ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Scents - incense and perfume: Ingredients, production and applications
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Origins of ingredients

Scents - incense and perfume

Priestesses richly adorned,
Anointed with myrrh, perfumed with lotus,
Their heads garlanded with wreaths,
All together drunk with wine,
Fragrant with the plants of Punt,
They danced in beauty, doing my heart's wish,
Their rewards were on their limbs.
Tomb of Wennefer
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3. p.56
    In one creation myth the lotus was the first thing to emerge from the waters of Nun, bringing with it its perfume. Gods were since associated with fragrant smells, chief among them Nefertem who was closely bound to the blue lotus, a symbol of life and immortality [11]. A New Kingdom hymn praising the short-tempered son of Sekhmet describes him as the soul of plants and tutelary deity of perfumers:
I invoke Nefertem, in the following of Ptah [9]. Thou art the guardian and protector of the perfume and oil makers, protector and god of the sacred lotus. Osiris is the body of the plants, Nefertum is the soul of the plants, the plants purified. The divine perfume belongs to Nefertum living forever.
Hymn to Nefertem, 18th dynasty
Steve Van Toller, G. H. Todd: Fragrance: Psychology and Biology of Perfume, 1992 Springer, p.290
    It was perfume, among other things, which put the king in a position to join the gods:
O King, I have come and I bring to you the Eye of Horus which is in its container(?), and its perfume is on you, O King. Its perfume is on you, the perfume of the Eye of Horus is on you, O King, and you will have a soul by means of it...
Pyramid Texts, utterance 687
Raymond Oliver Faulkner, 1910, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 2004 Kessinger Publishing, p.296
    Interestingly, Egyptian kings appear not to have been anointed when accessing to the throne, while high officials were when they were appointed, as were the Canaanite vassals during the late Bronze Age [12].
    Ordinary mortals, above all when they congregated in large numbers, were often less fragrant. Egyptian cities, like all cities ever since, were smelly places. The smoke of cooking fires, sometimes stoked with dried animal dung, hung over the houses. Rubbish tips were filled with decaying produce and the occasional rotting animal carcass; sometimes they were set alight and left to smoulder. Animal dung and human excrement, which in the countryside could simply be buried, was not as easily disposed of cleanly in built-up areas. Body odour, obnoxious to many modern Westerners, was a fact of life in the hot climate, despite the much vaunted (and probably also much exaggerated) cleanliness of the populace [7].
    These kinds of bad smells may have pained the ancient Egyptians, who were used to them, less than they do us. Still, they liked nice flowery and aromatic scents and became masters at producing them.
In ancient times, the perfumes the most esteemed of all were those of the island of Delos, and at a later period those of Mendes. This degree of esteem is founded, not only on the mode of mixing them and the relative proportions, but according to the degree of favour or disfavour in which the various places which produce the ingredients are held, and the comparative excellence or degeneracy of the ingredients themselves.
As to perfume of cyprus, that from the island of Cyprus was at first preferred, and then that of Egypt; when all on a sudden the unguents of Mendes and metopium rose into esteem. In later times Phoenicia eclipsed Egypt in the manufacture of these last two, but left to that country the repute of producing the best unguent of cyprus.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Vol. XIII. Chapter 2


Priest carrying incense burner. Source JMFA 1, 1989

Model of a priest carrying a hes vase and an incense burner
Excerpt, source: JMFA 1, 1989

