To the modern Westerner, incense is the friend of the pothead teenager and long-time companion of the hippy. Incense is perhaps the oldest form of human scent manufacturing, however.
This post is part of D/S’s series on Death and Scent in Ancient Egypt.
- Part I: Egypt’s Sacred Scent Business
- Part II: Mummy Powder Incense
- Part III: The Fragrance of the Soul: Olfaction & Death in Ancient Egyptian Religion
- Part IV: The Perfumed Mummy
- Part V: The Egyptian God of Scent, Sex, and Rebirth: That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Coming Soon)
- Part VI: The Wax Headcone Controversy (Coming Soon)
- Part VII: Fragrant Tomb Gardens (Coming Soon)
With a documented history of over 7,000 years, we were making this stuff for 3,000 years before we finally got around to domesticating the cat.
Those scented fumes have a long history of repelling evil odours, demons, bugs, and plagues. They were used (especially in pre-modern times) to modify the sense of reality or heighten emotional states. This is why they are a central part of many religious, spiritual, meditative, and death customs around the word. A host of woods, plants, and resins have found their way into incense production over the year, but the strangest ingredient by far would be the dried and powdered remains of human corpses.
The issue of Mummy Powder Incense is more of a death-scented ritual then ritually scented death custom. Still, it is a fascinating detour of European medicine into magic and the occult.
Tears of the Mumiæ
The etymology of the word mummy is worth noting here. Mumyia is the Persian word for asphaltum (otherwise known as bitumen, Bitumen of Judea, or natural asphalt) and comes from the Persian root word “mum” meaning wax. Bitumen is a vicious form of petroleum that appears to “sweat” or “tear” soft drop of itself off of the harder parts of the substance.
The exact etymological cross over from Persian to Arabic isn’t known, but the Arabic word for mummified bodies, Mumiyah, predates its use in European languages. Arabic adopted the Persian word because, Mumyia/bitumen or even perhaps beeswax, was known in the Arabic-speaking world to be an essential part of the preservation process for ancient Egyptian bodies as far back as the 4th Century CE.
In 1400 CE, the Latin word, Mumiæ (sometimes spelt Mummia or Mumia), was first referenced in a Medieval medical manual and derived from the Arabic. Mumiæ wasn’t used to describe preserved bodies per se, but more specifically, medicine prepared from mummified human remains. Mummy, meaning a dry preserved body, first shows up in English around 1610.
It all gets very tricky because the words Mummy, Mummia, Mumia, Mumiæ, Mumiyah, or Mumyia were used throughout history to refer to bitumen, a type of dead body, and sometimes wax. So as you can guess, hijinx ensued.
Wait, What Was That About Medicine Made From Mummies?
Medical Cannibalism was a genuine part of European history up to the early 20th Century. With the last known sale of medical mummy powder occurring in 1908. It wasn’t so much a question of, “Is it ok to eat people?” but more of a, “What part of the individual should I have for what ails me?” situation.
The custom goes back to early Vitalism and Hippocrates (aka the Father of Western Medicine). The idea was, living material contained an essence or soul of life. That life could transfer if a person were young and healthy when they died, as the corpse would retain part of their vital energy. Using elements of the body in medicine would give that Vitalis to another. I want to say this is solely Dark Age barbarism, while the practice does go back to ancient Greece, people-eating didn’t gather steam until the Renaissance. That is yet another reason the Renaissance was not as fantastic as everyone thinks.
Executioners had an excellent side business selling cups of warm blood fresh from the stump of a decapitated body as it was a famed epilepsy cure. The fat of a hung man was used for treatment for joint pain and arthritis.
The bodies of the ancient dead, at first, seem a poor fit for this Vitalist form of medicine. They are not newly dead or young and healthy. However, Europeans knew these bodies were old even if they couldn’t yet read hieroglyphs. Older by far than all the other corpses they had lying about and yet far better preserved. Those eternal tombs and eternal bodies convinced 15th and 16th-century doctors that the ancient Egyptians had figured out the very Elixer of Eternal Life. Hence, consuming their flesh would give health, vigour, and vitality; possibly even immortality. (Someone did tell them these were dead bodies, right?)
Every good apothecary, therefore, had Mumiæ and folks paid premium prices for this ancient wonder drug. It became so coveted and expensive that soon cut versions using contemporary bodies, such as plague victims, were sold with disastrous consequences. These adulterated samples were called Mumiæ Falsa. It was the very rarity and mystique of mummy dust as a panacea that made it the plaything of doctors, magicians and alchemists for centuries to come.
Mummy Incense in Medicine
No one knows how many mummies were destroyed for medicine, but the loss must have been immense. Most mummy powders were eaten, swallowed in pill-form, mixed into tonics, or snorted up the nose, but some were burned as incense. The incense treatment seems to be the reserve of Mumiæ as there is no other evidence in the European context of corpses being used as part of an aromatic compound. The reason mummy powder was used may have to do with Kyphi.
