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Ammoniacum. Incense of the Oracle-medicine of the people.

Ammoniacum, Ferula Tingitana, Apothecarysgarden.com

During a trip to the Mediterranean and Africa, I purchased two kilos of the aromatic resin known as Ammoniacum. They were beautiful, fragrant, fresh specimens and of rare quality.

Ammoniacum, Ferula Tingitana, Incense of the Oracle
Fresh Gum Ammoniacum from North Africa. Ferula tingitana

They were still as the harvesters had gathered them, many resinous tears pressed into as big a ball as each could manage comfortably. Though steeply priced, they were recently collected and bright with personality, fragrance and colour. There is no doubt I would have spent my last few shekels on them if I had to.

Also known as Giant Tangiers Fennel, Ferula Tingitana is a perennial plant of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. Similar in structure to wild carrot, Angelica, Anise and Lovage, (but not Fennel!)

In late spring/early summer beetles puncture the outer membrane of its hollow stalks, triggering the plant’s defence system to exude a sticky, fragrant oleo gum resin that both repels insect attackers and acts as a bandage to the wound. Commercially, the plant is wounded by harvesters who then collect the droplets when they solidify.

Ammoniacum through the ages

Ammoniacum or Gum Ammoniacum is named for its long association with the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon in Siwa. Originally located in Libya, the temple was an important religious center for the Egyptians and the ancient Greeks,

Famous throughout antiquity, the Temple of Ammon was established by the ancient desert tribes of Libya. The remains of the temple are located 500 Kilometers north of the Kebira Crater, (The source of the mysterious Libyan Desert Glass), and 500 Kilometers West of the Temple of Amun in Karnak.

Temple of Amun, Siwa, Egypt.

Once the site was absorbed by the Egyptians, it was renamed the temple of Amun Ra. Also named Amun, Amun-Re, Amon and Amen, this deity was considered King of the Gods and the God of the wind. In many ancient and modern traditions, the wind is associated with communication, ruled by the element of air, and represented on this plane by burnt offerings, the censer, and the smoke of incense.

When the ancient Greeks settled the coast of Libya around 600 BC, they named their domain Cyrene and operated the Temple and the Oracle under the auspices of their own gods, Jupiter-Ammon and Zeus-Ammon.

In Greek mythology, the Oracle of the temple of Jupiter Ammon is reputed to have instructed that Andromeda should be tied to a rock and devoured by a sea-serpent. Perseus dropped by to visit the Oracle prior to beheading Medusa, (Saving Andromeda on the way back), and Hercules visited the oracle of the temple before he fought.

Also known as Oshek or Veshek, Ammoniacum is burned till this day in the Moroccan Jewish tradition before the holy scrolls are removed from the Synagogue ark.

Horns of the Gods

Since ancient times Ammon, or Baal Hammon, was associated with ram’s horns. An association seen in Egyptian renditions of Amun Ra and through Greek and Roman times where stylized Ram’s horns are found on coins depicting the governors of Cyrene, and on the reverse a plant suspiciously reminiscent of Ammoniacum.

The temple kept its singular purpose and prominence as a divine oracle till the decline of the Roman empire. Even Alexander the Great took a detour and trekked 500 Kilometres through the deadly desert sea to consult the oracle at the Temple of Ammon. (After which he declared himself a God and had coins minted depicting himself with the Horns of Ammon).)

Ammoniacum-Dorema Ammoniacum, Apothecarysgarden.com
Dorema ammoniacum-Iran

Ferula or Dorema?

There is another aromatic resin named Ammoniacum, but it is Dorema ammoniacum and found in Iran and further north. Due to its distance both culturally and physically from the temple of Ammon, my feeling is that Ferula Tingitana was originally associated with the oracle of Ammon and not its eastern cousin Dorema.

Adding to the confusion between these 2 plants is the common name of Oshek or Veshek in Southern Mediterranean and North African communities and its modern-day reference to the resin of both species which are sometimes found in Mediterranean markets and speciality shops.

