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The Hebrews

Perfumes in the Bible

The Bible reveals that perfumes were commonly used in everyday life. As a synonym of bodily purification, hygiene was indispensable. Moses defined the different uses of baths and ablutions for women and men. Before the meal, perfume was sprinkled, the wine was flavored and spices were burned in the dining halls when feasts were held. The Levite priests were both doctors and perfumers, which demonstrates the close link between medicine, magic, cooking and… perfume.

The Bible is the most vivid proof of the importance perfume had among the Hebrews. The sacred role of perfume is defined in the Book of Exodus.

“The Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense… And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary tempered together pure and holy. And thou shalt beat some of it very small… As for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.”

Frankincense is the ultimate perfume, reserved for worship. Perfume is a sign of honour and recognition of a living god.

The adoration of the Wise Men

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem… And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Book of Matthew)

The wise men were likely to have been Babylonian astrologers, and their presents were symbols. For centuries, gold was thought to designate the future king of the Jews; frankincense, homage to God; and myrrh, the funerary resin, a reference to Jesus’ quality as a man.

Perfume played a role in funerary rites. The Hebrews did not practice embalming, but they did sprinkle dead bodies with perfumed water and anoint them with aromatic oils.

Aloe was one of the most popular perfumes of the Hebrews. Nard, a spiky aromatic grass called Indian Verbena, was also highly prized. A very expensive perfume, it became a generic term in ancient times to refer to costly perfumes. The Song of Songs, an inspired, at times stirringly erotic but also metaphysical love-poem which was intoned at wedding ceremonies to a musical accompaniment, mentions spikenard, sweet vine flowers, calamus, cinnamon, lily and pomegranate.

Cosmetic science was as developed among the Hebrews as it was among the Egyptians.