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quinta-feira, 24 de dezembro de 2015

Christmas Gifts by 3 Wise Men: Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold

by: Elena Vosnaki

Three wise men came from the East to pay their respects to the newborn Holy Child in Bethlehem. This is probably the first encounter many people have with the mysteriously shady perfumery ingredients of frankincense and myrrh. Gold, thankfully, for most is a known commodity, even in the less nominally elevated versions. As a child I was always impressed that two out of three of the precious gifts were fragrant. What possible use could baby Jesus have for them? It consolidated the budding thought that smell and the pleasure of this sense is of paramount importance!
Let's not forget that the wise men were called "Magi"/μάγοι (i.e.magicians) in the gospel of Matthew (2, 1-12), written in Greek, the only gospel in which they make an appearance. Because fragrant materials have magical powers, obviously, my elementary school intellect fantasized! And they do...albeit in a differert way than I had imagined.
But the fact stands. Frankincense, myrrh and gold are magical in their own right. 
"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path."
Imagine the contextuality of semiotics when I reveal to you that these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C!
Although not mentioned by name in the canonical texts of the gospels, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, the three Magi, represent scholarship of 3 origins: Persian, Indian and Babylonian. In early Christian tradition, the Magi are a group of Eastern Mystics who visited Jesus after his birth, recognizing him for who he is before anyone else. According to the trilingual inscription written by Darius the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, the term Magi denotes the followers of Zoroaster. So even though Jesus is born to become a "ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel" as the prophet says, it is the foreign believers who first recognize the holy child for who he is. Not only that, but even though they begin the journey spurred by King Herod of Judea to pay homage to the Messiah, they're "wise" enough to understand Herod's ulterior motive and they leave for their own country by following another path...
The Magi's origin is not by chance; these are exactly the places where the treackly, resinous materials originate from, then as well as now. And they serve the same purpose as in pagan cultures: honor a king or deity. Preferably both in Christ's case! They're also conveniently a triad, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 
Frankincense or Olibanum (also called Luban following the Hebrew and Arabic) has accompanied humanity for millenia. Its exudation from the Boswellia tree is another testament of the popular notion of a tree's "blood", its very bloodstream seeping through cuts in the trunk, and thus a great analogue to the fallen blood of Christ which saves mankind through the Crucifixion and the Resurrection...
Trees after all are prevalent even in non-Christian doctrine as great entities of spiritual importance. 
Frankincense in particular serves through its highly terpenic nature in purification, in sanctity through smoke, through the evaporation that rises to the heavens above. 
What an irony that such a trail of peaceful meditation is captured in a bottle called"Passage d'Enfer" (passage through hell) then? L'Artisan Parfumeur, creators of said fragrance, may have tapped on their funny bone when they baptized their incense fragrance by the name of the inconspicuous street of its headquarters in Paris.
Has one to "go through hell", through the symbolic burning of an aromatic substance in the fires of eternity, to be able to rise into the heavens, finally absolved? The importance of confession in Catholic Christian doctrine seems to suggest so. Hunderds of repentent sinners populate the halls of fame of Christendom. Like a passage through hell, frankincense fragrances seem to bridge the gap between two worlds via smoky serenity. Transporting us into a better, more tranquil place. 
Myrrh too comes from a weeping tree, one growing mainly in Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Erithrea, the Commiphora myrrhawhose tale is entangled in remorse and rebirth
If frankincense serves as a symbolic bridge between the material and the spiritual world, myrrh has another purpose; the annointing of a king, but it also works as a prefiguring of Christ's death. 
Myrrh makes two more key appearences in the life of Jesus.
In the gospel of Mark (15:22) the author describes that when Jesus was dying on the cross, someone offered him wine mixed with myrrh to stop the pain (myrrh contains a powerful molecule that is analogous to the pain numbing of heroin), but he did not take it.
In the gospel of John, Jesus is dead when Nicodemus brings a mixture of 75 pounds of myrrh and aloeswood (oudh) to anoint Jesus' body when laid in the tomb. Myrrh is a classic embalming material from the times of the Pharaohs, the god kings who would need their bodily paraphernalia in the afterlife..
So is a perfume as transporting, as memorable, as etching life in flesh, as La Myrrheby Serge Lutens a prefiguring of our own mortality? Even though the grand maestro of Palais Royal, the mercurial and enigmatic Serge, has dedicated a scent to the dusty memorabilia of death, De Profundis, rich in chrysanthemum, I always felt that La Myrrhe was his love call to his own mortality. The ethereal scent seems to defy classification; is it alive, or is it singing its swan song on your skin? 
Both frankincense and myrrh make frequent appearances in the Bible. Gold no less so, of course. Gold is less of an actual substance in perfumery but how could it not escape the feverish imagination of copywriters and visionnaires when it stands as the Pavlovian reflex for luxury?
Gold, "or" in French, has benefited by lavish use in perfume names, in fragrance presentations and even in suspended particles of the real metal, appearing as supsended flakes in the fragrant liquid. 
The architectural beaty of the evoked slender neck, coiled in golden rings like the giraffe women of Myanmar, in Dior's edition J'Adore L'Or is a true beauty. But the 2012 edition called J'Adore L'Absolu with its flecks of real gold on the cap is the real spectacle. The fluid lines make for an at once ethereal and solid (thanks to the golden cascade) image. 

Paco Rabanne went almost literal with his gold bullion 1 Million for men and another for women, Lady Million
Naturally Arabian brands were the natural contester for producing "Gold" editions. Al Haramain's Collection Gold is but the tip of the iceberg. Golden Sand by Al Rehab goes one step beyond: the gold is not only a luxurious hint, it's also an invitation to leisure and sensuous pleasure...
But perfumers have also tried to evoke the luxurious, molten metal luxury of the precious substance that has adorned kings since forever, via "solar notes". Because what else is more golden than the sun itself? Solar notes include salicylates and we have devoted an article to those.
Among the perfumes which marry the smell of "solar notes" to the golden packaging is Ylang in Gold by M.Micallef. What better use for the established tradition of the hand-made overlay (here in -you guessed it- in gold) with sunny ylang and warm resins making a swoon-worthy floriental?
Sometimes the naming gets creative...and therefore highly evocative of exotic or abstract fantasies. Pallisandre d'Or by Aedes de Venustas is a daydream of a rosewood palace in India, covered in the maharajh riches...especially since the prized "oud" which runs through it is priced its weight!

And of course the matter of golden concepts in perfumes culminates with Gold pour Femme by Amouage. The prime producer of first grade olibanum (frankincense), i.e. the sultanate of Oman, in the Arabian peninsula, has commissioned this olfactory marvel -and a milestone in the floral aldehyde genre-  to legendary perfumer Guy Robert. 
The luxurious bottle is reminiscent of the Palace Ruwi Mosque which is made from 24% French lead crystal adorned with 24 carat gold plated decoration.
It seems like perfumery has both imported and exported ideas based on the gifts of the Three Wise Men. This Christmas I urge you to discover some of them and enjoy them in loving company!
I'd love to hear your favorite perfumes with these three basic "notes"/ideas in the comments!

pic credit: La Myrrhe via

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