The importance of smell in the Egyptian culture
The use of perfume, incense and smells were very common in Egyptian culture. Their use wasn’t only for ritual ceremonies, but also for an hedonistic and medical purpose.
In fact, Egyptians applied perfumes on their hair and bodies.
The most expensive perfumes were Mendesian, which featured myrrh, cassia and assorted gums and resins steeped in oil, Susinum, a perfume based on lily, myrrh and cinnamon, and Cyprinum, composed of henna and southernwood along with a pinch of cardamom and cinnamon.
Egyptian perfumes weren’t as today’s perfumes. The distillation process had not yet been set up (even if the first prototype of alembic was propably invented by Cleopatre), so they created the “enfleurage” technique to extract essential oils. Therefore, Such technique provided for a mixture of the perfume with fats or oils.
For instance, there are some representations showing womens with wax cones on the top of their head. As the cone was made of wax and perfume, the heat melted it down, releasing the fragrance into the air.
Resins and God: the mythology behind raw materials
Another important fact reporting the importance of smell in Ancient Egypt is the pantheon of Gods. As a matter of fact, Egyptians had a lot of divinity linked with smell and perfume.
The Egyptians worshipped several patrons of fragrance, including Chesmou, deity of perfume production, Merehet, goddess of unguents, and Nefertum, god of the lotus blossom .
Nefertum was usually portrayed as a beautiful young man having blue lotus flowers around his head. Water lilies, a kind of lotus flower, open in the morning and close again at night symbolizing rebirth and regeneration,.For such reasons, these flowers were employed in the mummification process, as the scent accompanied the dead in his journey to the “other side”.
In addition, the Egyptians believed that the resinous such as myrrh and frankincense were the resinous “tears” and “sweat” of the gods, coming out from the trees. For example, they believed that the finest myrrh springed from the eye of Re.
Egyptians also equated the Eye of Horus with incense specifically to the sticky juices of labdanum incense. For this reason, they welcomed the goats wandering through the gum-cistus patches as manifestations of God.
Sourcing of raw materials. Commerce, expedition and stock
Not all these raw materials, employed in the smelly habitude day grew in Egypte. In fact, the demand for such ingredients needed a good system of commerce and storage.
Frankincense was imported from other countries, specifically from the land of Punt. Drawings on the temple of Deir el-Bahri, the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, document one expedition for incense and myrrh.
Hatshepsut was the second female Pharaoh in Egypt. She obtained the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC. She oversaw the preparations and funding for a mission to the land of Punt.
The exact location of the Land of Punt is still disputed by historians, scholars, archaeologists, and others in the present day. Through the years, it was referred to as part of Arabia or Somalia, but other scholars locates the land of Punt in Eritrea or east Africa.
The expedition counted five big ships and at least 200 men. The spoil of the expedition was huge. They took back around 30 living myrrh trees and tried to plant to start their own myrrh production but without big success. They however brought back some exotic animals such as giraffes, precious metals and other aromatic plants and spices.The temples were today's warehouse. All these precious raw materials were stocked and managed by the priests.
Kyphi as a drug? Plutarque description
Plutarch offers us a recipe and he writes: “Kyphi is a mixture composed of sixteen ingredients; of honey and wine, raisins and galingale, pine resin and myrrh, aspalathos and seseli; moreover, of mastic and bitumen, bulrush and sorrel, together with the two kinds of juniper berries (of which one is called major and the other minor), cardamom and sweet flag.”
He also affirms that kyphi causes “a beneficent exhalation, by which the air is changed, and the body, being moved gently and softly by the current acquires a temperament conducive to sleep.” He associates this druglike sensation with wine and drunkenness.
Some scholars suggested that maybe inside kyphi there were some drugs such as hashis or opium that could explain this druglike trance described by Plutarch. So, it could be that the Egyptians fumigated their gods in thick clouds of pungent smoke in order to lull them into a druglike trance.
Make your own kyphi
The name Kyphi is actually the Latin version of the Greek transcription of the Egyptian word Kapet.
In ancient Egypt, kyphi was employed for ritual ceremonies and generally it was burnt in temples in the evening. The smoke and the smell of the encens allowed you to communicate with God and open the gate of imagination. It had a connection with dream and vision.
This incense was made of a rich mix of many materials such as raisin, honey and myrrh. We can find the recipe on the wall of Edfu temple, located between Luxor and Aswan.
Kyphi wasn't only an incense but also a kind of medical repecie, it was employed as a gum that people could eat.
These are the three way to spell Kyphi in egyptian:
In the Papyrus Ebers , which was a collection of medical remedies and recipes, an early quest for a systematic approach to health and restoring of the natural harmony to the human body, we can find another recipe for making khypi.
Papyrus Ebers 853 (98, 14b – 18b)
“Incense, what is done to sweeten the smell of the house or the clothes: dry myrrh, pignon, frankincense, rush-nut, wood (i.e. bark) of cinnamon, śbt, reed from Phoenicia (calamus aromaticus), nkwwn, ḏmtn, liquid styrax, are ground fine, mixed together and (a little) thereof is placed over a fire.”
Papyrus Ebers 854 (99, 1)
“Another (use) made by women therewith: to put this remedy, (made) according to this direction, into honey, is boiled, mixed and shaped into balls; they shall fumigate with them. But they use a taste of them to sweeten the smell of their mouth.”
(English Translation from Ebbell, Bendix, and Leon Banov. The Papyrus Ebers: the greatest Egyptian medical document. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard, 1937)
We have so many recipes for making khypi and everyone tries to do his own interpretation and transcription of how to replicate this mixture of aromatic compounds.
As for the ingredients that went into aromatic mixtures as quoted in texts, the main problem encountered is of a lexicographical nature. Many plant names are still unidentified, and some designations may have even changed or developed over the centuries.
Various Kyphi recipes were made, some using about a dozen ingredients, while others included over fifty.
For these reasons, I decided to make my interpretation of kyphi and you can do the same and experiment on your own in order to have your incense. Kyphi produces a beautiful, full-bodied, rich multi-layered bouquet with a warm, sweet, spicy and sensual aroma.
- A bounce of dry raisins
- Red wine
- 2 tb of Frankincense
- 1 tb of Cinnamon
- 1 tb of white copal
- 1 tb of myrrh
- 1 tb of benzoin
- 1 tb of chois mastica
- 1 tb of red sandalwood
- 1 tb of rose petals
- 1 tb of verbena
Take the dry raisins and put them in a jar that you can close with a cup. Add the red wine. Close the jar and leave for a week like this. After one week, add some honey and if the raisins have absorbed all the wine add a little more of it. Close the jar and leave it for another week like this.
Grind all the other ingredients and mix them together. Take the raisins mixture and put it in a pan and start to heat up on the burner. Try to squeeze the raisin and blend the mixture in order to obtain a sticky compound.
Work the wet and dry mixes together until they form a consistent dough. If you need to add extra moisture to help form the dough, add a little extra honey.
Once the dough is mixed evenly, you can begin rolling it into small pellets.
Let the small pellets dry and then you can burn your kyphi incense.