By Yan Wong from Oxford - Inflorescence,
Ferula tingitana-Ammoniacum, Gum Ammoniacum, Oshek, Veshek. Photo by Yan Wong from Oxford – Inflorescence

Medicine, Perfume and Incense

Ammoniacum has a lovely “green” fragrance, similar to, but sweeter than that of its cousin Galbanum, F. galbaniflua, which is used in perfumery. Where Galbanum has a green and very dry scent, Ammoniacum has a fragrance that could be described as golden green, fresh, penetrating, moist and nourishing.

To my nose, Ammoniacum is closest in scent to Helba, crushed Fenugreek seed. In flavour, it tastes bitter and pungent though this might be due to its high essential oil content.

Ammoniacum has been used since antiquity to treat respiratory issues, excess phlegm, Asthma, chronic coughs and bronchitis and is said to soften hard tumours when applied as a poultice. It is considered a carminative, stimulating appetite and peristalsis which could be useful for the elderly. It may have a stimulating effect on the uterus and likely should not be taken during pregnancy. I found chewing on a small piece of the resin was pleasant and had the effect of stimulating the expectoration of phlegm, easing my breathing and soothing a stubborn cough.

The infused oil of Ammoniacum may be of help in a chest rub for respiratory issues and lends a beautiful crisp golden green fragrance to oil-based perfumes. An alcohol tincture brings out more of its bright notes and burned as incense, the fragrant smoke is true to the aroma of the fresh resin with no charring or unpleasant burnt scent.

Ammoniacum can be used in similar ways to its cousin, the fetid smelling Ferula Asafoetida known as “Devil’s dung”, Stinking gum and Hing.  Cats find the fragrance of both resins repulsive and avoid them at any cost. Ammoniacum, unlike its cousin Ferula assafoetida, does not seem to reduce flatulence.

Silphium and Cyrene

There is a theory that this species of Ammoniacum may be the ancient, mysterious and sought-after Silphium which was highly esteemed for centuries, and found itself minted on many a coin. Silphium was said to grow only in the area of Cyrene, in Libya,  a hop, skip and short camel ride away from the Oracle of the Temple of Ammon.

Silphium was used as a culinary spice, a popular medicine and as an incense material. (An offering to the oracles?) Silphium was so sought after in ancient Mediterranean cultures, it may have become extinct from over-harvesting. A cautionary tale.

Sylhiumcoin1
Roman coin with a depiction of Silphium. Note the stylised ram’s horns on the left. A Ram-horned God has been consistently associated with the temple of Ammon since the time of the nomadic Libyan tribes.

Ammoniacum, according to the Silphium entry in Wikipedia-”This species has been considered to have abortive and menstruation-inducing properties.[7] The species has been suggested as a possible identity for the controversial silphium, a plant used as a spice and for various medical purposes in classical antiquity in the Mediterranean region.[8] Among the many uses of silphium was promoting menstruation, and possibly contraceptive or abortifacient properties, which has been suggested to link it to Ferula.Wikipedia.

For those who have an interest in the spiritual/esoteric aspects of this plant, I will mention that in my experience this resin can serve the same oracular functions today that it offered our ancestors. A piece the size of a lentil is all that is needed. From an Astrological point of view, I would associate it with Mercury.

You won’t find Ammoniacum in the shop. I couldn’t put a monetary value on it so I gave it away to those I thought would appreciate it the most.

 

Dan

 

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Ethical Civet, A View from the foothills

African Civet wikipedia
English: African civet
English: African civet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been almost a year since my last visit to Ethiopia, after which I wrote the post, “Ethical civet a glimpse from the mountaintop“.  I must admit, when I returned home I felt overwhelmed, as it seemed the only way a model ethical  Civet farm could be established, was if I moved to Ethiopia, built it, and ran it myself. Much as I do enjoy a creative challenge, the task felt daunting.

Today the project feels a little less challenging and not as far off in the hypothetical distance. This shift is due mainly to the support I have received the past year from around the world and to a great degree from the natural perfume and incense communities.  A network is evolving, and I believe it could help carry this project to fruition.

