Sunday, October 22, 2017

On the Use of Onycha

Onycha (Cistus ladanifer), also called Rockrose or Labdanum was one of the key ingredients along with equal parts of stacte, galbanum, and frankincense in the consecrated ketoret described in the Torah book of Exodus (Ex.30:34-36) and used in Solomon's Temple. This formula was not to be duplicated for non-sacred use and the exact source of the ingredients was perhaps intentionally obscured to prevent it from being used for more profane purposes.  Cistus ladanifer, also called Rockrose or Labdanum is the most likely contender for the ingredient onycha.

The original Hebrew word used for this ingredient was shecheleth, a word which is closely related to the Syriac word shehelta that means “a tear, distillation, or exudation.”  When the Torah was translated into Greek the word shecheleth was translated as onycha, which means "fingernail.” This led to some wild speculation about the ingredient being from seashell claws or snails and other substances that look like fingernails.  Those theories seem to have all be proven erroneous.

The Hebrew word shecheleth refers to a large variety of plants in the Cistaceae family.  The Talmud specifically states that onycha is not from a tree, but from a plant that grows from the ground. The shecheleth rendered onycha by the Septuagint, onycha, means a drop or exudation.  According to Winifred Walker's All the Plants of the Bible, shecheleth is the Rockrose (Cistus ladanifer) which produces a resin called labdanum. This sweet spicy ingredient has been used in perfumes and incense for thousands of years and grows profusely in the Middle East, specifically in Israel and Palestine. It is a bush, not a tree and matches the description in the Talmud. 

Labdanum is a gray-black resin that exudes in teardrops from the branches of the Rockrose.  After it ages, labdanum becomes as black as onyx, a word closely related to onycha.  Rockrose produces labdanum annually, during the summer, to protect itself from the heat. The root of the plant is used in Jordanian traditional medicine that is still used today by the Arabs for bronchitis and also as a pectorial, demulcent, tonic, and anti-diabetic.

In ancient Egypt labdanum from the Rockrose stuck to the beards of goats that rambled in the rocks where it grew, and goat hair scented with labdanum was gathered to enhance the Pharaoh’s beard to make him look more like a lion.  When the Pharaoh spoke it was supposed to be as the lion's roar, the voice of god to the people. Pharaohs consequently were depicted as sphinxes, part human and part lion wearing the false beard saturated with labdanum.

Labdanum was used not only as a perfume and adhesive for the Pharaoh’s beard in Egypt, but was also used in the Egyptian apothecary for an incense known as kyphi that was made of aged labdanum.  Fresh labdanum is a soft, sticky substance that is musky, but when it matures it becomes more fragrant. According to Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 CE) onycha had a fragrant smell and was an herb called ladana, the Arabic name for labdanum.

According to the Book of Exodus the Israelites were familiar with the ancient art of the apothecary (or perfumery) of the Egyptians from whom they had just been liberated. Labdanum was among the materials used in the Egyptian apothecary and grew in abundance in the Middle East and all the countries bordering the Mediterranean. The Book of Genesis states that merchants carried labdanum into Egypt from Gilead, and Jacob sent labdanum to Egypt as a present to his son Joseph.

Pliny states that the Ptolemies introduced labdanum into parts beyond Egypt. Labdanum was one of the ingredients listed in the ancient Egyptian Materia Medica.  An Egyptian papyrus dated 1500 BCE says that labdanum combined with hippopotamus fat was used as a cure for dandruff.  Labdanum was used by the ancient Egyptians as incense as well as in perfumes, and medicinally it was used to treat colds, coughs, menstrual problems and rheumatism.

Labdanum was known to the Greeks as early as the life time of Herodotus (484 - 425 BCE) and Theophrastus (370 - 285 BCE).  The Greek Scripture scholar Philipp Melanchton asserted that the onycha referenced in the Greek version of the Bible was Arabic ladana. The Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible defines onycha as gum resin obtained from the Rockrose.

Abrahams wrote that the Hebrew word shecheleth was properly translated as ladana or labdanum.  The renowned Jewish scholar and writer Sa
╩╗adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882-942 CE), translated the Bible into Arabic. He was a theologian and Rabbi equally versed in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Arabic who knew the customs of the whole Arabic region.  His translation for shecheleth was Arabic ladana. 

Eccesiasticus (Sirach) 24:15 alludes to a sacred incense with “a pleasant odor like the best myrrh, as galbanum, and onyx, and sweet storax.  The storax of antiquity was styrax.  The onyx very likely is onycha or labdanum, not the black gem that resembles the aged resin in color.  Myrrh was often mixed with labdanum, and over the centuries benzoin may have been added to the formula. 

Several scholars theorized that pure onycha was combined with stacte, galbanum, and frankincense to make the ketoret described in Exodus 30 for the First Temple of Solomon.  When the second temple was built benzoin resin may have been added or switched with labdanum.  In All the Plants in the Bible, Winifred Walker wrote that the onycha in Exodus 30 was labdanum, but later another onycha was used which derived from benzoin. 

In ancient times labdanum was burned to ward off illness as well as to give a room a pleasant odor.  Today labdanum is used mainly in cosmetics as a fragrance and in food and beverage as a flavor enhancer.  Medicinally it has been prescribed used for bronchitis, diarrhea, water retention (edema), hernia, tumors, leprosy, and hardening of the spleen. It is also used for loosening chest congestion, emptying the bowels, and as a stimulant.  Labdanum oil applied to the skin acts as a drying agent and stop bleeding from minor cuts.  Labdanum contains substances that kills insects and possibly bacteria and fungus as well.