Friday, December 31, 2004

Scents of Paradise

The word "paradise" in most cultures refers to a tropical paradise not by accident. In the same sense, the scents associated with paradise -- aloeswood, ginger, camphor, cinnamon -- are not coincidental. If the idea of paradise as a group of islands (of the blest) has its origins rooted in a real place.

In Austronesia, aromatics were derived more from fresh flowers and plants rather than dried ones like spices. Of course, the shipment of aromatics in dried form is a practical consideration.

The Tahitians extracted the essences of fragrant flowers into coconut oil used as for perfume, massage and skin therapy. In the mountains of the Philippines, warriors rubbed themselves with fresh ginger before battle. People all over Austronesia adorned themselves with the most odiferous flowers strung together as leis or crowns, or placed behind the ear.

Aromatherapy and fumigation with aromatics was widely practiced. The widespread of citrus in herbal medicine derives in large part from the fragrance of these fruits. Fragrance also plays an important part in the cuisine of many Austronesian peoples. Lemongrass, lemon, ginger and mint are common fragrances associated with cooking in the region.

For a people where the sense of smell is so important to culture, it would be natural that they would also like to bring at least some of these scents with them.

Ancient tropical Asian spices found at ancient sites

  • Cloves, Terqa, 1,700 BC
  • Whole orange, Thebes, 19th Dynasty
  • Opium poppy, Deir el-Bahri, 1473-1458 BC
  • Black pepper, Mummy of Ramses II, 1279-1212 BC
  • Camphor, Mummy of Ramses V, 1153-1147 BC
  • Silk, Egyptian mummy dated at about 1,000 BC
  • Cinnamon, northern Mediterranean, 6th-7th cent. BC
  • Cinnamomum camphora, PUM II mummy, 2nd cent. BC

  • The sacred incense and anoiting oil in many cultures consists primarily or entirely of aromatics originating in Southeast Asia. For example, the holy anoiting oil of Exodus 30:23 is believed by some experts, using ancient sources, to consist of myrhh, cinnamon, cassia and lemongrass ('sweet calamus'). Three of these four ingredients originate in Southeast Asia.

    These aromatics were used often to recreate the atmosphere of Paradise -- the Garden of Eden. Aloeswood, the main ingredient in holy incense used by Buddhists, Christians and Muslims throughout the world is associated with the Eden in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition.

    The Muslims also considered ginger and camphor as scents coming from Paradise:

    "The first group (of people) who will enter Paradise will be (glittering) like the moon on a full-moon night. They will neither spit therein, nor blow their noses therein nor relieve nature. Their utensils therein will be of gold and their combs of gold and silver; in their censers the aloeswood will be used, and their sweat will smell like musk." (Bukhari 4:468)

    "They will be given to drink therein of a cup tempered with ginger." (Quran 76:18-19).

    The virtuous shall be given a drink which is tempered with camphor from a spring wherefrom the servants of Allah drink. They cause it to gush forth through their own efforts." (Quran 76:6-7)

    For those who had been there, the scents of Paradise transported them back to Eden, for others it gave a whiff of the wonders the blessed lands.

    These spices are still important today in more than religious ceremonies. One of the best examples of this involves a look at the formulas for the various cola drinks now popular worldwide. The following flavorings are used in the original Coca-Cola recipe and the Pepsi-Cola recipe, notice that with the exception of coriander all the other flavors are of southeastern Asian origin:

    Original Coca-Cola

    Oil Orange
    Oil Cinnamon
    Oil Lemon


    Lime Juice
    Oil Lemon
    Oil Orange
    Cinnamon Oil
    Oil Nutmeg
    Oil Coriander
    Oil Petit Grain

    Paul Kekai Manansala


    de Vartavan, C. and V. A. Amorós 1997. _Codex of Ancient Egyptian
    Plant Remains: Codex des restes végétaux de l'Egypte ancienne_.
    Triade Exploration's Opus Magnum Series in the field of
    Egyptology [TOMS.E] I
    . London: Triade Exploration Ltd.

    Dalby, Andrew, Dangerous Tastes The Story of Spices, 2000, Berkeley: University of California.