Since writing that post, I have found an experienced Civet farmer, willing to work with me to establish a modern civet farm that will conform to our western standards of ethics and animal welfare. I plan to visit and speak with him in the next couple of months. It may lead to a model farm, or may not, but it is a step in the right direction. A successful project would greatly benefit the farmers, the wild and captive Civets, the local economy, and, I hope, bring awareness to bear on the shrinking natural habitats of Ethiopia. It would also guarantee an ethical source of pure and unadulterated civet products for perfume and medicine.

Civet Perfume Tincture 2014
Civet Perfume Tincture 2014

Incentive to write this post today, is due in part to a link that indie perfumer Marcus McCoy of House of Orpheus, posted regarding his use of my civet tincture in his perfume, and the negative response he received.  This makes for an ideal opportunity to recap and refresh, and share the project’s progress since then.

Our western boycotting of Civet production in Ethiopia over the past decades has yielded no positive results. It has had little effect on the captive Civet’s quality of life, and the native Ethiopian Civet population continues to decline. Since starting the boycott in the 70’s, after one of WSPA expose’s, no significant change in the treatment of captive Civets has evolved. I believe it has done more harm than good, and a new approach needs to be instituted to reverse the negative impact of the boycott and create a more ethical product, while preserving the native Civet population, guaranteeing a living wage for farmers and exporters, and slowing the loss of Ethiopia’s green spaces..

An Ethiopian Civet farmer holding the ox horn vessels traditionally used to collect and clean the paste. They have been handed down for many generations and emit an extremely heady fragrance.
An Ethiopian Civet farmer holding the ox horn vessels traditionally used to collect and clean the paste. They have been handed down for many generations and emit an extremely heady fragrance.

 

 

  • What the boycott did, was create a black market for civet products, where large international perfume and traditional medicine companies could purchase Civet paste and its derivatives, through foreign buyers hidden from public view.
  • It increased our reliance on chemical fragrance replacements which present their own set of negative side effects that impact us individually and globally.
  • Through lowering the demand, the boycott created a stasis in the price of civet paste, leaving international buyers to pit exporters against each other for the lowest possible price.

Today, the civet farmers often live in abject poverty with insufficient income from the animals to properly feed and care for the Civets or their families. They cannot afford medical attention for their families or veterinary care for their animals. They are simply in no position to institute or accommodate the extensive changes we are demanding from them. Many have abandoned the practice that has been a proud tradition in their family for generations.

In short, justified as we may feel, to indignantly boycott and suspend our financial support to the traditional and cruel treatment of Civets, I believe it was more of an emotional knee-jerk response on our part, and not a well thought out and responsible action. A boycott can be an appropriate response to affect change in some cases, but it is not a universal tool of political and economic advancement. In this case it was, I believe, a poor course of action that had no positive effect on any front and caused more damage than good.

With our boycott and the absence of market demand, the efforts of the government to modernize the industry over the years have encountered ongoing resistance from the farmers who have no incentive or anticipated return forthcoming from changing their traditional methods.

The Baku agricultural mechanization center where new and human designs for Civet traps and cages have been field tested with Civet farmers over the years.
The Baku agricultural mechanization center where new and humane designs for Civet traps and cages have been field tested with Civet farmers over the years.

The farmers are tired of being studied and researched. They need a market for their product.  Something researchers and government ministries cannot promise them. This kind of incentive and motivation can only be offered by us, the western buyers. Shall we do something about this? This is the only question there is.

I believe we need to admit we made a mistake in our reaction, learn from it, and take the time to properly address the problem in a way that is beneficial to all. In my opinion, when we have a solution that creates a win, win, win situation, we are on the right path. Instead of walking away from the problem, turning our backs and withdrawing our financial support, and hoping it will somehow force others to change, which it obviously hasn’t, let’s take action.

I propose working directly with the farmers, government agencies, local and foreign institutions of higher education, researchers, ecologists, architects, forestry experts, veterinarians, animal experts, and anyone else that can contribute to a healthy, ethical and thriving industry in a developing country. We have an obvious stalemate here, and someone has to take the first step to break it.

