Feature photo: From Floriana
Onycha incense is surmised to come from one of the four herbs mentioned in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:34) and is an ingredient of Ketoret. Like many other herbs and spices mentioned during Biblical times, the origin of onycha is shrouded in debate, starting with the name itself. In Greek, it means “fingernail.” Various scholars have argued that the sources of onycha include one of the four options: gum tragacanth from the Astralagus species; benzoin from the Styrax species; a mollusk; and the labdanum plant.
Gum tragacanth, a tree gum, has a resin that falls on the ground and looks like fingernails. It is used as an incense fixative. However, Hebrew literature does not support onycha as a tree-based resin. This book considers benzoin to be the spice stacte from the Stryax species and thus an unlikely candidate for onycha.
Some argue that onycha incense came from the operculum (lid or cover) of a marine mollusk, such as #Strombus lentiginosus from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea snail. Nawata (1997) has done extensive historical and ethnographical studies on Sudan’s operculum and gastropod trade. He identified the ancient port town of Badi in southeastern Sudan on the Red Sea as an important port town for trade with Asia, Africa, Egypt, and other Mediterranean powers.
Locally, opercula are called Dufr, or fingernails of the sea. The export of four species (Strombus lentiginosus, Murex anguliferus, Onyx marinus, and Unguis odoratus) remains a major source of income for local communities. Opercula are widely used as incense in Sudan. They are washed with an alkali solution and then treated with alcohol, vinegar, and water. A similar process is followed in China and Japan, whereas other places soak the opercula in fermented berry juice or strong white wine. They are then heated in oil to draw out the incense, which collects as a residue in the oil.
The residue is used as a fixative. The powdered operculum is also added to incense sticks. Old Arabic medical books describe the use of operculum to cure stomach pains, liver illnesses, epilepsy, and regulation of the menstrual cycle (Levey, 1961; Ibn Masawaih and His Treatise on Simple Aromatic Substances: Studies in the History of Arabic Pharmacology I. J. Hist. Medicine & Allied Sci., 16: 407; Meyerhof and Sobhy, 1932).
However, the Talmud states that onycha incense came from a plant, not a tree or animal. Other Jewish texts indicate that onycha was a resin exudate, pointing again to a non-animal origin. Furthermore, Jews considered fish and water animals to be unclean. Thus, the final candidate for onycha is labdanum. Labdanum can be Cistus ladanifer and Cistus creticus, called rock rose or rose of Sharon. The leaves and twigs exude a musky-sweet, sticky, brown resin high in waxes. The name rose of Sharon perhaps comes from the fact that the plant grows extensively on the Israeli Sharon plains, between Jaffa and Mount Caramel. The plant is native to the western Mediterranean region, thrives in the hot summers and cool, dry winters, grows to 2.5 meters, and is cultivated for its scented foliage and showy flowers. It is a vigorous, dense, upright shrub that bears ornamental white flowers. The plant is covered with an aromatic resin exudate.
According to Pliny the Elder, an herb called ladan (Arabic for labdanum) had a fragrant smell. The Bible mentions the rose of Sharon: “I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Solomon 2 King James Version).
Book: Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants