Thoth, as mentioned before, when I posted the Words of Power for offering incense.

It is pleasing scents, perfumes, that among others allow the King to join the ranks of the Gods:

O King, I have come and I bring to you the Eye of Horus which is in its container(?), and its perfume is on you, O King. Its perfume is on you, the perfume of the Eye of Horus is on you, O King, and you will have a soul by means of it… (1)

Perfume and incense were sacred to Nefertem (Nefertum) * and one particular hymn praising him from the New Kingdom period describes him as the soul of the plant, whilst Osiris is the body of the plant. The hymn continues to state that divine perfume belongs to him.

The relationship between scent and godship is very early revealed in the creational myths – in a few versions it is a lotus flower that first emerges from the waters of Nun, a blue lotus flower to be exact, a highly scented blossom later nicknamed ‘the intoxicating lilly of the Nile valley’.

The hint to scent as being sacred and intimately connected to Divinity is also present in the names or titles of gods and goddesses, a very good example being Bast holding the title ‘Lady of the Unguent Jar’.

Temples were allotted a great deal of materials for making incense, ointments and perfumed oils for ritual use and even medicinal use. These would later be processed in the temple laboratories by the priests themselves.

The most common ingredients used for this craft were resins such as myrrh, sweet myrrh, frankincense, mastic gum, bdellium, oils of moringa, balanos, olive and castor and various botanical and mineral compounds – from wood barks to blossoms and powdered stones.

Most rituals have at least one sacred scent attached to them, some go to greater lengths and list as many as seven, nine or eleven –  The Seven Sacred Unguents are an example, their history dates back as early as the Fifth Dynasty and they’re also listed on the walls of the temple at Edfu. Their uses mainly concern the Opening of the Mouth ritual as well as a few other funerary rituals and mummification.

The Seven Sacred Unguents are: (2)

1. Seti heb ‘festival scent’ (sefy bitumen. tekhu seeds. frankincense concentrate, white [frankincense], fir seeds, fresh frankincense , is flowers, him flowers)

2. Hekenu (menen wood pitch, fresh frankincense, dry white frankincense, acacia flowers)

3. Sefet ‘fir oil’ (wood pitch, white [frankincense], ges-feckdegem of […]

4. Nesmen (menen wood pitch, pine, sefy bitumen)

5. Tua (menen wood pitch, frankincense, pine, white [frankincense])

6. Hat-en-ash ‘best fir’ (menen wood pitch, sefy bitumen, fine peresh (?) oil, him flowers)

7. Hat-en-tjehenu ‘best Libyan’ (menen wood pitch, fine peresh oil [?], him flowers)

Two more are listed on the temple walls, Madjet and Moringa oil – both of which were usually employed in funerary rites and offerings.
Kyphi is perhaps the most famed of the complex incenses used by the ancient Egyptians and for good reason.Incense in any form – either the raw unprocessed resins and botanicals or the more complex formulas such as kyphi or tyriac – was used as a form of aromatherapy as well – scent was known to directly affect the mind, body and spirit and fumigations with incense played a big part in healing rituals – both as a direct medicine and a magical instrument – the sweet smelling scent would attract the benevolence and blessings of the Gods and at the same time repel illness causing demons.

In his writings, Plutarch has praised the wondrous kyphi – it’s sweet intoxicating scent was uplifting and relaxing at the same time and it was known to be a good sleep aid, inducing a good sleep for the night ‘without the use of wine’.

In his work ‘Of Isis and Osiris’ he states that: They use cyphi as both a potion and a salve; for taken internally it seems to cleanse properly the internal organs, since it is an emollient. Apart from this, resin and myrrh result from the action of the sun when the trees exude them in response to the heat. Of the ingredients which compose cyphi, there are some which delight more in the night, that is, those which are wont to thrive in cold winds and shadows and dews and dampness. For the light of day is single and simple, and Pindar says that the sun is seen “through the deserted aether.” But the air at night is a composite mixture made up of many lights and forces, even as though seeds from every star were showered down into one place. Very appropriately, therefore, they burn resin and myrrh in the daytime, for these are simple substances and have their origin from the sun; but the cyphi, since it is compounded of ingredients of all sorts of qualities, they offer at night.’

In temple service perfumed unguents, oils and ointments played a significant part in daily worship rituals – during early morning the doors of the inner shrine which contained the image of the Deity were opened and then priests would ritually clean the statue, dress it and even apply make-up. Then perfume would be directly offered, usually by anointing the statue’s feet/hands/neck with a small quantity of perfumed unguent or oil. Then jars of unguents and oils would be offered and of course incense.

‘Oil of Lillies’ or ‘Susinum’  is perhaps the most well known perfumed oil used ritually and magically, as well as a day to day perfume reserved to the elite of the social classes.

Dioscorides wrote on the making and use of this perfume whose main ingredient is the lilly blossom  and which pre-dated his time for at least 500 years.

Among the other ingredients he lists balanos oil, sweet flag, crocus, cardamon and honey. (3)

Susinum in either oil or ointment form was usually employed for the blessing and ritually charging amulets and talismanic jewellery, perhaps the best example being The Ceremony of the Beetle – on which I have written more extensively in this post.

Scented materials – from botanicals to ointments, oils and incense were usually employed during rituals for either anointing ritual objects or as offerings:Perfumed ointments were also very valuable for the state of purity in which a magician had to be before proceeding with any act of magic: usually a myrrh ointment (or stakte) was used for anointing the forehead, chest and limbs and a type of ritual smudging with frankincense was employed before ritual as well – literally bathing in the smoke of frankincense.

‘Offering for the rite: For doing good, offer storax, myrrh, sage, frankincense, a fruit pit.’(for doing harm unpleasant things are offered, with an unpleasant origin and an unpleasant scent) (4)

The Egyptians went to great lengths to obtain raw materials for the making of sacred scent: one notable endeavour is that of Queen Hatshepsut and her expedition to Punt, in an effort to bring back precious resins and it was even attempted to transplant myrrh trees on the grounds of  her temple at Dendera dedicated to Hathor (myrrh was considered her sacred scent).

To be perfumed is to be as the Gods and with the Gods and the sweet scent of incense is literally food for the Gods.

May your offerings of incense and perfumes always be received with pleasure by the Gods and may you be fit to stand in Their Divine Presence!



(1) Hymn to Nefertem – 18th Dynasty from Steve Van Toller, G. H. Todd: Fragrance: Psychology and Biology of Perfume, 1992 Springer, p.290

*Nefertem (Nefertum) is part of the Triad of Memphis, along with Ptah and Sekhmet, his parents. He is also the patron of the perfumers and their art.

(2) list found in Lise Manniche’s Sacred Luxuries – Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press 1999, p. 108

(3) cf Lise Manniche op.cit, p. 68

(4) instructions part of ritual PGM IV. 2785-2890 of the Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells, Hans Dieter Betz, University of Chicago Press, second edition 1992

This is a repost from my old blog.

This entry was posted in Heka, Ritual Purity, Sacred Scents and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sacred Scents: on the alchemy of scent in Heka and worshipping the Gods

  1. Pingback: Sacred Scents – Addendum (I) | For The Netjer

  2. Explains why I am so crazy about aromatherapy!

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