Wednesday, December 21, 2011

still-sound 26. Frankincense & Myrrh

Olibanum in a small vessel I bought to drink cold plum wine

 The lemony, coniferous scent of incense rising from a censer, swinging from a chain was by far my favorite aspect of a catholic upbringing.  Frankincense and myrrh are some of the most beautiful smells I've ever known.

People burn incense to honor those they love but who no longer roam the Earth.  Some people burn incense as offerings, like prayers streaming upward to the heavens.  Incense is burnt to create an air of sacredness; to create an otherworldliness.  I burn incense because I love smells and because a good incense helps me focus in meditation.

I wonder if the Three Wise Men hailed from modern-day Oman, the source of some of the best frankincense (aka olibanum) - a gum resin derived from the boswellia tree.  The excellent Tennendo incense makers in Japan offer sticks made from Omani frankincense.  The scent is particularly citrus-sharp and slightly sweet.  Not entirely unlike church incense yet not the same either.

Frankincense incense by Tennendo

I burn pure frankincense and myrrh (another tree-derived gum resin) on charcoals designed specifically for this purpose.  The result is slightly overwhelming; large streams of smoke billow out, filling the room and scratching my throat. Ecclesiastical censers effectively scent the large cavernous spaces of cathedrals so I suppose secular, domestic incense appreciation requires an appropriate scale-back.  I've learned to reserve the burning of gum resin to the terrace, allowing the scent to waft inside sporadically and surrounded by gusts of fresh air.  I wonder if my neighbors smell the smoke.  I wonder if Bethlehem of two thousand years ago smelled anything like Echo Park this afternoon.

Avignon perfume and incense by Comme des Garcons

The edgy and innovative fashion house Comme des Garcons produced a line of perfumes inspired by incense traditions around the world.  One of the fragrances bears the name of the 14th Century French home of the papacy, Avignon.  The scent, composed by the brillliantly talented Bertrand Duchaufour uncannily resembles the fragrant smoke filling cathedrals.  Comme des Garcons introduced candle and incense versions of these perfumes.  I thought it was funny how Japanese-style stick incenses, presumably scented with perfumed oils, simulate the smell of resin incenses. An incense to resemble another incense...  Admittedly the effect isn't entirely convincing and I suspect the true smell of frankincense and myrrh actually requires the burning of actual frankincense and myrrh.  From a terrace, somewhat far away.

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