Sappho, Frankincense, and Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean


White Howjary Frankincense (photo: Trygve Harris (

Sappho is the first Greek author to attest to the usage of frankincense.  The word she uses to refer to it (libanos) is what comparative linguists call a ‘loan word,’ in this case from ancient South Arabic (the root meaning of which is ‘white’), the language spoken in the only region in the world still now, as then, where the trees grow that produce the resin that is frankincense (the finest being White Howjary from near Salalah Oman).

This was long before Amazon Same-Day Prime: that frankincense even made it to where Sappho was is astonishing given the thousands of miles of desert terrain that had to be covered.  That fact plus the fact that Sappho chose to use the Arabic word for frankincense suggests it must have been of special importance to her.  How important can be seen in the power she attributes to it.  In one prayer poem (S.2, composite translation and very brief notes here) she completes a stanza by referring to frankincense burning from Aphrodite’s altars; she completes the very next stanza with a reference to ‘sleep falling.’  The parallelism implies a reciprocity: the smoke goes up, the sleep comes down and a stanza later, there is Aphrodite.

The Greek word Sappho uses for ‘sleep,’ coma, here seems to refer to a trance.  She is the first Greek author to use coma in this way (the medical usage of the term thus derives from her) and the first author in any language to attribute to frankincense the power to induce a trance.  Modern scientists have only recently confirmed that frankincense contains ‘psychoactive molecules.’

Given when Sappho lived this at a minimum suggests she would have had legitimate reasons for interpreting the effects of frankincense in terms that defy tidy categorization today as either psychological or theological.  Indeed, consistent with the sort of merger of personalities she evinces in another prayer poem (S.1 (discussed in my prior post)), Sappho seems to intend S.2 itself to entrance the reader in a manner analogous to the frankincense and participate even as Aphrodite, in whatever ceremony is contemplated by the scrappy remains of the final stanza.  The frankincense is thus as intimately related to her poetic artistry as it is to her spirituality.  While Sappho’s use of the Arabic word libanos is at best only symbolic of a cultural fusion, her inhaling the essence of what it signifies and the way that experience inspired her results in a poem that is arguably as Arabic as it is Greek.

It is possible, however, Sappho potentiated her frankincense in an unprecedented and unparalleled way, but not by what she consumed with it, rather by what she did not consume: meat.  Based on what Empedocles says it is fair to associate a meatless diet with belief in Aphrodite and hence speculate Sappho may have been vegetarian.  It is generally agreed that such a diet heightens spiritual sensitivity.  Sappho might thus have been more sensitized to frankincense than she otherwise would have been.

Yet, just as frankincense is not merely about molecules, so is diet ultimately not simply about what products are or are not eaten.  For Empedocles and hence Sappho, eating would appear to have been but the objective manifestation of a subjective, psychological orientation related to the belief that Aphrodite was within each person’s heart.  To burn frankincense but then also to cut and/or kill land or sea animals for whatever purpose (i.e., whether eaten or not) effectively would nullify the effect of burning frankincense.  If done for ritual purposes such actions might have theurgic power, but the resulting theophany would not be of the goddess of love, but the god of war.

How much of this may be the legacy of goddess worship imported from Arabia along with the frankincense is difficult to say.  The thesis that there was one goddess worshiped under different names across various regions of antiquity deserves more respect than it generally gets.  The use of frankincense as evidence for this thesis and thus the influence of female spirituality both before and after Sappho in particular seems to have gone largely undetected.

The first use of frankincense among Jews is attested in Jeremiah at a time that is roughly contemporaneous with that of Sappho.  Not only was the Hebrew word for it (lebonah) obviously borrowed from the same Arabic source as Sappho’s Greek word for it, but it was being used by women in connection with worshiping a ‘queen of heaven’ on their respective rooftops–an open air location analogous to Sappho’s frankincense scented grove.  These women were thus not only  contemporaries of Sappho, the similarity in how and who they worshiped effectively means they were her spiritual sisters.

What became of these women and their actual or spiritual heirs is not clear.  Their culture received them with far more hostility than Sappho’s culture received her.  In subsequent centuries Sappho’s poetry came to be uniquely important in connection with the worship specifically of Aphrodite across the entire ancient Mediterranean.  Furthermore, no doubt helped by the fact that Sappho’s poetry itself earned a reputation for having a trance like effect and the fact that Sappho refers to the trance like effect  of frankincense on her, frankincense came to be closely associated with Aphrodite.  So close was the association that there is even attested a Greek name for Aphrodite formed from the word for frankincense.

Jews and Christians would have been well aware of the association.  Hence some questions deserve to be raised regarding the ultimate source(s) and hence valid interpretation of certain key passages in the Bible.  For example, who really is the smoke rising from the desert (the east in Israel)(Songs 3:6)?  Who is the morning star (Songs 6:10)?  And exactly what was in the incense Zechariah burned (Luke 1:9) and should its ostensibly trance like and fertilizing effects be deemed, narratologically at least, to carry over to Mary (Luke 1:28ff)?  And why is the narrative of the gift of frankincense in Matthew followed immediately by a reference to a dream (Matthew 2:11-12)?  My guess is that if the answers to those questions were any clearer than they are, then the passages to which they relate would not even have been in the Bible in the first place.

Votive Aphrodite Figurine Discovered in the El-Wad Cave, Mount Carmel dated to approximately 1st-2nd CE Image & information courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (

Votive Aphrodite Figurine
Discovered in the El-Wad Cave, Mount Carmel
dated to approximately 1st-2nd century CE
Image & information courtesy of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (


Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future:

Categories: Bible, Christianity, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, Poetry, Spirituality, Women's Voices

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15 replies

    The frankincese commonly used in Greece today is yellowish and is pictured in the above link. It is burned on a specially made charcoal disk. When I moved into my current house I burned it for several months to cleanse the house of “vibes.” Everyone now comments on “the feeling” they get when they enter my home.

    It would not have been that strange for frankincense to make it “all the way” to Lesbos. Obsidian is found all over the Neolithic world of Old Europe as well as all over Greece, despite the fact that the main sources of it in the Mediterranean areas are Milos in Greece and near Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. Moreover, as ancient sea traders did not cross the open seas, but hugged the land, they would have passed through the “straits” of Lesbos (where refugees are now crossing) to travel both north to the Black Sea and south to the middle east and north Africa. Indeed the Trojan War was fought over control of this same trade route (Troy is only a little north of Lesbos).

    I love what you say about the trance inducing properties of frankincense and poetry.

    Would you say that the line Mary Barnard translates as “and quivering leaves pour down deep sleep” might better be translated “and quiverlng leaves inspire dreams and visions” (making a connection between movement in the air and inspiration.

    Hmm as I write I see the connection is between frankincense, the beauty of nature, and poetry, all of which may induce trancelike visions.


    • Thank you Carol.

      Your post about the refugee crisis in Lesbos appeared as I was writing this and made me think about (among other things) the ‘strategic’ location of Lesbos and how there may be a variety of ways frankincense ended up there when it did.

      I like “dreams and visions” and I really like your closing line.


      • There is also the possibility that the frankincense came from Somalia, which still produces over 80% of the world’s frankincense. It was part of the Arabic trade route on the horn of Africa — they took slaves and frankincense out of Somalia for several centuries. Personally, I would like to think that Sappho’s frankincense came from Greece.


    • And quivering leaves call down deep trance,

      The idea of deep sleep makes no sense in the context which appears to be a daytime ritual.


      • Yes. In researching this–which included using frankincense in a variety of ways over the past month–I became convinced that the experience women have from frankincense likely differs from that which men have. This explains why a book authored by a man and focused on the use of frankincense by ancient Jews (Heger, Incense Cult in Israel) does not even address its well known trance inducing effects (he also does not even mention Sappho and instead attributes the earliest attested use of frankincense in Greek literature to Herodotus). By contrast it is notable that women have been interested in the issue (Catherine Pickstock, After Writing; Susan Harvey, Scenting Salvation).

        Part of my own awareness of the unique powers of women with respect to scent I owe to my youngest (26 year old) daughter whose sense of smell is such that it almost seems as if she inhabits a different world than I do. As it relates to frankincense, because of the differences in skin thickness and sensitivity I think that transdermal absorption is likely to be far more important a factor in how women experience frankincense (e.g. from fumigation of clothes and rooms) both quantitatively (how much, how intense) and qualitatively (based on differences in the biochemistry of absorption vs. inhalation or ingestion) than how men experience it. I think this also is comparable to the way in which women experience–relish–bathing (the ultimate way to cause transdermal absorption) as spiritual in a way that men rarely do. That reminded me of the use by Alcaeus of the Greek verb for ‘enchanted’ (thelgontai) in describing women of Lesbos bathing (fragment 45); that in turn reminded me of your May 11th post. In a way that misogynistic neuroscientists would be loathe to admit, it would seem this could open the way for a scientifically grounded argument for the unique value, if not priority, of female spirituality (ie, the very antithesis of Plato’s critique of female spirituality as inherently inferior (as I briefly discussed in my ‘Before Misogyny’ post a while back)). That seems to me to have profound implications for a variety of religious traditions–both for interpreting their past (eg, Jeremiah’s critique of Jewish women using frankincense; the monopolization of its use by male priests) and for imagining whatever future such traditions may have.


  2. This is such a rich piece, sparking an interest in more of Sappho’s work and also a fascinating potential rereading of the bible.


    • Thank you. If you have not already, you might want to click on the link to the translation and notes I have to the poem (S.2) to which this post primarily relates. In particular there I discuss (via a connection with Apuleius) the possibility that Sappho implies that this grove is the land of ‘honey and milk’ (milk=Aphrodite’s nectar) and the possible echo of that at Songs 4:11.


  3. Also just to go over the word, coma or κῶμα in ancient Greek. It can also indicate something like a state of rapture, that is, as a “metaphor for the effect of music.” As regards the beauty of the garden, rapture would make sense, definitely, though I’ve never seen it used in Sappho translations. On the musical reference, the Liddelll & Scott ancient Greek dictionary citation quotes the following:

    κῶμα — Theoc.Ep.3.6: metaph., of the effect of music, Pi.P.1.12


    • Thank you Sarah. Yes, I think Pindar (abbreviated ‘Pi’ in your citation–perhaps no more than a half century after Sappho) is relevant to understanding Sappho here.


  4. Thank you, Stuart, for a thought-provoking post. I was especially intrigued with the connection between ritual and the eating of meat. “To burn frankincense but then also to cut and/or kill land or sea animals for whatever purpose (i.e., whether eaten or not) effectively would nullify the effect of burning frankincense.” Terry Tempest Williams in her book PIECES OF WHITE SHELL A JOURNEY TO NAVAJOLAND speaks in a similar vein when she relates the story of a poor Navajo family expecting yet another child. They refuse to slaughter a sheep saying it would not be proper to kill (especially at this time) because they were expecting the gift of life momentarily. The “mindfulness” of both Sappho and the Navajo family, I think, are important.


    • Thank you for your thoughts. I was not aware of that book or the taboo with respect to sheep slaughter in such circumstances among the Navajo. What is particularly uncanny about the Navajo connection you make is that I grew up and lived in New Mexico for 30 years. Though not nearly as hot as the Arabian desert, the altitude is such that combined with the heat dehydration is certainly comparable and I was mindful of analogizing from my experience living there to the context of the use of frankincense in Arabic regions. In that regard I have noticed that what many Arabs do with frankincense–letting a small piece of frankincense dissolve in your mouth (or sipping on water in which frankincense has been dissolved)–naturally encourages the secretion of saliva, cooling, moistening the mouth and freshening the breath.


      • Stuart, it’s all fascinating. Thank you. Your comment about the American southwest reminded me of the use of resin/pitch from the pinon pine tree as a healing salve. It’s a kind of grandmother’s remedy. It’s my understanding that pinon resin is burned ceremonially, too, to cleanse, warm, and strengthen. Pine sap is said to have antibacterial properties and was at one time a cough-drop ingredient. Also, turpentine is made from pine sap. Pine needles are sometimes eaten or made into tea or vinegar in winter months as a source of vitamin C. I am not aware of an overt connection between pinon resin and female spirituality, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find one. Thanks again.


  5. I have a vague memory of reading that Hatshepsut, the female “king” of Egypt, sent traders to Arabia for frankincense. That stuff (herb?) got around!


    • That is very interesting. From what I have read it seems that many scholars doubt trade in frankincense was substantial before domestication of the camel in the last millennium BCE (but exact dates are obviously not certain so maybe H. was on the cutting edge in that regard). Shipping did not displace the best known land route (down to Yemen and then up far west Saudi Arabia (ie through what is now Mecca)) until the Romans (Julius Caesar).


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