Pagan News and Views Since 1998

Is this Kyphi? A historic look at eygyptian temple incense.

So what IS kyphi? it's one of the worlds oldess forms of blended incense. sure, older cultures than Egypt could light one or two aromatics on fire, but when it comes to mashed up mixes, kyphi was cutting edge aromatic magic way back when the Pharaohs ruled as living gods. Who wouldn't want a fragrance fit for a god king?

But here in the modern era there are so very many recipes called 'kyphi', and many look like a bit of everything in the incense cupboard. Because they kind of are. and there is a logic to WHY it done that way most of the time. What the Egyptians actually wrote down was a list of things that went in, over time, sometimes repeating ingredients as they went with no really explanations or measurements. To complicate maters, some of the things Egyptian records include defy modern botanical identification.

To get a clear perspective, you need the Greek records, not just of their dupe, but of the markets of the day. Kyphi could include all manner of distant exotic botanical, some coming from as far away as India and China. Given how slow shipping was, and how rare it was for incense masters to travel to the source, the markets they bought from could pull all sorts of shady things on buyers. This includes thinning down and lieing about what you paid for. So the old masters got really good at compensating on the fly to make weak aromatic batches strong enough to keep the blend smelling right despite cheaters.

Fortunately for us, there were people who knew well enough to tell us HOW those cheats worked. This is important because the only existing Greek record of kyphi type incense has one notable obscurity of an ingredient. Aspalitos. For centuries after the record, herbal record keepers have debated what exactly it was. The Greek record of it get worse, since it's now a near impossible weed to get a hold of outside of Greece. But this too, had a dupe.

Since spiny broom is near impossible to get, and the root of it was the exported whole herb used by weight, not volume, and the roots were sold as the same name as another plant, we have an authentic substitution. Cypress root. It's even sold both as a digestive aid and an essential oil. Since spiney broom root and cypress root commonly sold under a single name, and both were cool, bitter aromatics, they could easily be confused by incense blenders. With that one missing ingredient, a scent fit for a king has a proper recipe with measurements available to us all.

Though it's gonna cost you. There's a lot of saffron involved. And it's gonna take some shopping around the net, because even online some of these ingredients are pretty obscure. But this is the 200 A.D. version of the kyphi recipe, as recorded by the Greeks.

A medicine] made of myrrh, and it is called “Kupar”. It is good for hardness of the liver, and for pleurisy, and for coughs.

Gum of terebinth – 4 drachms (frankincense)
Myrrh – 4 drachms
Spikenard – 1 drachm (close cousin to valerian, earthy and musky, slightly peppery)
Crocus – 1 drachm (also known as saffron)
Cinnamon – 1 drachm (more expensive 'true' cinnamon)
Cassia – 2 drachms (cheap dollar store cinnamon)
Aspalitos – 2 drachms (cypress root)
Flowers of pistacia lentiscus – 2 drachms (Gum mastic)
Flesh of dried grapes, cleaned inside and out – 45 drachms
Honey as much as sufficeth.

Dose, one drachm. Dissolve the medicines which can be dissolved and the dried grapes in strong-smelling wine, pound the dry ones and clean them, melt the gum of terebinth with the honey, mix them all together, work up well and pour into a vessel, and administer in some drink that is suitable for the particular disease. It may also be burnt like incense before the table, and its smell is very pleasant.

Yep, I'm the fire bug and history nerd that eventually gathered all that up to make some. By weight, this thing is like half raisins. One pellet of it is about all the saffron I'm willing to spare. However, there is so much aromatic concentration that it thins WAY down without sacrificing aromatic potency in a combustible base. One pellet of aromatics gives me about 30 potent sticks with an aroma that is down right decadently sweet, sensual, and mysterious. Sure, taking it down in scale for that took some quality time with a jeweler's scale, but it was so worth it.

By volume that's:

Gum of terebinth – 1/16 teaspoon
Myrrh – 1/16 teaspoon
Spikenard – 1/32 teaspoon
Crocus – 1/32 teaspoon
Cinnamon – 1/64 teaspoon
Cassia – 1/32 teaspoon
Aspalitos – 1/32 teaspoon
Flowers of pistacia lentiscus – 1/32 teaspoon

At this point, I could use 5 fat raisins to make one pellet. But mastic amps up the honey notes of bamboo and slippery elm bark powder, both fast burning plants that will keep my resins burning and stuck together.

I used 1/2 teaspoon slippery elm and 1 1/2 teaspoons bamboo powder for the measurements given. I even used red wine, not that it mattered when the sticks were dry. That's mostly there because water was lively and not well filtered back then. It does dry a bit faster than water, but mostly you're wasting wine. I shape my sticks to about the length of a library card and the thickness of a dry udon noodle, and they are plenty to fill my room with fragrance. You can start with 1/8 teaspoon of wet mix and roll it out just like play-do.

Oh, and anyone who tries to tell you Gum Arabic is a valid substitute for gum mastic LIED! The reason I can scale down so far is that mastic amps up everything it's mixed with, intensifying the scent so a little of everything goes a much longer way. You'll lose the intricacy of the scent if you try to just leave that out, where valerian instead of spikenard won't completely trash your blend. I know, the wee bit you get for $8 dollars doesn't seem like much bang for your buck, but with mastic, it's a better value than you think at first glance.

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