Reliable and highly valued beasts of burden are well cared for in Ethiopia
Reliable and highly valued beasts of burden are well cared for in Ethiopia

If one takes but a moment to contemplate the ethics and standards we choose to judge others by, we must also take the time to have a good look at ourselves. As many Ethiopians point out, we, in the western world, treat our domestic food animals with no higher ethics and no less cruelty than they treat their Civets. In fact, the time honoured art of animal husbandry is something we have completely abandoned in our rush to factory-produce animal meat by the ton and feed our growing Western population at a profit. Our own “back yard” is rife with examples of horrifying treatment of our food animals which most of us manage to ignore. Ethiopian domestic animals are highly valued on many levels and treated with much greater regard than we treat our “production” animals.

Though I don’t have a solution for our poor North American treatment of animals, and I know I can’t solve any of the world’s problems singlehandedly, I think I can take one small issue that calls to me, and see if I can improve it in some small way. And this is likely all any one of us can do. These posts, the Civet paste and tincture I sell in my shop, and my journey, are an invitation for others to join in, to share and engage in this project with me in any small way they like. Every click, every view, every sale and every share, adds momentum to change. Every conversation stimulated, whether for or against it, brings change closer.

We can’t sit back and wait for others to make the changes in our world. This passive approach only sets us up as victims of the system, leaving us spending more time complaining and pointing fingers at what is wrong, than doing anything to address the problems. We have much more power as individuals than we realize.

As the internet grows, and our technology advances, we are more empowered as global citizens than ever before. Today with the least amount of effort, we are able to create the greatest amount of change anywhere in the world. All it takes are a few well-chosen clicks of a mouse.

The big companies monitor and heed our every click. Our small choices colour the world’s markets and global trends. They even influence the political and economic tides around us. We can complain about this infringement of privacy, as most of us do, or we could use it to our benefit. Every time we click the mouse every time we purchase something, it is noted, recorded and taken into account. Every time we click we’re changing the world individually just a little bit. But what we don’t always see, is that the accumulative power of all these individual choices can be world-changing.

Preparing Civet perfume absolute from the raw paste. Professor Dagne's lab in Addis Ababa
Preparing Civet perfume absolute from the raw paste. Professor Dagne’s lab in Addis Ababa

You don’t need to be a perfumer, you don’t have to know what Civet smells like or ever want to smell it. You don’t even have to like perfume. All you need is the urge to do something to make the world a better place, to benefit someone other than yourself. A desire to contribute to something larger than yourself, and all it takes is a conscious click of the mouse, a tap on your phone.

If we clicked less on cute cat videos and games, lurked a bit less on Facebook, and asked ourselves how could we better use our time on our phones and computers, it would be a worthy act of awareness and self-improvement to change our surfing habits to more productive and creative expressions of our higher ideals. Our power nowadays is far beyond what we ever imagined.

So, I say, let’s support the farmers, let’s buy their products, work with them, and give them the means to create a new model from an outdated industry. Let’s not just wait for something to change on its own. If it hasn’t happened till now, it ain’t gonna happen. Ever.

Let’s stop the decline in the Civet population and perhaps even take a little step in saving the disappearing forests and green spaces of Ethiopia. We live in a tiny, lush, apothecary’s garden in a vast galaxy that provides us all our food, fragrance and medicine. Let’s all take care of it. Believe me, Ethiopia is not as distant as we like to think. Let’s pay the farmers more for their product, not less as we have till now, not because they’re asking but because it’s the way it should be.

Let’s give this ancient and rarest of Nature’s treasures the value and esteem that it deserves, and give the farmers the rewards and return they should see for their efforts regardless of what country they live in, or how poor their economy is. I have no doubt we will quickly see our animal welfare standards manifest on the other end. But, nothing will happen till we are willing to work with each other.

Dan
P.S. if you are not sure what to do next. Below, you will see a plethora of clickable buttons. Take your pick. Go wild. “Like”, Tweet, Repost, Reblog, Share, leave a comment or come browse my shop on the right. Have fun and know, every click counts, and you can make a difference in the world.

