Mar 04 , 2015
The story of the plants of Biblical lands is better understood when we appreciate what a significant region this has been since before the earliest written record. This area, known as the Fertile Crescent is the meeting point of the African, Asian, and European continents and has commanded a huge role in the development of the modern world. What makes this even more remarkable is how small the Bible lands were. What we know today as the Syria-Lebanon-Jordan-Palestine-Egypt-Sinai region is roughly the size of New York and Maryland. There may be no other land area on earth of this small size that offers the variety of climates and phytogeography that the Biblical lands offer. Compare the snow-capped mountains 10,000 feet high near Teheran to the Dead Sea which is 1292 feet below sea level. There are tropics, lush meadows, coastal regions, sand dunes, deserts and last but not least, the fertile Nile River delta and valley. This huge variety of climates and geography contributed to the early success of inhabitants of this land developing crops and animal husbandry. These variations encouraged a huge selection of flora.
The names of plants mentioned in our modern translations of the Bible are not as accurate as we might assume. Actually there is no other botanical topic that has been explored in this extreme detail, by so many scholars and for so many centuries as the plants of the Bible. However, the original writers of the Bible were not botanists or natural historians. Botany as a science wasn’t developed until much later in history and the writers of the Scriptures were focused upon other concepts involving morality and theology. These ancient authors were certainly keenly interested in plants of their land but without consistent botanical nomenclature in place, plant names originally written and then translated many times were not reliable.
Since the very earliest translations, every word of the Bible, including every mention of a plant has been exhaustively discussed and debated. As translations were written and the Bible was first distributed to many different countries, translators did not realize that the same plants were not present in all countries of the world. Without knowing that different plants occur in different countries due to variations such as climate, altitude and soil content, scholars and theologians first spent considerable effort to discover the origin of the Hebrew plant name then searched their homelands of France, Germany, England and other countries of Europe and North America for plants described by ancient writers of Rome, Greece and Arabia. Even more amusing to us today is their effort to scour the scriptures attempting to find descriptions of the plants growing in their northern countries. It wasn’t until 1757 that the first book was published on the observations of Biblical plants by a naturalist actually exploring the Holy Land. At the time of this publication scholars and museum visitors were already lamenting there was more natural history information about the rest of the world, even the most remote parts of India, than there was about the Bible lands.
Compounding the difficulty of plant identification even after it became common knowledge that lands contained their own unique groups of native plants is the fact that many native plants had already disappeared from the Holy Land or dwindled to small traces because of environmental changes due to over-cultivation and destruction of forests. As far back as 700 B.C. the land has suffered not only from natives using the resources but also repeated invasions resulting in many more populations occupying this small area. This can be better appreciated when you compare 3000 to 4000 years of cultivation on the Bible land to the how much the United States has changed in the last 300 years from expanding population and cultivation. Today plants from all over the world now grow in these areas but only some of the original plants are still evident. Parts of the Holy Land, once called the land of milk and honey, used to be crowded with date palms and cedars that now have to be carefully cultivated and protected by various governments.
Some may be disappointed to learn that Hyssop, Calamus, Rose, Lily, Blue Vervain, Elm, Sycamore, Chestnut and Willow are plants of European and American countries. These did not grow in Biblical lands in ancient times. It’s not uncommon to see paintings of Biblical figures with cactus in the background. Cactus is a plant native to the Americas and most definitely did not grow in Biblical areas until quite recently. It’s important to realize that some material of the Old Testament was actually poetry, folksongs and ballads passed on through generations for many hundreds of years before being written down. Much of this dates back to before written language existed, possibly covering time periods as early as 4000 B.C. Some sections of the Old Testament were written by 400 B.C. with other parts continuing to be completed by the 10th century B.C. Many scribes contributed and some stories were verbal for many hundreds of years, were written in parts and finished by others. It can be understood why plant terminology is not clear. Many translations have contributed to the problem as well. The Hebrew Bible was first translated into the Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. but the oldest Hebrew text now known to us is thought to have been written between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. The Authorized Version of King James, completed in 1611, has greatly perpetuated the botanical confusion because of the popularity and wide distribution of this English translation. Sadly, botany was not fully developed at this time in history.
Some of the aromatic medicinal plants that were present or in significant use during these times include Cassia, Cinnamon, Galbanum, Frankincense, Myrrh and Spikenard. Aromatics and herbs have played a large influential role in health, healing, religion, lifestyle and business since the beginning of recorded history. They were imported and exported between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe during Biblical times. Just the pursuit and trade in these exotics alone changed the destinies of nations and civilizations. These precious plant products were of vital importance to every aspect of ancient life and were important trade commodities. They were used for medicine, sacrificial or religious items, cosmetics, embalming and in place of currency for exchange of commodities or services. Eventually trade opened up between Eastern and Western countries facilitating cultural exchange of religion and lifestyle and also leading to the discovery of new lands including the Americas.
