Fragrance has permeated the land and culture of Egypt for millennia. Beautiful scents and the burning of incense were intrinsic to the worship of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Large quantities of a variety of herbs and woods was burned daily in the temples throughout Egypt. The numerous reliefs and papyri depicting incense sticks, burning ceremonies, offerings to the gods, are proof of the important role of scents and incenses. Incense provided the embodiment of life and an aromatic manifestation of the gods. The Pharaohs cultivated incense trees and imported expensive resins to satisfy the needs of Egypt’s prolific temples and tombs.
Incense was considered the “Fragrance of the Gods” and the most common depictions of incense in ancient Egypt come from tombs and temples where many scenes present a pharaoh or priest offering incense to a mummy or the statue of a God or Goddess. The smoking incense stick often takes the shape of a human arm ending in a hand holding a charcoal-filled bowl.
A 19th Dynasty relief from the temple of Seti I at Abydos provides a classic example of the use of incense. Seti leans forward towards a statue of Amun-Re, his right hand pouring water over a bouquet of lotus flowers while his left hand wafts smoke from an arm-shaped incense stick (censer) towards the god. The incense signifies reverence and prayer; and on a deeper level it evokes the actual presence of the deity by creating the “fragrance of the gods.”
The Egyptians carefully bought, transported, and stored their frankincense and myrrh, treating the pieces of resin like emblems of their gods’ bodies. Hatchepsut immortalized her expensive expeditions to Punt on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri showing rows of men carry incense trees back to Egypt so that the sacred precinct could have the “Odor of the Divine Land.”
The Ancient Egyptians worshiped the God of fragrance, Nefertum, meaning the “beautiful one who does not close” and in Egyptian mythology he represented both the first sunlight and the delightful scent of the Egyptian blue lotus flower. Nefertem was seen as the son of the creator God Ptah and the Goddess Bastet. In art, he was usually depicted as a beautiful young man having blue water-lily flowers around his head. As the son of Bastet, he also sometimes has the head of a lion or is a lion or cat reclining. The ancient Egyptians often carried small statuettes of him as good-luck charms.
Secret recipes for incense were carved on the walls of the temple of Horus at Edfu. In the Papyrus Ebers there is a recipe to “sweeten the smell of the house or the clothes” which includes myrrh, frankincense, wood bark, other ground herbs, mixed together with liquid (honey, wine, etc.) and placed over a fire. Certain Gods and Goddesses were associated with specific types of incense, for example, Hathor was strongly associated with myrrh. The Egyptians gathered the resinous “tears” and “sweat” of the gods from the myrrh and frankincense trees to use in much of their incense. Religious secrecy veiled the process for making incense which required a set number of days, symbolic ingredients, and magical spells. The priests believed that as they compounded fragrant resins with herbs, honey, and wine, and raisins, they were mysteriously creating the body of the gods. When burning incense before the temple statues, the priests were offering the Fragrance of the Gods, to the Gods.