Monday, January 7, 2008

Balthasar’s Gift: Frankincense


Frankincense to offer have I; / Incense owns a Deity nigh; / ... Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom. (Rev. Henry Hopkins, 1957). Short of gold, which each day performs by leaps and bounds and which I will leave to the folks at Comme des Garçons, frankincense and myrrh traditionally represent the olfactory antipodes of the Semitic peoples. For centuries Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians (i.e., the Magi, or at least, symbolically as the author of Matthew, intended them, and not Semitic) prized these substances for their medicinal value. In Matthew at least, they are held to represent kingship and death, respectively. Both substances, in their most notable forms, were (and still are) harvested in Southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen and Oman), “green Arabia” if you will, along the Arabian Sea, on what is known as the Frankincense Route. Travelers to New York City will know the smell of frankincense well, as it is common to find East Africans near Union Square selling the cheaper grades on the street. And, honestly, on a frigid winter afternoon, it’s a welcome scent. Apple pie, à l’Arabie. But in its quality versions this rich, heady-smelling gum (Boswellia sacra) will bring to mind something more exalted –– say, Handel’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest. And what’s more, it exalts the mind of its wearer in a way that reminds him or her of its ritual-medicinal status. Let’s face it, we’re not exactly in the land of petitgrain anymore. It’s no wonder, then, that frankincense almost always has played a role in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and High Church Anglican liturgies —— it was intended to remind the believers that they were part of the “priesthood of the faithful” and thus called to train the mind on higher things. While I love church incense as much as, say, Talullah Bankhead –– indeed, who can live down that campy quip to Spellman holding the censer: “Your purse is on fire”? –– I do love it more as an essential oil (olibanum) or, even better, blended expertly in an Amouage fragrance. The opulent Gold and Dia for Men, both created by master perfumer Guy Robert, employ what could very well be considered Oman’s most valuable resource: silver frankincense from the Dhofar desert. The genius of the Amouage scents, which deserve separate review, is their mastery of what is essentially a smoke-generated aroma and their translation of such for the human skin. I do not consider a spray of Amouage a mere spray, rather, an anointing. Next up: myrrh.

Image: The Adoration of Balthasar, Russian icon, unattributed, 16th century.

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