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Frankincense-Boswellia Papyrifera

 

Until recently, in our North American market, there was little choice as far as the type of Frankincense resin or essential oil one could buy. Religious, occult, and “new age” stores, aromatherapy and natural perfume shops offered only Frankincense Sacra or Carterii. (These 2 types are often synonymous with each other and whether they are the same or different species is still a popular topic for researchers and other experts in the field). As recent as the last decade or so there has there been an increase in the types of Frankincense one could easily acquire here. I assume this is in part to the increase in interest in aromatherapy and natural perfumes, the “Global Village” phenomenon and the integration and growth of African, Asian and Mediterranean communities in North America.

Frankincense
Frankincense (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Likely Boswellia Sacra/Carterii.

Though the Boswellia family contains over 20 different species of Frankincense, there are only 6 or 7 types that are readily available commercially.

 

A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia- Papyrifera, Neglecta, Frereana, Rivae, Carterii/Sacra Apothecarysgarden.com
A visual comparison of 5 types of Frankincense-Boswellia

Frankincense has been a valuable commodity and a very important part of our global cultures, religions and trade for thousands of years, highly valued for its medicinal ceremonial and esthetic uses, it is only recently that the different types of Frankincense have been examined closely and their unique chemical compositions studied. Until a short time ago there had been much confusion as to which chemical compounds were attributed to the individual species of Frankincense. Samples purchased from merchants for study were not directly taken from identified trees, and some research results were associated with the wrong species. This has been corrected and now one can look back on earlier valuable research and with an understanding of the proper chemical markers associated with each species, identify the correct oleo-resin on which the studies were based.

 

” Although the gum resin of B. Papyrifera coming from Ethiopia, Sudan and E. Africa is believed to be the main source of frankincense of antiquity (Tucker, 1986), there was until recently a great deal of confusion in the literature regarding the chemical analysis of its resin as well as of the essential oil derived from it by steam or hydro distillation. This was mainly due to the fact that analyses were done on commercial samples without establishing the proper botanical identity of the true source of the resin.”, on Boswellia Papyrifera, Aritiherbal.com.

 

Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type
Boswellia Papyrifera, Frankincense Tigray type
Ethiopia 2013

Some sound and exiting research studies conducted over the past few decades had reached the right conclusions, but for the wrong trees and oleo-resins, which compounded the confusion. Now that correct chemical markers are assigned to the different species of Frankincense, we find among other critical identifying markers, that Boswellia Papyrifera has the unique chemical markers Incensole and Incensole Acetate that distinguish it from the other types of Frankincense.

Frankincense Boswellia Serrata is well known in India for its healing medicinal properties in Ayurvedic medicine. Boswellia Serrata resin extract shows great promise in the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and asthma. Among other characteristic chemicals it contains Boswellic acid which has been linked to anti-tumour and anti-cancer activity. I hope to elaborate on the chemical composition and medicinal applications of Boswellia Serrata in a future post.

 

 Indian frankincense  Boswellia Serrata

 

Boswellia Frereana is another unique type of Frankincense now more readily available commercially in North American markets. It grows mostly in Somalia, Yemen and Kenya and is widely used locally for ritual and medicine. In Somalia it is called “Meydi” and is burned daily in the home after meals and used to odorize ones clothing. It is sometimes called “Yemenite Chewing Gum”. Boswellia Frereana is composed mostly of resins and essential oils and contains very little water-soluble gum, this makes it especially suited to the purpose of chewing gum, because the resin and oils are not water soluble it does not dissolve or break down in the mouth, it softens when chewed, and can be masticated for long periods of time, cleaning teeth, massaging gums and freshening the breath with its essential oils. Its unusually low gum content, relative to other types of Frankincense can be seen in this chart of solubility courtesy of Ariti Herbal in Addis Ababa. Another way this high ratio of oleo-resins to gums can be verified is noting the way Frankincense Frereana melts and is absorbed into a hot incense charcoal, leaving nearly no carbon residue and emitting very little of the traditional burnt odor other types of Frankincense do. This charred remnant is a result of the water soluble gums burning and some historic references cite this charred portion of Frankincense as an ingredient in traditional middle eastern Kohl, eye liner, along with Antimony and other ingredients.

