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Q. What in this world has the power to sanctify a sovereign and repel an ordinary mosquito?
A. Ever since antiquity, healing, fragrance and even sacred powers have been known to be concentrated in precious droplets of essential oils. These oils reside between the cells of plants. Found in roots, seeds, barks, leaves, flowers, peels, herbs and resin, they are distilled and extracted to render volatile and aromatic “liquid essences.” Depending on the specific oil (and there are hundreds, maybe even thousands) you can keep your skin lustrous and heal illness. Essential oils are a remedy of choice to repel insects and a sine qua non for anointing a king.
Let’s return to an everyday problem — the rising invasion of biting mosquitoes. The warmer-than-usual weather this past winter has allowed these pests to be fruitful and multiply, while sewer grates of gentrified quarters such as our own Upper West Side have provided excellent breeding grounds. We, the inhabitants of a peace-loving neighborhood are on notice: We are to be front-line victims of the indiscriminate onslaught. Sure enough, despite window screens, one night I am attacked and my forehead remains itchy and unsightly for a week. What to do? Not partial to insecticides, I seek salvation in a biblically-sanctioned balm, the science and mystique of essential oils.
Combining a few drops of blue cypress, peppermint and lavender oils with water creates a misty shield for body and bed. Lo and behold, I am delivered from mine enemies and my heart greatly rejoices. What’s more, inhaling the blend evokes a whole other mood: peppermint is uplifting while the lavender balances it out for soothing sleep.
Anoint Me with Oil
The informed use of plant essence, along with herbs, minerals, crystal and stones, is the physical basis of ancient healing arts. It is also the basis of ritual magic whose goal is to bring about desired outcomes on both the individual and cosmic planes.
The Bible, eager to establish the hegemony of Yahweh, takes a strong stand against ritual magic. It prohibits investing natural elements, incantations, or any combination of the two, with inherent power separable from those of God. Nonetheless, there is plenty of awareness of the potency of oils, whether applied in single notes or formulaic blends. The many references to essential oils illustrate the schism that runs through the traditional literature, a tension between ascribing to nature her own wonders and wiles and crediting only Yahweh with the power to both animate and contravene the natural world.
Spikenard and saffron, cinnamon with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes . . . In the Bible as well as the literature of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian civilizations we find many references to these cherished oils. In the ancient world, myrrh and frankincense were in such widespread demand their trade kept whole nations thriving. These oils, along with spikenard, rosemary and hyssop, were used for healing the sick. The Song of Songs, described as the literature’s “most scent-drenched poem,” speaks of sensual longing and exalted states through its many references to myrrh, frankincense, spikenard and rose. The Psalmist describes a state of safety and well-being as one in which God “has anointed my head with oils.” In the New Testament, the three wise men greet the birth of the Christ child with frankincense and myrrh. Mary shows her devotion to Jesus by massaging his feet with the precious oil of spikenard.
In Exodus 30:23-33 we are given a recipe for the blending of sacred anointing oils. The formula calls for myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia and olive. This blend packs such a high-octane sacred punch it can consecrate any instrument or object it touches. It is to be used to sanctify specified ritual objects as well as to anoint Aaron and his boys as High Priests. Moreover, any unauthorized person who reproduces this compound or rubs it on his own body is committing a major no-no and shall be cut off from his kin.
There is more: “Moshiakh,” the Hebrew word for messiah, actually means “the anointed one.” To this very day, in both religious and secular realms, those who are invested with temporal or spiritual power are anointed with a sacred blend of essential oils. Like the first Biblical King Saul and Jesus, the comely young David, the Tsars of Russia and the crowned monarch of Great Britain, prophets and high priests are all consecrated by their ceremonial anointment with specific (and sometimes secret) blends of fragrant essential oils.
Anointment with oils is deemed so powerful a ritual that its effects, more than any action or words, are considered irreversible. It is the act of anointment that distinguishes a mere aspirant from an individual invested for life with royal status and prerogatives.
It is fair to say that Yahweh worship has ruled out a pagan deification of nature. Monotheism has not always emphasized due respect for Gaia. In a time of urgency, when nature is abused and the earth is in crisis, we may well ask whether Judaism has any solutions to bring to the table. It’s at these times that I like to promote the Bible’s granting of sacred dimension to essential oils. Even Yahweh has been known to praise these oils for their many uses and in some cases, He/ She has even been heard to cry out for a fix of the sweet fragrance they exude.
What is Essential
What is essential about these oils? Aromatherapy considers them the life’s blood of the plant. In ancient lore, they were believed to have the capacity to transform our own personal essence. What after all is personal essence? And what sort of transformation might they bring on?
My response is at best an intuitive understanding. If it is anything, the human essence is a center core that exerts a counter-tug to the endless ways in which we are separated from ourselves. When life is essential, it is no longer a series of outer-directed fragmented thoughts, but more like a breathing stream of aliveness. With the advent of summer, we can slow down, inhale an essential oil and let it lead us to an innermost moment of stillness. It’s the opposite of the distracting, irritating buzz of smart phones and invading mosquitoes.
End of Days
I have never been a big believer in the messiah, especially not if meant to refer to an actual person who abolishes time and wipes the slate clean. Understood more metaphorically, the messianic alludes to the hope that someday our collective evolution will avail us of a less divisive state of mind. If the messiah is a spirit drenched in the essence of oil, then he/she must be someone who knows the secrets of the natural world. He/she surely understands our profound need for symbiosis with all of creation. I like to think of the messianic as something that awakens the evolutionary impulse within each of us. The savior within seeks, even if temporarily, an end to the days of fragmenting distraction. The outer sign of such understanding may be anointment with essential oils. The inner signs —- awareness of nature, fragrance and breath — are available in the here and now to us all.
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past eleven years and works as a writer and a life coach. She also writes a blog, From the Twisted Fringe.