When the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun was opened, among the luxurious contents found within were various beautifully crafted jars and containers. To the excitement of the excavators, one particular jar was discovered to contain a perfumed unguent, still radiantly fragrant after so many centuries.
Unguent is the classical word used to describe what modern English-speakers might better understand as an ointment or a solid perfume. Despite the occasional ancient Egyptian image or the discovery of what certainly seems to be functional distillery equipment in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, as far as we know today the distillation process was not popularized until the 10th century of our time. Thus, Egyptian perfumes were very different in texture from the liquids now considered "perfumes". For a close modern comparison, consider the solid perfumes currently imported from India, packaged in small carved wooden or stone containers. (The resemblance is in texture, presentation and appearance, not necessarily in fragrance.)
The perfumed ointment found in Tutankhamun's tomb was of a solid nature, although it was noted that it melted and became more viscous within the heat of a hand. Observers at the time found the aroma similar to coconut oil and also remarked that it resembled the scent of valerian (Valeriana officinalis), the first tip-off to what the jar probably contained.
The perfume was analyzed in 1926 and was found to consist of a "neutral animal fat" and a resin or balsam. At the time they were unable to be more specific. However, the primary fragrant component is now believed to be valerian's close cousin, the ancient and precious spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi).
Still reasonably rare and reasonably expensive, most find spikenard's name much more familiar than its fragrance. Its reputation is ancient. It is an ingredient in some formulas for Kyphi, the famed sacred Egyptian temple perfume. Spikenard was also a component of the sacred incense offered in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. It is mentioned no less than three times in the Song of Songs. The ancient Greeks had a beloved perfume fragrance based on spikenard. Spikenard's main claim to fame comes from its prominence in the New Testament. It was ointment of spikenard that Mary of Bethany (whether she is one and the same with Mary Magdalene, now matron saint of perfumers, is still the subject of intense debate, as it has been for centuries) used to anoint the feet of Jesus Christ, filling the entire room with its aroma. Rather than its wonderful fragrance, however, what is most famous about spikenard is its high cost. Two of the gospels comment on its price. Judas Iscariot was apparently offended at the anointing of Jesus, demanding to know why the jar of ointment wasn't sold and the proceeds given to the poor. In the light of its discovery in Tutankhamun's tomb, it can be appreciated that spikenard was truly a fragrance fit for a king.
Why was spikenard so expensive? Because of where it grows and the difficulty in obtaining it. Spikenard is not native to Egypt, Punt or the Middle East. It is native to the Himalayas and grows at high altitudes. Its use in the ancient world is a demonstration of their sophisticated trade routes and of the importance placed on aromatic material: they went to a lot of trouble to obtain this little root. Spikenard was packaged in carved alabaster boxes, carefully brought down by caravan and exported over the ancient world. As recently as one hundred years ago, spikenard was imported from Nepal to Egypt for use as a folk medicine. Beyond various medicinal uses, like valerian, it has relaxing, sedative properties, spikenard was anciently believed to bear mystical and romantic powers.
Today, spikenard is available as an essential oil. It is steam distilled from dried and crushed rhizomes and roots, resulting in a pale golden liquid. What does it smell like? Not necessarily what you might expect a perfume to smell like, if your expectations are of a floral garden. Spikenard has a profound and complex aroma, a combination sweet/spicy/musky, a very organic earthy scent. The root from which the finest fragrance is obtained is tufted and sort of "hairy" in appearance; at one time it was surmised that spikenard was an animal's tail. (Remember, the plant came from very far away. Those who obtained it many miles away never saw the living plant and the perfumers of the time were a mysterious bunch, who kept their trade secrets to themselves.) Pliny called spikenard root "little goat".
A historically correct re-creation of Tutankhamun's precious unguent might involve rendering goose fat for a base. A version more palatable to modern tastes might substitute coconut oil. The original excavators of the tomb noted the unguent's resemblance to coconut oil; like animal fats, this vegetable material solidifies at cool temperatures, thus approximating the texture of the ancient perfume.
One quarter cup coconut oil
6 drops of essential oil of spikenard
6 drops of essential oil of frankincense
John Steele/Lifetree Aromatix
3949 Longridge Avenue
Sherman Oaks, California 91423
Information regarding Tutankhamun's ointment may be found in Aytoun Ellis' "The Essence of Beauty: A History of Perfume and Cosmetics," published by the MacMillan Company, New York, 1960.
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Last Updated: June 9th, 2011