Kyphi was a ritualistic incense burned every evening in ancient Egypt. Kyphi was written about at length in the ancient world for its supposed medical powers and ability to restore mood. Both Plutarch and Galen gave recipes for its creation. Plutarch’s recipe listed the ingredients as:
- Juniper Berries
- And something called small juniper berries; it is unclear if it supposed to be young juniper berries or a different plant.
Now, this is a time when translation matters. If our Renaissance doctor wants to make a restorative fume treatment based on ancient wisdom for a wealthy and discerning patient; he would most likely be reading a Kyphi recipe by Plutarch or Galen. If that recipe had been interpreted from the Greek, bitumen is translated as asphaltum. If he is reading a Persian or Arabic (and possible Latin) translation, it would be Mumyia. That may mean asphalt, mummy powder, or just beeswax. Mumyia or Mumiæ, you can see how the mistake happened. Given the panacea nature ascribed to Mumiæ already and the myth of Kyphi as an ancient magical substance, it makes sense that they reached for the apothecary jar.
Even in the 18th Century, when it was clear that Kyphi was made with bitumen, there were those that swore Bitumen of Judea, the bitumen from the Dead Sea (that the Egyptians favoured in Kyphi production) was superior to those found in Europe. Moreover, the ancient bitumen preparation, which naturally could only be sourced from mummies, was superior to modern sources. So ancient human remains were inhaled in scent-based treatments to invigorate the physique until the 19th Century. Too bad no one told them that only mummies from the later Greek period appear to be embalmed with bitumen, the Mumyia in question in the older bodies is probably referring to a type of wax.
Mummy Incense in Magic
The allure of mummy powder had been part of alchemy for ages. Cleopatra the Alchemist, a 3rd Century Egyptian female alchemist, is credited with describing the salts of ancient sarcophagi as “the arcanum and the secrets of the microcosm”. We know that Arabic (especially Sufi) and Jewish alchemists experimented with mummy powder in the hopes of making the Philosopher’s Stone.
As medicine moved away from Vitalism and superstition, mummy powder incense became part of folk, Reconstructionist occult and magical practices as a link to a romanticised past.
The last hundred years or so would seem like a breeze to research, but in reality, we are moving into the land of speculation and guesswork. Many esoteric orders and mediums in the 19th and 20th Centuries claimed to have Mumiæ or Mumiæ incense for magical use. Claims of connecting with long-dead pharaohs or absorbing the Kha of Tutankhamun abound.
While it isn’t impossible that they had some mummy powder, it doesn’t seem likely. By 1890, mummy power fell out of use in folk medicine and an interest in preserving Egyptian culture, and Egyptian mummies meant less were heading to the meat grinder. The paint colour Mummy Brown was invented in the 16th-century, yet it took off as a product in the 19th-century perhaps because of a surplus of decommissioned medical mummy powder. The pigmentation was so intense for Mummy Brown, one London colour producer is quoted in the 19th century as saying that one mummy will supply his clients for 20 years.
Alister Crowley reportedly was given a recipe for Kyphi made with Mumiæ powder while honeymooning in Egypt in the 1920s, which he used during rituals for the remainder of his life. It’s possible he acquired such a thing, but the only source we have for this report is Crowley himself, who was not the most faithful witness. More likely, it was just a clever bit of PR.
After the 1930s, any claims of use of mummy infused incense seem spurious, yet even today one does not have to look too hard to find mummy dust incense at your local magick Botanica. It is most likely used as a way of presenting an authenticated past, by connecting modern beliefs with ancient cultures. It also adds a bit of macabre cache and curiosity to magical practices. Goofer Dust is an excellent example of morbid curiosity. It is a hex powder, often burned, and used in traditional hoodoo in the Southern US. While traditional recipes only call for bone dust or if none can be found grave dirt, modern Goofer Dust (available as a souvenir in New Orlean shops or online by less than scrupulous root-doctors) touts ancient mummy powder as an ingredient. In reality, it most likely contains agricultural powdered bone meal if any bone powder at all.
While the use of mummy powder in magic seems more of a thing of dreams than reality, that doesn’t mean the ancients get to rest in peace just yet. The use of ancient Egyptian remains in magic is still an issue in contemporary Egypt were folk magic uses fragments of old bones or pulverised mummy in love charms.
Want to Know More?
Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture by L. Noble is a pricey book, but one any death head should have in their collection
Mermade Magikal Arts makes a yearly incense inspired by Kyphi that is a lovely interpretation in its own right.
Kyphi: The Sacred Scent by Karl Vermillion is a great book to learn more about what Kyphi meant to ancient Egyptians
Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, by Okasha El Daly, is also a pretty fascinating read about a neglected time in history.
An 18th-century medication “Mumia Vera Aegyptica” – Fake or authentic? by Barbara M. Scholz-Böttchera, is an excellent academic article for those that can get past the pay walls.
Love the Egypt Series? Check out more!
Back to Part 1: Egypt’s Sacred Scent Business
Onward to Part 3:The Fragrance of the Soul