Apr 25, 09:47 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

Every year around Easter, I receive inquiries from ministers of various denominations regarding "biblical" essential oils. They are often interested in incorporating aromatherapy into sacred ceremonies such as a Lenten foot washing or consecration of a new building. This year I received a request for essential oil of onycha. I've been working with aromatics since the early 1990's, and had never heard of onycha. I did a little research, and the story I found about this ancient resin is fascinating.

As with many so-called biblical essential oils, no one really knows what onycha was. This is typical of many aromatics mentioned in the sacred writings of old, texts which underwent numerous translations and in which woods or resins were often renamed, depending on the background of the translator. For example, the "aloes" mentioned repeatedly in the Bible were not the desert plant Aloe vera, as many people commonly insist, but an imported rare wood known variously as agarwood, eaglewood, aloe or oud (species of Aquillaria). Ethnobotanists agree that the ancient aloe was Aquillaria, but no one can seem to agree on the identity of onycha.

Onycha is a Greek word meaning "fingernail" or "claw", and was thought to originally describe a type of Mediterranean sea snail whose shell was burnt to create an aromatic substance. This identification is likely untrue, since the Torah mentions onycha as an ingredient in the sacred incense burned in Solomon's temple, and mollusks were regarded as unclean by Hebrew standards. If older texts are studied, this ingredient was actually called shecheleth in Hebrew and shehelta in Syriac, which is translated as "resin exudate", pointing to a non-animal origin. Other ingredients in the aforementioned temple incense were frankincense, galbanum, and a liquid form of myrrh known as stacte.

Some ethnobotanists claim that cistus, also known as labdanum or rock rose (Cistus landaniferus), is more likely the true onycha. The Talmud specifically states that onycha came from a plant which was not a tree. Although the cistus of today is mainly confined to Spain and northern Africa, it formerly grew over a more widespread area that included the Middle East. The cistus bush exudes a musky-sweet resin in summer, which was traditionally collected from the ground and the fur of grazing animals by use of clawlike combs. Cistus flowers have a red fingernail-like marking on each petal, which also lends credence to the claim it is true onycha. Labdanum resin was widely used as a medicinal, incense and perfumery ingredient in ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East.

Still others claim that onycha was actually benzoin (Styrax benzoin), known in old Europe as benjamin, gum benjamin and benjoin. The resinous gum produced by Styrax has a heavy, sweet odor with pronounced vanilla overtones. Styrax and related plants were called storax in antiquity, and storax is frequently mentioned in Hebrew, Old Testament, Greek and Roman writings as a valued medicinal, food flavoring, incense and perfume ingredient. Styrax trees are sometimes misidentified as bushes.

Yet another theory posits onycha not as a single ingredient, but a mixture of of labdanum and benzoin. This blend was known to have been frequently employed as an incense in ancient Egypt and the Middle East. It was also vital to the composition of the lauded Egyptian temple incense and perfume known as Kyphi.

Although these are the most likely possible identities of the elusive onycha, the mystery doesn't end here. It has been suggested that bdellium, cloves, amber, spikenard or gum tragacanth might be the onycha of antiquity. Research continues, so perhaps someday we'll know the real botanical source of this sacred aromatic.

For more information on ancient aromatics, please refer to my previous post on biblical essential oils.

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