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The Garden Gate: Spices are the variety of life

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

From the days of the earliest civilizations, mankind has known and prized the benefits of those seeds barks, buds, roots and berries we call spices.

But until more recent times, there was great difficulty to obtain them because of their exotic sources.

The scarcity of pepper, cloves, cinnamon and other spices caused them to be sought after as treasures, and the quest for them often led to strange and generally unknown lands.

For centuries, scent has played a large part in every country and all religions of the world. People respond to scent, and more history than we may realize has been dependent upon spices, herbs and plants.

We are told in Genesis that a band of Arab traders traveling through Asia Minor with a caravan of “spicery and balm and myrrh” helped to shape the course of history by buying Joseph from his brothers and carrying him down into Egypt. That was more than 3,700 years ago, and spice traders are still following the same routes and making history.

The lure of spices was a great stimulus for exploration during the Middle Ages and was a large factor in the Crusades.

It was directly responsible for the great voyages of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and several other great navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries. It led to the rise of England as a sea power and later to the supremacy of the famous Yankee clippers of the China trade.

It is likely that no other commodity has a more romantic history or played a more important part in the development of world commerce.

One of the earliest uses for spices was in the making of incense. First used for fumigation and in the embalming of the dead, it slowly became a more important part of the development of world commerce and religious observances of a number of nations.

The Bible makes many references to the uses of incense. Exodus 30:1-7 says, “and thou shalt make an altar to burn incense upon, and thereon Aaron shall burn sweet incense every morning when he dresseth the lamps and at even when he lighteth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it.”

The history of incense is as old as that of mankind. Ancient cave paintings depict what is plainly the burning of aromatic plants to produce a sweet scent. Most primitive people do it to this day.

Many American Indian tribes use “smoke perfume” in important ceremonials. Brides scent their ceremonial garments by holding them in smoke from the fires of sweet grasses and herbs.

A Hindu wedding ceremony includes a ceremonial fire to be lighted. Sandalwood, incense, scented oils and sweet grasses are scattered in these fires to produce an overpoweringly scented smoke.

Scented woods are used to produce aromatic smoke in funeral pyres in India. Incense is also part of some ceremonials in China.

The walls of many ancient Egyptian temples, mosaics and paintings depict censors smoking before the temple’s resident deity.

The British Museum has a vase, the body of which is intended to contain a lamp with the sides perforated. This was to permit the heat of the flame to act upon projecting tubes, which were to be filled with perfume oils of flowers to scent a room. This was discovered in an ancient Egyptian catacomb.

The word “perfume” is derived from the Latin “per fumus,” or “by smoke,” because the first perfumes were in the form of incense or smoke perfume.

Incense used for Jewish ceremonial purposes in the time of Moses is explained in Exodus 30:34-36:

“Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation ...”

All of these ingredients, except onycha, are available today. As far as we know, this is the only non-plant substance used in the making of incense.

Most biblical scholars agree that onycha is a powder made from the shells of certain shellfish to be found in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Frankincense is the resin of a tree native to the area of Somaliland in Africa, from which it has been obtained since about 1000 B.C.

Ancient Roman Emperor Nero loved sweet scents. At the funeral for Poppea, his decree was that great quantities of incense were to be burned. It was rumored that what was burned on that occasion was more than could have been produced in 10 years in Arabia, the largest incense producer in the world at the time.

When we toss pine cones into the fireplace or enjoy the scent of burning leaves in the fall, we are following an ancient custom that there is really no knowing how far back it goes.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.