    The ingredients were both homegrown and imported. Punt, seemingly a region in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa, was the source of aromatic woods, incense and myrrh. In the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor the lord of the Island of ka summed up the situation:
You are not rich in myrrh and all kinds of incense. But I am the lord of Punt, and myrrh is my very own. That Hknw-oil you spoke of sending, it abounds on this island.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1. p.214
Myrrh is a resin produced from shrubs of the orders balsamodendron and commiphora native to southern Arabia and eastern Africa. Attempts were made to grow frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra, locally, but don't seem to have been a great success. The frankincense itself is a fragrant gum resin harvested from the tree.
I planted for thee plentiful tribute of myrrh, in order to go around thy temple with the fragrance of Punt for thy august nostrils at early morning. I planted incense and myrrh-sycamores in thy great and august court in Inek-Sebek, being those which my hands brought from the country of God's Land, in order to satisfy thy two serpent-goddesses every morning.
Papyrus Harris
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 333
    Incense was apparently also made from locally grown plants: Ramses III supplied his august father Atem, lord of the Two Lands of Heliopolis with 34,000 measures of papyrus [rind (?)] worked into incense [2].
    There were various kinds of incense (some may be simply different names for the same material) such as ihmut, sonter, and green incense (possibly galbanum),mentioned in documents from the reign of Thutmose III, and white incense (seemingly frankincense), and inflammable incense which were listed as donations by Ramses III.
    Flowers used for perfumes were indigenous (white lily and lotus) or of foreign origin (jasmine from India, narcissus). [13]
    Most of the ingredients were of plant origin, but the use of animal fats is also known. jb, a salve or perfume mentioned on the Stela of Sekerkhabau at Saqqara, was written with the sign for kid (little he-goat), jb, which has led to speculations that the inscription was referring to musk. Similar problems exist with many ingredients mentioned or depicted in Egyptian sources: they have never been identified in more than the most tentative way. One has therefore to rely on Greek and Roman authors but their information is sometimes either unclear or unreliable. Dioscorides mentions
  • root of iris
  • bitter almond oil and ointment (metopion)
  • cardamoms
  • balsamon which may have been Mecca balsam
  • oil of lilies
  • balanos oil
  • myrrh
  • and cassia
. Pliny writes about
  • unguent made from cyprinum, which he claims to be an Egyptian tree
  • the unguent made of elate or spathe, the fruit of the adipsos palm
  • ladanum, an import from Arabia
  • the Syrian storax or styrax, a balsam made from Liquidambar orientalis in Asia Minor
  • turpentine resin
  • the malobathrum oil [8]
  • and galbanum, a gum-resin made from Peucedanum galbaniflorum native to Persia.

    The treatment of the raw materials depended on their use. Perfumes were applied as oil-based salves or liquids. Incense was given the form of small pellets which could be burned.


Perfumers, 4th century BCE; Source: American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 106.2     Reliefs on the walls of the tomb of Petosiris [3] who lived during the early Ptolemaic period, depict some of the aspects of perfume making. In the top register of the line drawing on the right a worker pours red berries from a jar under the supervision of an overseer dressed in blue. Another man piles the berries onto the mound while a third is holding one fruit in his hand, possibly trying to extract the kernel.
    The bottom register bears the inscription Perfumers making resins. On the left, two men are, as the accompanying inscription explains, crushing the fruit of Punt. The men on the right appear to be stirring some brew or mashing ingredients.
Perfumers, 4th century BCE; Source: American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 106.2     The top register of this relief displays (from left to right) an old man with wrinkled forehead smelling the contents of a vessel held by a worker, another worker pouring perfume into a jar with handles under the watchful eye of a foreman and a third one bringing two containers to the supervisor.
    On the left side of the bottom register of this drawing, a worker is stoking the fire in an oven on which a pan is placed. A second worker is stirring the contents of the vessel—according to the accompanying inscription he is mashing the fruit of Punt. On the right the perfumers making resins of agreeable odour are filling jars with the help of little bowls.
Perfumers, 4th century BCE; Source: American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 104.2

Two perfumers are expressing essences, the woman on the left is carrying lily flowers
4th century BCE
Source: Brun op.cit. p.279

