Incense in Ancient Egypt

The burning of incense was central to the worship of the gods of Ancient Egypt and large quantities of incense were burned every day in temples throughout Egypt.

Priest with incense burner, late period
Priest with incense burner, Late Period

Kapet (better known by its Greeks name Kyphi) was one of the most popular varieties and seems to have been in use since the Old Kingdom. As well as its pleasing scent, it was thought to heal snake bites and cure bad breath and asthma. One recipe for this incense was recorded in the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1500BCE).

Iuny makes an offering of incense to Osiris and Isis
Iuny offers Osiris incense

Ihmut incense, sonter incense (both from Punt), and green incense (thought to be based on galbanum from Persia) are listed in records from the reign of Thutmose III, and priests during the reign of Ramesses III recorded both white incense (probably based on frankincense) and “inflammable incense” in a list of offerings.

There is also a type of incense known as jb (referred to on the Stele of Sekerkhabau from Saqqara). The name was written using the hieroglyph for kid (a young male goat) leading some to suggest that it was based on musk.

According to Plutarch the Ancient Egyptians burned frankincense in the morning, myrrh at midday and Kyphi (Kapet) in the evening. In addition certain gods were associated with specific types of incense (for example, Hathor was strongly associated with myrrh) and certain types of incense were used for specific ceremonies.

Pinedjem II makes an offering of incense to Osiris (copyright Captmondo)
Pinedjem II offers incense, British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the ingredients were home-grown, but many had to be imported. Hatshepsut recorded a trading expedition to Punt on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. The expedition was a great success, delivering aromatic woods and spices for the creation of incense and perfume. This expedition was also a great public relations coup because the Egyptians favoured exotic imported fragrances like myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, cassia, and Galbanum. The Egyptians tried to establish their own frankincense trees, but this doesn’t seem to have been very successful.

Wood was also in short supply in Egypt, and they were particularly fond of cedar wood from the Levant. Balsomon (probably Mecca balsam) can be found in southern Arabia and eastern Africa, and iris, lotus (water lily), lemongrass, and rose were also popular (although the lotus was only rarely used in ritual incense). They also seem to have used papyrus rind to created incense.

Incense ingredients were either ground and thrown on hot coals or mixed with dried fruit (such as raisins or dates) and formed into small pellets to be burned.

Copyright J Hill 2010