Thursday, November 2, 2017

On the Use of Stacte

Stacte (Styrax officinalis) known in Hebrew as nataph was one of the components used in the ketoret incense in Solomon's Temple incense (Exodus 30:34).  According to the recipe in scripture stacte was to be mixed in equal parts with onycha, galbanum and frankincense for burning on the altar of the tabernacle. This incense was considered restricted for sacred purposes honoring Yahweh; the trivial or profane use of it was punishable by exile, as laid out in Exodus 30:34-38.

The Hebrew word nataph means “drop” as in a drop of water (see Job 36:27). The Septuagint translates nataph as stacte, a Greek word meaning “an oozing substance” similar to myrrh.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel wrote, “Stacte is simply the sap that drips from the tapping of the wood of the balsam tree,” but balsam could be a variety of trees, so that explanation is not helpful.  Stacte might come from Commiphora myrrh, Styrax benzoin or Styrax officinalis.  Cant. 5:5 reads, “I rose up to open to my beloved; And my hands dropped with myrrh, And my fingers with stacte.”

The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus described extracting stacte. “From the myrrh, when it is bruised flows an oil; it is in fact called "stacte" because it comes in drops slowly.”  The ancient Roman historian Pliny described stacte as, “the liquid which exuded naturally from the myrrh tree before the gum was collected from man-made incisions.” Pancirollus described stacte as a drop of myrrh, which is extracted from it, and yields a most precious liquid.  Dioscorides wrote that stacte was made from myrrh and described the process of manufacturing it.  The sap of a bruised myrrh was dissolved over a fire.  Then hot water was poured over it so that it would sink to the bottom like a deposit.  As soon as that occurred, the water could be strained off leaving the sediment to be squeezed in a press into an oil of high quality.

Stoddart wrote that “Stacte is the thinnest moiety of myrrh forced through tiny holes in the intact bark at the start of spring.”  Pomet wrote that to obtain it one must first gather the myrrh that flows spontaneously from the tree in the right season.  Stacte is the liquid found middle of the lumps or clots of myrrh.”  It must be gathered gently from the myrrh tree and made into oil with great care.  A royal tribute to Antiochus III in 205 BCE included one thousand talents of frankincense and two hundred of stacte myrrh.  

In his scholarly research paper Stacte in Egyptian Antiquity, R. Stein also claimed that stacte was the product of the myrrh tree in ancient Egypt.  However, some scholars assert that stacte cannot be from Commiphora myrrh because the Talmud refers to the storax plant as the source of the holy incense used for the temple services.  The ancient book of Jubilees, part of the dead Sea scroll collection, also refers to storax.  The botanical name storax is linguistically related to the Hebrew word for myrrh tsori.  Styrax benzoin or Styrax officinalis are the two types of storax found in Egypt and the Middle East.

Stacte was used by the ancient Egyptians in the art of perfumery and incense. All the compounds in benzoin resin were detected in an archaeological examination of residue from an ancient Egyptian censer, leading to the conclusion that benzoin resin was burned as incense in ancient Egypt.  H.J. Abrahams states that it is highly likely that benzoin was the incense referred to in the Bible. Arabian tribes maintained extensive trade routes trading benzoin throughout the Holy Land during the Old Testament era.  The Hindustanis also burned benzoin in their temples.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. 35 With it you shall make incense, a perfume, the work of a perfumer, salted, pure, and holy.” (Exodus 30:34-35).  The yield of resin obtained from Commiphora myrrh and Styrax officinalis is extremely small, and large amounts of the stacte mentioned in Exodus would have been needed for liturgical purposes, especially in the first temple period, Styrax benzoin produces a much larger yield and is of the same genus as Styrax officinalis.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote in the 5th century BCE that several different kinds of storax were traded in the Middle East, and any sap that dripped from the branches of a balsam or a variety of pleasantly scented gum trees was viable for trade. Dioscordes identified two kinds of stacte: one from myrrh and one from storax.   It seems, therefore, that the stacte mentioned in Exodus does come from myrrh, but it also comes from various other trees such as Styrax benzoin or Styrax officinalis depending on avaiability.  An ancient Egyptian perfume formula from 1200 BCE contained “storax, labdanum, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, honey, raisins.” 