Trade in these precious aromatics was big business. While some of these aromatics were abundant and relatively easy to harvest, the long and difficult transport to the neighboring countries was what made them so expensive. The oldest known incense route was thought to be 2,400 miles long. The Spice Kingdom vigorously thrived during 1500 – 500 B.C. in aromatics, spices from the Far East, gold, pearls and precious stones from India, ivory and Myrrh from East Africa. Arabia greatly prospered during the time of 2000 B.C. up to the first century A.D. transporting these valuable goods to other countries. Frankincense was one of Arabia's most valuable domestic products, was in great demand as incense and was carried along what was known as the "Incense Route" to the markets of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome. Geographically the Arabians were in the middle between the buyers and suppliers of these precious items. As middlemen they easily had quite a monopoly on these exotics. The Greek influence extended to many areas during the last few centuries B.C. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the Greek trade route eventually became known as the "Silk Road".
Today just a few hundred tons of Frankincense is produced annually but in the heyday of incense aromatics around 300 B.C., 3000 tons of Frankincense alone was exported. In 300 B.C. a Greek historian and traveler recorded that a 1000 talents, which today is about 98,422 pounds, was the annual tribute given to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It was for ceremonial use in the great temple of Baal. The immense quantities of these aromatics produced, traded and stockpiled during this time of history also show just how profuse their use was at ancient burials. Bodies were anointed, embalmed and aromatics were wrapped within burial clothes. The Romans were the most avid users of aromatics and in 66 A.D. as a measure of his grief, the emperor Nero is said to have burned a year's supply of Rome's cinnamon at his wife's funeral rites as well as more incense (probably Frankincense) than Arabia could produce in ten years. Another aspect that is considered is that perhaps huge amounts of these highly pungent and fragrant substances were actually needed for preparation of the deceased in these warm weather climates, so that mourners could be near and participate in the burial rites.
Pleasant fragrance was valued during biblical days as the Bible has numerous mentions of the use of aromatic spices and resins. Unpleasant odors were thought to be evil but clean, beautiful scents were associated with purity and goodness. From this belief a demand was established for these aromatics to be used ceremoniously to please the ancient gods and banish evil spirits, insects and pests. The Dead Sea Scrolls stated that on the Sabbath every person should wash their clothes and then rub them with Frankincense. Every Sabbath day the holy bread was placed on the altar along with Frankincense in the Tabernacle. It was thought that the rising smoke of incense formed a link between the people and their gods in heaven. Incense was burned for several reasons: as a sacrifice to God, sacrifice to a dead person, to honor a living person, for the forgiveness of sins, to ward off evil spirits and as a pleasant or festive fragrance at banquets and events. Illness was thought to be caused by evil spirits.
Starting from 4000 B.C. nearly all the ancient records concerning medicine, perfume and incense, from many countries including the Bible books included Frankincense and Myrrh. It is the resin that is collected from these small, unimpressive shrub like trees. These gum resins and other aromatic parts of other plants were sometimes soaked or infused in animal or vegetable fat. The fat acted as a solvent and extracted many of the natural, medicinal constituents of the plant material including the scent. Ointments or salves were made utilizing this method as well as ungent cones which were placed on top of a person’s head as depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The heat of the day caused the cone to slowly melt down over the hair and upper body. Essential oils, produced by distillation, of these same aromatics are in popular use today but there is no evidence that distillation took place on a scale that would have allowed for essential oils to be in use during these ancient times. Regrettably, aromatherapy authors often refer to essential oil use during Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras. Undoubtedly, the ointments and ungents were skillfully made so strong that their aroma was certainly therapeutic.
Frankincense, Boswellia carteri, salves and plasters were used to heal sores or wounds, many cosmetic products were made including a hair lacquer from fresh Frankincense gum used to hold elaborate hair styles in place. For broken limbs the soft gum of Frankincense was placed between layers of bark that molded to the shape of the limb when the resin hardened. The bark and resin were boiled and taken as tea for fevers, tumors, gastrointestinal problems, syphilis, urinary infections and as an antidote for arrow poison. As an aid during pregnancy, it helped morning sickness, eased labor and healed after birth. Today Frankincense is highly regarded for respiratory complaints especially because of its bronchodilation ability, strong infection fighting action and as a soothing agent for coughs. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the pills and tea are used for menstrual pain, skin problems, leprosy and cancer. In more parts of the world today the alcohol extract is showing great promise as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis. Many of the ancient aromatics including Frankincense were used for embalming. Plants that preserved as well as they did for this historical purpose can easily be shown to be of great value for preserving the beauty of the skin. Frankincense happens to be famous for its cell regenerating effect, making it a premier ingredient for moisturizing lotions, facials as well explaining part of its wound healing and scar reduction benefit. Today the essential oil of Frankincense is commonly used for colds, flu, asthma, cosmetics and wound healing. The intensely fragrant essential oil is also greatly beneficial for its relaxing, grounding effect when inhaled. It’s not hard to imagine a substance that deepens the breath would be an integral part of a religious ceremony. Frankincense was quite probably the most significant ceremonial aromatic, possibly because of this profound calming effect. The word Frankincense means ‘true incense’.