 

Boswellia, Frankincense Frereana. Called Yeminite chewing gum.
Containing almost no water-soluble gum, Frankincense Frereana does not dissolve when masticated, for this reason is used as an all natural chewing gum. It is composed mainly of resin and essential oils.

Ethiopia is home to three commercially important types of Frankincense, none of which had been easily available in North America till recently. Boswellia Papyrifera, or Tigray type from the north, Boswellia Rivae also called the Ogaden type from the south east Ogaden area and Boswellia Neglecta from the Borena area of Ethiopia. All are used locally and are commercially important resources. Their wood is used for fuel, construction and furniture, the bark for incense and medicine and the oleo-resins are used among other things, to produce bases for varnishes and adhesives, essential oils, absolutes for perfume, and as incense and medicine. Boswellia Papyrifera is by far the most extensively used oleo-resin locally and abroad. It is used in Ethiopian households daily as incense and in their traditional coffee ceremonies, it is the choice incense of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is also used locally as an insect repellent and for medicine. It has been the Frankincense of choice by Churches and religious institutions all over the world for hundreds if not thousands of years. Both Boswellia Rivae and Boswellia Neglecta deserve their own segment here, so I will leave their detailed descriptions for another day and focus on Boswellia Papyrifera .

 

Boswellia Papyrifera is distinguished from other types of Frankincense by the presence of large amounts of Octyl Acetate and Octanol and two other unusual and unique chemical markers, Incensole and Incensole Acetate. Studies have shown that Incensole Acetate affects our central nervous system and posesses psychoactive properties. According to studies, Incensole Acetate can generate heightened feelings of well being and spirituality, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression and improve memory function. Other research has indicated that Incensole Acetate shows neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties and indicates it may be of use in cases of stroke and head trauma. It is presumed that Incensole and Incensole Acetate are absorbed by the body through the smoke released during the burning of Frankincense as an incense. One can see how this might be an ideal incense for spiritual/religious purposes in churches and temples.

 

The discovery of Incensole and Incensole Acetate as identifying chemical markers of Boswellia Papyrifera goes a long way to bolster the theory that Frankincense Papyrifera is indeed the true Olibanum and “Frank”(True) Incense of ancient times and scripture. Employing an incense that has psychoactive properties and elicits altered states of mind during ritual and ceremony, would make this incense a very valuable commodity to churches and other religious establishments, and would require a special knowledge to discern between regular non psychoactive incense and the true, or Frank-incense. This would be a valuable skill when one purchased such an exotic and expensive imported item for church use. Oleo resins such as Frankincense and Myrrh were at times worth their weight in gold, they were hard to come by, growing only in Ethiopia they would travel by caravan, ship, boat, donkey, horse or camel, or all the above often for many months. They would exchange hands many times before they reached their final destination which could often be thousands of miles away. One can safely assume, because of their value and scarcity in most parts of the world, they would run a real risk of being adulterated or replaced along the way with other less expensive materials for the profit of those that traded in such items. This would lend even more weight to the need to be able to identify the “true” incense from other types. The Frank-incense.

 

Boswellia Rivae, has a distinct haunting, rich and deep fragrance. The resin stands out in its aroma, fresh, as well as when burned as incense. The essential oil is a sweet, compelling, mysterious and complex mix that brings to mind mystery, magic and ancient sacred places. It has a surprising sweet note reminiscent of Palo Santo, unexpected in a Frankincense essential oil.
Frankincense. Boswellia Rivae
Frankincense. Boswellia Rivae
Boswellia Neglecta; Is another unusual Frankincense from Ethiopia. It is a delight burned as an incense, grounding and elevating. It has a pine like component which nicely rounds out an incense or Bakhoor mix. The essential oil of Frankincense Neglecta is also grounding, earthy & sweet. More stimulating than relaxing. The essential oil and oleo-resin have a boldness that makes them quite a different experience than the Boswellia Sacra/Carterii we have gotten used too.
Dan