Ancient tales &Biblical smells…
Use the scriptures when planting your next garden
Jerry A. Chenault
Urban Regional Extension Agent, New and Nontraditional Programs
For the past several months I have been reading book after book about Biblical plants. I guess I've read a stack about two feet high. Know what all this reading has conjured up in my mind? Funk. That's right. And I don't mean the kind with electric guitars and saxophones either. I mean I keep wondering about how folks 2,000 years ago (or longer) kept from stinking? Or did they? Do you know?
If there's one thing in the way of botany that pops up over and over in scripture, its plants with fragrant oils or fragrant leaves, flowers, roots, etc. They're just all over scripture. Think I'm wrong? Let's see.
What were the gifts mentioned in scripture that were given to the infant Jesus? Two out of the three were fragrances. And after the death of Jesus on the cross, what did Joseph of Arimathea bring to anoint the body? A mixture of myrrh and aloes. How about King Solomon's nard (Song of Solomon 1:12) or the nard (or spikenard) Mary used in John 12:3 to anoint the feet of Jesus? Ever heard of the Balm-of-Gilead? This is thought to likely have been a fragrant resin from the Commiphora species of plants. The sacred oil for anointing the holy place and the priests was made up of liquid myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, etc. Sound like smell was important? And by the way – cinnamon and casia come from trees.
How about the fragrant incense of frankincense that was burnt by Jewish priests in religious ceremonies (see Leviticus 16:12). This was a resin from the Boswellia species of trees. There are also gums (probably from the gum tragacanth tree sources – Astragalus gummifer and related species), resins (likely from the rock-rose plant), and balms mentioned several times in scripture. And oil, especially olive oil, was regularly used cosmetically for bodily anointing – except during times of mourning. The list goes on and on.
Sounds like there was a whole lot of perfuming and oiling going on back then; but what about washing? While we don't know exactly how often people bathed in Biblical times, we do know that they had soap. Excavations of ancient Babylon have unearthed a soap-like material in clay containers that is evidence of this from as far back as 2800 B.C.! And the containers have inscriptions that describe how the soap was made.
We also know that the Israelites were given laws of personal cleanliness through Moses and that the Egyptians bathed regularly. We have records of that. Their soap was made from animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts.
Actually from historical records it appears that things didn't really get "funky" until after the fall of Rome in 467 A.D. And this nastiness led to the great plagues of the Middle Ages and even the Black Death of the 14th century. It took until the 17th century for cleanliness to come back into style in Europe. Ewwwyyy!
Therefore – it looks to me like the ones playing all the funky music were the Europeans of the Middle Ages instead of the characters from scripture. Kind of gives a whole new outlook on knights in shining armor, huh?