White Howjary Frankincense (photo: Trygve Harris (www.enfleurage.com))
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.
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: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/