Myrrh, Commiphora myrrha, gum resin was thought to be even more medicinal than Frankincense. It was used ceremoniously but used more as medicine compared to Frankincense. It was and still is a cure-all for mouth and gum problems. Ancient texts list it as a treatment for just about everything including delirium, epilepsy, paralysis, fatigue, palsy, gout, coughs, constipation and dysentery. Famous for wound healing, Myrrh is also a strong infection fighting agent and cell regenerator. For ladies it was considered a tonic for the uterus, helped fertility and menstrual irregularities and even uterine tumors. Popular modern uses include the powder, alcohol extract and essential oil used for wound healing, as an antifungal agent and helps to stop excess mucus in respiratory problems.
Cassia, Cinnamomum cassia, and Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, cousins from the
Far East that smell similar to each other, were some of the earliest recorded spices. Cassia is actually what America calls cinnamon and in Britain when you buy a jar of Cinnamon at the market it is actually the true cinnamon (C. zeylanicum). The pursuit of Cinnamon from another source besides Ceylon indirectly led to the discovery of the Americas. At the time of Biblical activity in the Fertile Crescent Cinnamon and Cassia bark were used medically in many of the same ways as Frankincense and Myrrh for the digestive and respiratory systems as well as treating infections. Their strong beautiful aroma was revered for ceremonial use with numerous mentions of them in the Bible. The herb itself and the essential oils are used today to treat the same problems. Cassia powder is gaining interest after studies recently proved it can lower blood sugar. Just a half-teaspoon a day taken in the diet or in capsules is all that is needed. These essential oils are irritating to the skin so are mostly used for inhalation, mouthwashes, toothpastes and as flavoring.
The earliest civilizations used Galbanum, Ferula galbaniflua, for incense, embalming, treating wounds and skin problems and as medicine for many other major body systems. Galbanum is a large perennial herb from which today an oleoresin is harvested, dried and then distilled to produce the essential oil. The essential oil is considered valuable for supporting the health of the skin as well as comforting the respiratory system and muscular/skeletal system. It's actions are skin cell regenerating, analgesic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic. Essential oils have quite a reputation for healing the spirit and Galbanum has been successful for calming emotional extremes, fostering a feeling of balance, good for nervous tension, erratic moods, even used as a treatment for hysteria and paranoia, it aids meditation, and is thought to help resolve old problems of emotional nature.
Spikenard, Nardostachys jatamansi, also known as Nard, was an expensive aromatic from India that was often exported in sealed alabaster boxes where it was used as perfume and as a circulatory remedy. During Biblical days, when the master of the house received guests the seal of the alabaster box would be broken and the honored guests would be anointed with this highly prized ointment. The ancient Hebrews and Romans used Spikenard ceremonially to bury the dead. Today the fragrant root of this plant, which is closely related to Valerian, is distilled to produce the essential oil. Spikenard can be used to comfort the skin but its most popular uses are inhalation for counteracting stress, anxiety and for religious purposes where even today it is applied as anointing oil.
Great benefit can be gained by incorporating these essential oils into your lifestyle. A few drops (maximum 15) can be added to your bath water or maximum of 15 drops to an ounce of vegetable oil or aloe gel for body lotions. For face products use only 3-5 drops essential oil in an ounce of vegetable oil. Stress may be one of biggest factors contributing to the occurrence of minor illness and major disease. The stress reduction benefits of these historical old world aromatics is enough incentive to begin to explore their use in daily life. I feel I greatly benefit from the diffusing these essential oils around my house, in aromatic baths and using them in my body care products, soaps and shampoos. To have a concept of how significant these exotics have been in shaping the world as we know it today aids in appreciation of their scents. For me their pungent, resinous scents evoke a sense of awareness of ancient earth and give instant stabilizing comfort. It is often during rushed moments when we wash our hands or put on hand lotion. When I perceive these aromas at those times it helps me to remember what is important in life.
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Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
Lawless, Julia. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books Limited. 1995.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Moldenke, Alma L. Plants of the Bible. New York: Dover Publishing, Inc. 1986.
Rosengarten, Frederic. The Book of Spices. New York: Pyramid Books. 1973.
Sheppard-Hanger, Sylla. The Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual, Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Tampa: Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy. 1997.
Watt, Martin and Sellar, Wanda. Frankincense & Myrrh. Essex, England: The C.W. Daniel Company Ltd. 1996.
Cheryl has twice been president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). She has been the aromatherapy consultant for Time Life Books, served as a member of the Botanicals Workgroup of the Complementary Health Committee for the BJC Health System, lectures for Washington University Medical School, St. Louis University Medical School, St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis Community College, Meramec and Missouri Botanical Garden. She has studied herbalism and aromatherapy since 1976.
She spent 11 years in Asia as Principal French Horn of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and has studied natural healing with international practitioners of the herbal arts. She now plays frequently with the St. Louis Symphony and many other local groups. Since 1991 she has been owner of Cheryl’s Herbs an international wholesale/retail/mail order supplier of over 5000 highest quality herbal & aromatherapy products. The goal at Cheryl's Herbs is to make it easier and more convenient for you to have a more natural and healthy lifestyle.