    People used a bag which was twisted with the help of two staffs as a press. (The same system was employed in wine production for squeezing the last drops of grape juice out of the pulp.) Scent essences were extracted in two ways: mechanical and chemical, generally a combination of both. Flowers, roots, berries, chunks of resin etc. were first mashed or ground up and then either pressed to squeeze the scents out or steeped in grape or palm wine in order to dissolve the fragrant alcohols. Sometimes the ingredients were heated.
    As a base for scented oils they used ben oil made from seeds of the moringa, horseradish, colocynth, a tropical climbing plant, sesame and after its introduction from the east, olive oil [1]. The Libyan oil, often identified with the kiki, the malodorous castor oil, was probably less favoured in perfume production, though it was very useful for lighting lamps.
    Margaret A. Murray in Saqqara Mastabas describes recipes of a few ancient perfumes:
At Edfu there is a text which gives elaborate directions for making the heknu perfume, giving the exact weight of every ingredient. The principal ingredient is the pert nezemui, "Fruit of the sweet tree," which may be myrobalanus or malobathro of Pliny, as from the fruit of both these plants an oil is expressed. The ingredients of the perfume are:
  • pert nezemui
  • Anti-resin (i.e. frankincense) of two qualities
  • Ab-resin
  • Ket-plant
  • Tesheps plant
  • Wood charcoal
  • Sheben-plant
  • Best wine of the oasis
  • Water
  • Nenib-resin
All the dry materials were to be pounded and sifted before being mixed with the wine. The pert nezemui was to be pressed and boiled over a quick fire, then it was added to the other ingredients, and the whole compound was boiled again, and poured off into a khebeb-vessel. The whole process took about eleven days.
Another recipe is given for the
nezet perfume. This is possibly a late name for one of the sacred oils of these lists (Murray refers here to the list of the Seven Oils she mentioned earlier in her book). A sacrificial ox, ceremonially pure, is to be slaughtered and the fat cut off with a clean knife. The fat is to be melted and poured into a stone vessel. When all impurities are removed, it is to be perfumed with herbs and mixed with the wine of the Oasis; this mixing is to be done in a golden vessel with a gold and silver implement. The fat is then to be cooked with aromatic herbs, and coloured red with the flowers of the Nesti and Nemi plants; when finished it is to be poured into a stone vessel.
Margaret A. Murray, Saqqara Mastabas, Part I, p.31


Every day they make a triple offering of incense to the Sun, an offering of resin at sunrise, of myrrh at midday, and of the so-called cyphi [5] at sunset.
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, § 52 [6]
    The gods favoured sweet smells just as much as did humans. Moreover, the burning of incense covered the smell which arose from the animal offerings. The temples received allocations of raw materials such as oils, myrrh, incense and blooms and prepared their final products in their own workshops: fragrant salves for medicinal purposes, oils for mummification, ointments for the unction of statues and incense to be burned as offering. The unguent of divine mineral for instance, a mixture of incense, bitumen and minerals, was used to anoint divine statues.
    Mummies were anointed with perfume to bestow life upon them and render them acceptable to the gods. This had also the happy consequence of making the process of mummification, which could last for up to several months [10], more bearable.
I buried my father the count, Zau, beyond the splendor, beyond the goodliness of any [equal (?)] of his in his South. I requested as an honor from my majesty of my lord, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkere (Pepi II), who lives forever, that there be taken a coffin, clothing, and festival perfume for this Zau.
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 382
    Propitiating the gods was crucial in the treatment of disease. Good smells attracted them, while at the same time they repelled the demons causing the illness.
In the Ebers Papyrus there is a receipt for another perfume (kyphi [5]) made of dried myrrh, juniper berries, incense, gyu plant, twigs of mastic, fenugreek, nebyt of Northern Syria, yukun, and zemten plant, ground mixed, and cooked. It was used for perfuming houses and clothes, or when prepared with honey and made into pills it was used by women for perfuming the breath.
Margaret A. Murray, Saqqara Mastabas, Part I, p.31 [4]
Banquet scene, Courtesy Jon Bodsworth     Private persons, both women and, possibly to a lesser extent, men seem to have used perfumes on every-day occasions. In New Kingdom pictures revellers at parties are depicted sniffing lotus flowers [11]. Sometimes the flowers are shown hovering over their heads.

