Incense: “from Aromatics”

I wrote this on another website, but I want it here, too:

a cassoulet, or southwestern French bean-and-sausage dish, started with a mirepoix

Elsewhere on this site, you’ll find the Neo-Orphic Hymns. https://andrewbwatt.com/the-neo-orphic-hymns/ is the set of hymns that I wrote to supplement the Thomas Taylor translations for planetary work, and I’ve found them useful enough to make them public.  But it’s the Taylor Hymns that I have memorized, and it’s the Taylor hymns that I use both for temple work at home and ‘in the field’ so to speak.

In the Orphic Hymns (not these, but all of them, that you’ll find on the Theoi.com website link above), some of the incenses are listed as being “from aromatics.” I’ve written about the art of suffumigation before, and this is a fancy Latin-derived word for “bathing something in smoke.”

Most of the incenses of the Orphic Hymns are pretty obvious: from frankincense, from myrrh, from sandalwood, from storax, and so on. They’re uncomplicated, single-word ingredients whose identity is both known today and usually available (though there are problems with the frankincense supply, as the trees grow only in one small region in Arabia, and now maybe in North America in Arizona.

But one of the ingredients puzzled me for a long while, until I saw an Anthony Bourdain show about making mirepoix a few years ago. Mirepoix is at the core of a lot of French cooking; the parallel combo in Italian cookery is apparently a soffrito, and there are other ‘base flavor’ things that you put in the pot just as it’s starting to get hot, in order to a) release flavor, and b) create a base background to any dish.

In other words, “Aromatics” is a term from cooking. So in France it refers to the ingredients of mirepoix: the  combination of garlic-onions-carrots, plus parsley – thyme – bay leaves and maybe herbes de Provence, cooked in butter or olive oil.  a “mixture from aromatics” is, in other words, basically the combination of ingredients that you use to create the base of the regional cuisine of where you live.  

In India, the relevant combo would be garlic-onions-chilies-ginger-ghee, supplemented with cardamom, cloves, curry powder, fenugreek, cumin and cumin seeds, and turmeric, for example.  A lot of Middle Eastern cuisine is based on a mix of garlic-onions-tomatoes-raisins cooked in a mix of clarified butter and olive oil, which gets supplemented with saffron, ginger, scallions, turmeric, and cinnamon.  Some cuisines add celery, others add spices; some add shallots; others add lime and coconut milk.

In general, an aromatic combo = a mix of highly-flavored plants (onions, scallions, shallots, garlic, celery, carrots, ginger) +  herbs and spices (turmeric, bay leaves, parsley, cardamom, clove, cinnamon)  + some kind of fat (butter, clarified butter, olive oil, coconut milk, sesame oil, etc). These are cooked in the pan or pot first, to release their flavors, and then other ingredients like meat are added to the aromatics in order to impart the aromatics’ flavor to the other ingredients.

In other words, the “incense from aromatics” is basically telling you “kitchen witchery” or “the smell of the regular food that gets cooked in your house”.  If we look at the hymns that call for aromatic suffumigations, this is borne out — the Nereids, Mother Earth, Nature, the Stars, the Moon, Juno, Rhea, the Horae and the Seasons, Bacchus, Sabasius, Adonis, the Nymphs, Cupid, the Fates, the Furies, Vesta, Ocean, Morpheus — they’re all deities that watch over household and home, travelers, fields, flocks, vineyards, and natural places.  These are hymns to sing over a pilgrim’s campfire and cooking pot, or in the kitchen while making food for the household, or while feeding farmhands after a day in the fields.  Even the Furies make some sort of sense — as those were the gods that punished disobedient youths who mocked elders and children who dishonored their parents.  This is all food spell-craft. Nota Bene: reader and blogger Barefoot Wisdom commented below about the difference between the Furies (Eyrines) and the Kindly Ones (Eumenides), noting that translations other than Taylor’s give “Storax and Frankincense” as the incense for the Furies, and “Aromatics” as the incense for the Kindly Ones — paralleling the Furies as avenging spirits summoned with a vengeful scent-cocktail, and the Kindly Ones as allied spirits and protectors of the household. Well done, BarefootWisdom!

This is telling us to cook when we want these gods in our lives. Figure out what the aromatics of your own preferred cuisine are (the main veggies that grow in your garden + your preferred spices), and get cooking.

4 comments

  1. Andrew, this is brilliant! Thank you!

    I would just add a small note regarding aromatics for the Furies. I see that Taylor’s translation which you link to here has “aromatics” for both the Hymn to the Erinyes and the Hymn to the Eumenides. But in the modern edition and translation by Apostolos Athanassakis, the Hymn to the Erinyes calls for storax and powdered frankincense (the latter being Taylor’s “manna”), and only the Hymn to the Eumenides calls for aromatic herbs.

    To my, this makes even more sense: Storax and frankincense when we approach these Goddesses as wrathful avengers, but the scent of good home cooking in their guise as welcome members of the polis (as at the end of Aeschylus’ play).

    I don’t have another edition of Taylor ready to hand, so I’m not sure if this is a typo on theoi.com, or if Taylor’s Greek text was different from what’s available today, but either way, I think offering different incense to the Erinyes and the Eumenides actually accords even more strongly with the general case you make in the post.

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