Aromatic Treasures of Ancient Egypt
by Judith Illes
Many of ancient Egypt's precious treasures remain hidden underground or are kept under guard in the world's museums. Yet others, more subtle treasures, remain available, valuable and viable today. It was not only jewels and precious metals that were prized. The distances from which they were imported and the care with which they were preserved indicates the high esteem with which Egypt held its botanical treasures.
One such treasure, whose name and fragrance is today little known, is galbanum. Galbanum (Ferula spp.) is an oleo-resin that exudes from an umbelliferous plant similar to fennel. The Egyptians imported it from ancient Iran, still virtually the sole source for galbanum today. A milder galbanum has historically come from Afghanistan, source also of Egypt's prized lapis lazuli, but has been unobtainable for years. Galbanum was a prime component in the important ancient Egyptian perfume trade. Ancient Egypt was the Paris of its day; her fragrances were prized throughout the world. Just as today certain perfume formulae are standardized and popular (Chanel #5 or Opium, let's say), certain ancient perfume formulae were treasured and in high demand. Galbanum was a key ingredient in the famed fragrance The Mendesian and seems to have been among the primary ingredients, if not the primary ingredient, of The Metopian, which was valued for its therapeutic use as well as its beauty. Some sources feel that the name metopian actually derives from the ancient Egyptian name for galbanum.
Egyptian perfume was particularly prized because of its reputation for a lengthy shelf life: galbanum was an important contributing factor. Galbanum is an excellent fixative, meaning that it extends the life of other more fleeting fragrances, when blended together. It was valued not only as a component of perfume, but also when burned as incense, Egypt's original olfactory art.
Galbanum possesses an unusual and elusive scent. It is simultaneously green, spicy, woody, balsamic and musky, a fragrance of great depth and complexity. It is a very sophisticated, even adult, scent, evocative rather than merely pretty or beautiful. To experience the fragrance of galbanum first-hand is to possess a sense of how sophisticated and subtle was the ancient Egyptian taste for perfumery.
As always, the ancients were also holistic. Galbanum was not only valued for its beauty and endurance; it was also part of the medical arsenal and remained so for years. Coptic medical documents indicate that galbanum was used to rid the home and body of fleas and other vermin.
Although its name lacks the cachet of frankincense, myrrh or spikenard, galbanum remains in use in the modern perfume and cosmetics industries. A thorough reading of well-labeled moisturizers may turn up its name.
The grande dame of modern aromatherapy, Madame Marguerite Maury, esteemed galbanum highly, particularly as a skin restorative that she felt should only be reserved for mature skin. In her writings, she describes a highly successful skin rejuvenative which she created from a blend of essential oils of galbanum, elemi, lemongrass and violet leaves: all ingredients highly familiar to the perfumers of ancient Egypt.
Galbanum bears other gifts as well. Equally prized in ancient Mesopotamia, it was known as the "Mother Resin;" its antispasmodic properties were used to ease the pain of childbirth as well as various dysfunctionings of the female reproductive system. Galbanum has more recently been used to treat agoraphobia, panic disorder and severe stress. Truly a fragrance for modern times as well as ancient.
Because its aroma is powerful, it is traditionally blended with other, perhaps "prettier" aromatic fragrances.
The following blend can be used as a romantic perfume or sensuous massage oil. It is loosely based on old formulas for The Metopion. Remember, modern plant extracts are not produced via the same methods as that of the ancients, nor can we be sure exactly how the old fragrances smelled. However, these are the original botanical materials and with a little imagination, we can transport ourselves aromatically back to ancient Egypt. This formula allows one to approximate the perfumer's art; although I've suggested a proportion, play with it, until you find the scent that pleases you. The scent may also be lightened by increasing the amount of the sweet almond oil.
4 drops of essential oil of galbanum.(Ferula spp)
4 drops of essential oil of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)
2 drops of essential oil of cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)
Blend the essential oils into a heaping tablespoon of sweet almond or apricot kernel oil. Enjoy.
Essential oil of galbanum, as well as many other aromatic treasures, is available from:
Leydet Aromatics, PO Box 2354, Fair Oaks, CA 95628, Telephone: 916-965-7546
My thanks to Leydet's Victoria Edwards for generously sharing her information on Mme. Maury.