Banquet scene
Tomb of Nakht
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    The cones they are carrying on top of their heads are often thought to have been fragrant grease cones, though it would be more reasonable to assume them to be a pictorial convention.
[1] Jean-Pierre Brun: "The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum" in American Journal of Archaeology, 104.2, April 2000, p.278
[2] Papyrus Harris in J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 294
[5] According to Dioscorides kyphi consisted of ten ingredients, Plutarch, seemingly following Egyptian sources quotes sixteen:
Cyphi is a compound composed of sixteen ingredients: honey, wine, raisins, cyperus, resin, myrrh, aspalathus, seselis, mastich, bitumen, rush, sorrel, and in addition to these both the junipers, of which they call one the larger and one the smaller, cardamum, and calamus. These are compounded, not at random, but while the sacred writings are being read to the perfumers as they mix the ingredients. As for this number, even if it appears quite clear that it is the square of a square and is the only one of the numbers forming a square that has its perimeter equal to its area, and deserves to be admired for this reason, yet it must be said that its contribution to the topic under discussion is very slight. Most of the materials that are taken into this compound, inasmuch as they have aromatic properties, give forth a sweet emanation and 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; and the distress and strain of our daily carking cares, as if they were knots, these exhalations relax and loosen without the aid of wine.
They use cyphi as both a potion and a salve; for taken internally it seems to cleanse properly the internal organs, since it is an emollient. Apart from this, resin and myrrh result from the action of the sun when the trees exude them in response to the heat. Of the ingredients which compose cyphi, there are some which delight more in the night, that is, those which are wont to thrive in cold winds and shadows and dews and dampness. For the light of day is single and simple, and Pindar says that the sun is seen "through the deserted aether." But the air at night is a composite mixture made up of many lights and forces, even as though seeds from every star were showered down into one place. Very appropriately, therefore, they burn resin and myrrh in the daytime, for these are simple substances and have their origin from the sun; but the cyphi, since it is compounded of ingredients of all sorts of qualities, they offer at
Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, § 80 [6]
[7] Herodotus was much impressed with the cleanliness of the Egyptian priesthood at least:
They drink out of brazen cups, which they scour every day: there is no exception to this practice. They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always fresh washed. They practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely. The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods. Their dress is entirely of linen, and their shoes of the papyrus plant: it is not lawful for them to wear either dress or shoes of any other material. They bathe twice every day in cold water, and twice each night; besides which they observe, so to speak, thousands of ceremonies.
Herodotus: Euterpe, 37.1
[8] As trade relations with the east became more developed Chinese dried malabathron leaves were imported from India and an aromatic oil was expressed which was then re-exported to Rome. (Joan Pilsbury Alcock Food in the Ancient World, 2006 Greenwood Press, p.62)
[9] Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem formed the Triad of Memphis.
[10] The process generally took seventy days (cf. Mummification).
[11] Some of the fragrant essences (incense and blue lotus for instance) also had intoxicating components, which may have been one of the reasons for gods (and people) liking them as much as they did.
[12] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 1997 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, pp.103 ff.
Horst Dietrich Preuss Old Testament Theology, 1995 Westminster John Knox Press, p.318
[13] Georges Tsoucaris, Janusz Lipkowski, Molecular and Structural Archaeology: Cosmetic and Therapeutic Chemicals, Springer 2003, ISBN 1402014996, pp.30ff.

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-Jean-Pierre Brun: "The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum" in American Journal of Archaeology, 104.2, April 2000
-[3] Gustave Lefebevre Le Tombeau de Petosiris. Première Partie
-[4] Saqqara Mastabas Part I by Margaret Alice Murray
-[6] Plutarch: Isis and Osiris


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