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Plants were used extensively in the bible for beauty treatments and perfumes. In the period during which the bible was written, perfumes were almost always made out of plant oils that were extracted through distillation or pressing [1]. The plants mentioned for use in perfumes and cosmetic lotions included aloe, nard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense. Since many of these plants were not indigenous to the Holy Land, they had to be imported, making the perfumes all the more expensive.

 

The gospels all include a particular instance when Jesus is anointed with a costly perfume. However, the details differ in each gospel; such as the time at which the anointing took place, the house Jesus was visiting, the woman who anointed him, and whether it was the head or the feet. This is possibly because different events were included in each gospel, depending on the focus of the author at the time of writing.

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Mark 14:3 (NIV)

The same event is recounted in Matthew 26:7 with no details changed. However, Luke 7:37 tells of a similar occurrence within the house of Simon the Pharisee (not a leper). The woman who did the anointing was a sinner and she poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet. In John 12:3 Jesus was visiting Lazarus after he had raised him from the dead. It was Mary, Lazarus’ sister, who poured a pint of pure nard onto Jesus’s feet while he was attending the dinner in his honour. An alabaster jar was an expensive marble flask with a long neck that contained enough perfume for a single application. When it was broken, the contents were used completely. This particular jar contained the exceptionally expensive nard, or spikenard.

 

There are many mentions of perfumes throughout the bible, emphasizing their importance.

While the king was at his table,

My perfume spread its fragrance.

My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh

Resting between my breasts

Song of Songs 1:12-13 (NIV)

Myrrh was a common perfume used for women and for scenting royal nuptial robes as can be seen in Psalm 45:8 (NIV):

All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia…

The use of perfumes and cosmetic lotions in daily life was so widespread that not using them signalled a period of mourning as is seen in Daniel 10:6 (NIV):

I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over

2 Samuel 14:2 and Amos 6:6 also mention the cessation of lotions and perfumes in times of mourning. Ruth 3:3 (NIV) hints at the same practices when the time for her to mourn was passed and Naomi tells her:

Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes…

A less savoury use of perfumes is found in Proverbs 7:17 when the adulterous woman leads men astray towards her bed perfumed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.

 

Perfumes and aromatic oils were used in beauty treatments, as we read in the book of Ester when she was subjected to an intensive beauty regime before being allowed to enter the presence of the king (Ester 2:12 NIV):

Before a girl’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.

A common cosmetic was painting of the eyelids. In Ezekiel 23:40 the author speaks of a woman painting her eyes, which was done using the black soot resulting from burning frankincense.

 

I previously discussed cinnamon, calamus and myrrh in the discussion on the Anointing Oil. To recap: the cinnamon used in the biblical period could have been from either the Cinnamomum verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum plant [2]. The tendency is to favour Cinnamomum zeylanicum as the species intended in biblical contexts [3]. Sweet calamus is probably referring to the species Acorus calamus, however there is not as much consensus on this specific identification. Myrrh in the time of Moses was possibly obtained from tapping the resin of Balsamodendron myrrh. However, Commiphora gileadensis is more widely accepted as the myrrh used in perfumes.

Frankincense was discussed in Holy Incense and is probably referring to Boswellia carterii, also known as B. sacra [3].The resin is tapped from the tree and dries on contact with air to form beads. The essential oil is very sweet smelling and an ideal ingredient in a perfume.

The aloe we use today is Aloe vera; however this is not a fragrant extract and would not be used as a perfume. It is believed that the aloe mentioned in the bible, particularly the Old Testament, is the species of Aquilaria agallocha [4], commonly known as Aloewood or Eaglewood. This woody tree has an aromatic resin that is used as a perfume.

Nard, also known as spikenard, is commonly believed to be an aromatic oil obtained from the rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi. This perennial herb grows at high elevations in the Himalaya mountains in India, making it difficult to source in great quantities and more expensive to obtain [5]. The quantity of nard used in the gospels for anointing Jesus was valued at approximately a year’s worth of wages.

Saffron means “yellow” and the yellow stigmata of the flower of Crocus sativus is used, not only as a perfume, but also as a yellow dye. One gram of saffron spice (the dried stamens) requires about a kilogram of flowers [6].This volume of flowers needed for a relatively small amount of spice contributes to its cost and it is currently the most expensive spice.

 

References:

[1] Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, “Cultural and Historical: Perfumes and Anointing Oils,” in Archaeological Study Bible, Michigan, Zondervan, 2005, p. 1746.

[2] P. Mihindukulasuriya, “The Fragrance of Life: Cinnamon in the Bible,” Journal of the Colombo Theological Seminary, vol. 8, pp. 171-181, 2009.

[3] Z. Wlodarczyk, “Review of Plant Species Cited in the Bible,” Folia Horticulturae, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 67-85, 2007.

[4] M. Boi, ““The Ethnocultural significance for the use of plants in Ancient Funerary Rituals and its possible implications with pollens found on the Shroud of Turin”.,” Universidad de las Islas Baleares, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://shroud.com/pdfs/boiveng.pdf. [Accessed 10 May 2017].

[5] H. Rahman, H. A. Shaik, . P. Madhavi and . M. C. Eswaraiah, “A review: pharmacognostics and pharmacological profiles of nardastachys jatamansi dc,” Elixir Pharmacy, vol. 39, pp. 5017-5020, 2011.

[6] L. J. Musselman, “Solomon’s Plant Life: Plant Lore and Image in the Solomonic Writings,” The American Scientific Affliliation, 1999. [Online]. Available: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1999/PSCF3-99Musselman.html.ori. [Accessed 10 May 2017].

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