Holy Incense : Labdanum

herbal name:“Cistus creticus” or  “Cistus Incanus”

also known as “Rock Rose” or “Onycha”

Astrological sign: Cancer

Elements: Water and Earth

God/dess associations: Minoan Snake Goddess, Cretan Britomartis, Artemis, Pan

Perfumery: sweet amber base note

Labdanum is the resin extracted from the Rock Rose, a small shrubby plant that grows in Southern Europe and northern Africa. The most famous labdanum comes from Crete.

It is a soft, black/brown substance with an interesting earthy, balsamic sweet scent. In it's raw form the sticky substance isn't something you could imagine wearing as a perfume, (in fact one of my daughters reckons it smells like rotting fruit) and it isn't until you combine it with other ingredients that it begins to show it's true magic. As an essential oil or absolute extraction, it becomes a greeny, yellow liquid that has a much lighter, higher note to it...it retains it's soft, ambery warmth, but adds a higher floral note to it.
Goats with labdanum.

In Cyprus, Labdanum was traditionally collected off the fleece of goats that collect it by brushing through clumps of the cistus bush while grazing. Nowadays it is mainly harvested from May to June (When the resin is soft and sticky) by brushing the plants with leather thongs. There was a traditional perfume salve that Cretan women made from Labdanum, Lily, jasmine and quince which they would use to anoint their chests above their low cut dresses (This is where those of the Minoan Serpent Goddess who is always shown with her beautiful naked breasts open and proud originates) and it was burnt as incense on hot coals in their homes to bless them. Labdanuit was exported all over the far and middle east and used in perfumes and incense of many kinds and is widely mentioned in old texts including the bible.

In fact, the bible has one of the first recorded incense recipes:

Exodus 30:34 ( BTW this is the plain English translation...the older versions were the usual badly translated hard to understand stuff, so I'm quoting the modern translation here...the older ones also originally translated the labdanum as a kind of mollusk shell extract....took decades of controversy before an arab translator pointed out that the word “Shecheleth” actually meant onycha, which was widely used at that time as incense...though there is still a fair bit of controversy about the word “Onycha” too....my latest research has unearthed a number of sources that reckon THIs is actually a powder made from those funny little door closing muscles of certain shellfish....but I digress)

“ And the Lord said to Moses, Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, with the best frankincense, in equal weights; And make from them a perfume, such as is made by the art of the perfume-maker, mixed with salt, and clean and holy. And put some of it, crushed very small, in front of the ark in the Tent of meeting, where I will come face to face with you; it is to be most holy.“
Tool: ladanestirio.
The recipe itself is similar to many Egyptian temple incenses. The famous Egyptian Kyphi incense also contains Labdanum. Perfumers in the middle ages used it as a base note together with Ambergris and Patchouli in Chypre and Leather note perfumes. Like most of the natural perfume ingredients, Labdanum has been replaced by synthetic versions in most modern perfumes for cost reasons, but some more traditional perfumers still use it as it has a depth of scent that no chemical copy can rival. It is an incredibly soothing scent, soft, warm, earthy, fruity and floral all at the same time. And in Aromatherapy it is used for people in need of it's calming, deeply spiritual effect. In Magic it is used for all things related to the starsign of Cancer, which is ruled by the moon. So it's a great ingredient in all kinds of full moon rituals, gentle Love Magic, Healing broken hearts and the like.....

It would also be a good incense for any rituals invoking the Cretan Serpent Goddess or , Artemis the virgin huntress who is said to be the same as the Cretan Goddess Britomartis. It would also be appropriate to use it in blends to honour Pan, as it grows where he comes from and was collected from the beards of his sacred animal: the goat!

Medicinally it was used as a stimulant expectorant for cattarrhs and to treat dysentery. It was also used in plasters for skin infections. And there are some references that both the seeds and the resin were used in foods as well. (I only found one reference for this so I'm not sure I'd be game to experiment).

It's main usage has always been in incense and perfumery though.

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