Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Reviews > Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade

Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade

Peter Lamborn Wilson

If you’re very very interested in the history of incense and have $70 to spend on your obsession, you’ll want this book, a collection of essays on the subject emphasizing the “Roman” period of the incense trade (circa 1st century BC to 2nd century AD). The gist is this: frankincense and myrrh come only from Arabia Felix, cannot be cultivated elsewhere (except Somalia), have been harvested by the same people in the same way for 5000 years, and marketed internationally since at least the Bronze Age. But the golden era of the trade began with the Hellenistic Greek sailors who discovered the monsoon winds of the Red Sea, so that they were able to sail direct from Egypt to India. A triangular trade arose, in which the West spent its gold on Eastern treasures (SW India was a depot for the Asian and Chinese trade in spices, silk, etc.), with incense going both ways, to be consumed in vast quantities in the temples of all religions (except early Christianity, which poopoo’d incense as “pagan” till about the 4th century, despite the Three Magis’ gifts to baby Jesus).

Nearly all the essays collected here mention the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea (by Anon., in this case a 1st century Greek sailor), a kind of guide book to the Red Sea monsoon passage ad the markets of Egypt, Arabia, Africa ad India, one of Antiquity’s most useful books, and still one of the very few sources for understanding cultural exchange along this oceanic version of the Silk Road. Yogis and Buddhist monks visited Alexandria; Greek philosophers visited India; all quite impossible without the Periplus – and the frankincense trade.

I especially liked A. Sedov’s archeological paper on the lost incense city of Qana’; Gupta’s analysis of the triangular aromatics trade; and Myra Shackley’s info-rich piece on frankincense today. (Is this the same Myra Shackley who wrote the crackpot masterpiece, They Live, on Neanderthal survival in the modern world? If so, she has reformed and become an Angelic priest and expert on incense.) The text on basalt used as ships’ ballast in the Roman incense trade (by the editors of the volume, with S. James) is, pardon me, a bit heavy. Joanna Bird’s essay on frankincense in Mithraic ritual is pleasingly obscure. Altogether, books like this induce or exude a kind of soothing boredom which is rare and precious as, well, as frankincense or myrrh.

Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade
David Peacock and David Williams, ed.
Oxbow Books, 2007
ISBN 978-1842172254

Peter Lamborn Wilson is a writer, essayist, translator and poet who formerly taught at Naropa University’s “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” and has published numerous books and articles on hermeticism, anarchism, Sufism, pirate utopias, and neopaganism. His books include Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry (with N. Pourjavady) and Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology.

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28 January 2009

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