Ecclesiasticus 24:15 in the King James Bible lists storax as one of the ingredients when alluding to the sacred incense of the biblical tabernacle.  “I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and aspalathus, and I yielded a pleasant odour like the best myrrh, as galbanum, and onyx, and sweet storax, and as the fume of frankincense in the tabernacle.”

According to Rosenmuller, stacte was myrrh and another more fragrant oil mixed together, leading to another assumption that it not one or the other, but both substances together that comprise the myrrh used in the temple.  Dioscorides wrote in another place that stacte was “a composition of myrrh and some other ingredient” and later explained it was a mix of two oils. Dioscordes defined stacte as Styrax and another substance and in another place as Myrrh and another substance.  For centuries since myrrh has been scented with Styrax benzoin, particularly in the Middle East, to scent private homes and places of worship.

Adding to the confusion about the substance, some writers believe that stacte was derived from the balsam tree (Commiphora opobalsamum) that is called kataf in the Talmud.  This tree grows wild in Yemen and around Mecca.  The Revised Standard Version of the Bible places “opobalsamum” in the margin by the quote in Exodus 30:34. Balsam and Myrrh are both from the same genus Commiphora.  Irenaeus referred to myrrh as opobalsumum.  Sap exudes spontaneously from both trees during the heat of summer, in resinous drops, but at other times the process is helped by making incisions in the bark.  Opobasumum produces a resin with many medicinal properties and is far more aromatic than the astringent sap of Commiphora myrrha.

Styrax officinalis is a beautiful shrub that is abundant on the lower hills of Israel.  It reaches the height of a good-sized tree when full grown and in full bloom the blossoms make it look as though it is covered with a light fall of snow.  Incisions are made in the branches so that the resin can be gathered in reeds, left to harden and scraped together with drops of myrrh to make an incense used in Roman Catholic Church services.  Originally native to throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe, the shrub was brought to other parts of the world and cultivated. 

The genus Styrax includes130 species of large shrubs or small trees in the family Styracaceae, mostly native to warm temperate to tropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the majority in eastern and southeastern Asia, but also crossing the equator in South America.  In California it has been naturalized as Styrax officinalis californica or the Snowdrop Bush.  The resin obtained from Styrax is called storax or benzoin.  Since the Middle Ages benzoin resins mostly come from Southeast Asia where it is less expensive and more readily available.  There is little international trade in resin from Styrax officinalis.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote c.440 BCE that “they gathered frankincense by burning that storax which Phoenicians carry to Hellas.  They burn this and so get the frankincense for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied color, many around each tree.  These are the snakes that attack Egypt. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.”

Storax resin was important in Islamic medicine.  Avicenna discusses the use of it as a mixed with other antibiotic substances and hardening agents as dental restorative material in Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Law of Medicine).  Dissolved in alcohol it was highly used in 19th-century European cosmetics and other household purposes.  Because of its antibacterial properties it was used on small injuries as a disinfectant and as a local anesthetic to promote healing. Benzoin resin and its derivatives are also used as additives in cigarettes.  The antibiotic activity of the resin is mostly due to the presence of benzoic acid and benzoic acid esters and secondary compounds such as lignans like pinoresinol.

Today benzoin resin from Southeast Asia is employed in pharmaceutical preparations, and as a flavoring agent and fragrance. Benzoin Siam is obtained from Styrax tonkinensis, found across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Benzoin Sumatra is obtained from Styrax benzoin which grows predominantly on the island of Sumatra. Siam benzoin is used in the flavor and fragrance industries as a fixative, slowing the dispersion of essential oils and other fragrance materials into the air.  It is used in cosmetics, veterinary medicine, and scented candles, and as a flavoring in alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, baked goods, chewing gum, frozen dairy, gelatins, puddings, and soft candy.