Monday, April 25, 2011
Making Kyphi or Kapet, the Egyptian traditional temple incense.
I first encountered Kapet, or Kyphi as it was known by the Greeks, when one of my previous Coven Sisters made it as a gift for a Sabbat ritual. I was very intrigued with the idea of a recipe that takes nearly 2 weeks to complete, adding each ingredient at the proper time. Her version required the addition of one resin or spice per day. It made me think that great care and possibly meditation was required of the clergy who crafted such an expensive and time consuming incense. After New Years, I was researching lotus oils and Egyptian sources when I came across Kyphi again. I was immediately inspired to learn more about the history of Egyptian incense, compare various recipes, and attempt to craft my own. It has been an exciting and aromatic journey!
Ancient Egyptians burned incense in large quantities every day. It was thought to be integral to health and fortunes of both the living and the dead. Kapet, or Kyphi as it was known to the Greeks, was one of the most popular varieties of ancient incense and has been used since at least the Old Kingdom. According to Plutarch, ancient Egyptians burned frankincense in the morning, myrrh at midday, and Kyphi in the evening. In Heliopolis, Kyphi was burned in the evening to honor Ra and the Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest religious text.
The most sacred of the ancient Egyptian incenses was called Kyphi, or “Welcome to the Gods.” High priests concocted Kyphi during secret, chant-filled temple ceremonies. The incense was said to consist of “things that delight in the night.” Green historian Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) wrote that smelling Kyphi was like “listening to beautiful music.” He also described it as having the power to “rock a person to sleep, brighten dreams, and chase away the troubles of the day.”
Various resins, woods, oils, and spices were so highly prized that a case can be made that many military campaigns were motivated by the desire to dominate the trade and sources of such luxery items. Some of the ingredients were home-grown, but many had to be imported. Hatshepsut recorded a trading expedition to Punt on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. The expedition was a great success, delivering aromatic woods and spices for the creation of incense and perfume. This expedition was also a great public relations coup because the Egyptians favoured exotic imported fragrances like myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, cassia and galbanum. The Egyptians tried to establish their own frankincense trees, but were not very successful. Wood was also in short supply in Egypt, and they were particularly fond of cedar wood from the Levant. Balsomon (probably Mecca balsam) can be found in southern Arabia and eastern Africa. They also sought flowers such as iris, lotus (water lily), lemongrass, and rose.
There were many recipes of Kyphi. The Greek physician Dioscorides recorded a recipe for Kyphi incense in his book “Materia Medica”. Manetho reputedly composed a book named “Preparation of Kyphi Recipes”, but unfortunately no copies of this book have ever been found. There are a number of different recipes recorded in inscription (for example in the temples of Edfu and Philae) and on papyrus (such as the Ebers Papyrus c. 1500 BCE). These have anywhere from twelve to over fifty ingredients. The Edfu text involves blending and aging of sixteen ingredients in a specific order over sixteen days.
While some incense ingredients in ancient Egypt were ground and thrown directly onto hot coals, Kyphi was a time consuming mixture molded into pellets, cured over time, and then burned. This would be made with a mixture of dried fruit (such as raisins or dates), papyrus rind, honey, and wine to which the expensive resins and spices would be added.
Kyphi was believed to have many benefits including:
-healing snake bites
-curing bad breath
-enhance sleep and cause vivid dreams
-aid in meditation
-cure many poisons
-act as an antiseptic
My Kyphi Recipe:
After considering several different recipes and approaches I settled for this one. Some called for adding one ingredient per day over a two week period. Others blended the dry ingredients in one container, the wet in the other and let these sit for two weeks. I went with the later approach and am very pleased with the outcome. I spent several hours hand grinding my spices and resins (my mother wondered what was going on upstairs because I was using my marble mortar and pestle while sitting on the floor lol!). It was a workout.
The dry ingredients:
- 3 parts frankincense resin
- 2 parts myrrh resin
- 2 parts gum arabic
- 1 part dragons blood resin
- 1/2 part copal resin
- 1/2 part galangal root
- 1/2 part cinnamon
- 1/2 part cedar wood
- 1/2 part orris root
The wet ingredients:
- 1 part juniper berries (I had half berries and half fronds)
- 3 cups of raisins
- 1 cup of chopped dates
- 1/2 cup of honey
- 1/4 cup of red wine
- couple drops of lotus oil
Note: some recipes, but not all, also called for sandalwood and storax.
Each of these bowls of ingredients were mixed well and kept in an air tight container for two weeks, stirring occassionally. The fruits sucked up all the liquid, becoming plump and easy to smash. When I finally blended the two together, it smelled heavenly! It made a sticky dark paste which I rolled into small balls about 1" in diameter. Some recipes called for this size, pea sized, or even small cone shapes. These were then rolled in powdered benzoin and left to airdry on wax paper for nearly two more weeks. Then it was time to wrap them individually in cheesecloth and store them in a large airtight container. Apparently, the longer these cure, the better they burn and smell. Just make sure that they are not mistaken for delectible snacks and eaten!