On Labdanum

In our last blog post we covered the famed Dittany of Crete. This week we’re discussing another Mediterranean magical ingredient also native to Crete: Labdanum. Labdanum is a dark semi-solid oleoresin produced by evergreen shrubs in the genus Cistus, the rock-roses (generally either C. ladaniferus in the western Mediterranean or C. creticus in the east). This resin is exuded from glandular hairs on the leaves of the plant in the summer to protect the plant’s photosynthetic machinery from oxidative stress caused by the intense Mediterranean sun.

There are two traditional ways the resin is gathered. The first is by combing it from the hair of goats who have browsed and grazed among the shrubs. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, tells us in his Histories:

Ledanum, which the Arabs call ladanum, is procured in a yet stranger fashion. Found in a most inodorous place, it is the sweetest-scented of all substances. It is gathered from the thighs and beards of he-goats, where it is found sticking like gum, having come from the bushes on which they browse. It is used in many sorts of unguents, and is what the Arabs burn chiefly as incense.

The second traditional method of harvest, and one that’s still employed in the eastern Mediterranean (especially the island of Crete), is to gently beat the bushes with a lambadistrion, a sort of rake with leather thongs instead of teeth. It is here we discover an interesting possible symbolic key in the Western Mystery Tradition. Early 19th century Egyptologists averred that the beards worn by pharaohs in emulation of the resurrected Lord of the Dead, Osiris, were in fact the beards of goats smeared with labdanum resin. Further, some of them suggested that the ritual flail of Egypt could have two cultural origins: the winnowing flail used to beat the chaff from the grain *and* the instrument used to collect labdanum from the Cistus bush. In effect, the tool symbolizes that which brings forth the staple of life by separating the wheat from the chaff and that which brings forth the indwelling divine substance which marks sacred kings. This flail was one of the tools used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in their syncretic Egyptian ceremonial magic system, and from there, probably entered the toolbox of British Traditional Wica as the scourge.

To return to labdanum, as the quote from Herodotus given earlier suggests (“used in many sorts of unguents”), the resin was used in many beauty products of the ancient world. Many ancient writers call labdanum the “perfume of Arabia”. The ancient Egyptians also used labdanum in a number of their preparations as did the Etruscans and the Greeks. Diosciordes lists labdanum among the ingredients of the Royal Unguent and so does Pliny the Elder. Cistus bushes also grow on the island of Cyprus (Kypris) where there was a large temple to Aphrodite in the ancient world that included a perfumery, and the resin was used in their blends and burned as an offering at her altars.

In addition to offerings to Kypris, the goddess who delights in the pleasures of the night, labdanum was also included in another famous incense offering – it is likely the mysterious ingredient Onycha in the sacred Ketoret incense of the Hebrews. The book of Exodus, chapter 30, gives the formula as follows:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy.

The word onycha here is Greek, meaning “nail” and derived from onyx (the stone) and was chosen to replace the original Hebrew word shecheleth, related to the Syriac word shehelta meaning “tear, drop, distillation, exudation”. This word is rendered in the Arabic as ladana – labdanum. Further, biblical scholars and linguists suggest that all the words used are poetic descriptions of Cistus in some way: nail for the petals of the plant or words referencing the blackness of the dark resin.

As a powerful scent used in so many preparations, you may find yourself wondering what it smells like. Labdanum has a complex scent, described by perfumers as sweet, warm, basalmic, and floral. It has notes of the richness of leather and the sweet earthiness of musk and vanilla. It is said to be reminiscent of Ambergris, a famous and quite rare perfume ingredient which comes from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. In fact, labdanum is often used as a substitute for this rare ingredient, which is considered an aphrodisiac amongst occultists. Finally, labdanum is one of the important scents in the famous French perfume family known as Chypre, named for the ancient perfumery of Aphrodite on Cyprus. François Coty created the first modern chypre fragrance in 1917, with labdanum, oakmoss, florals and bergamot. The scent was highly popular, and even ended up in Hoodoo, where it was said to bring fast money and fast women.

Labdanum collecting flail

So, what then are we to make of all this material? To what uses can a modern practitioner of the occult arts put this highly fragrant resin exuded in the burning summer sun of the Mediterranean? Synthesizing, we find an association with goats and possibly the flail/scourge, with sensuous Venus, the sacred incense of YHVH, and with the perfumers of la Belle Epoch in France. I suggest, that taken altogether, Labdanum would seem to be ideal for blends used in sex magic, diabolic work, and the black mass. One could see the biblical scapegoat, sent into the desert as a sacrifice to Azazel, his thighs and beard smeared with the black resin of labdanum, the same fragrance used to perfume the occultists and bohemians at the turn of the century.

Though Huysmans’ scandalous 1891 novel “Là-Bas: A Journey into the Self” gives the incense for the black mass as “De la rue, des feuilles de jusquiame et de datura des solanées sèches et de la myrrhe; ce sont des parfums agréables à Satan, notre maître!” [Of (Syrian) rue, of the dried leaves of henbane and thornapple in the nightshade family, and of myrrh; these are pleasing perfumes to our lord Satan.], this blend lacks a sort of diabolic decadence, which could be supplied by the complex sensuous fragrance of labdanum.

Of course if summoning demons and profaning the rites of the Christian church isn’t your bag, labdanum is appropriate for other rites too—the summer moonlit rites of the Wica, to accompany paens sung to Babalon, ritual attempts to woo the Bright Lady of the Hollow hills, to perfume Dionysian revels. The scent of Labdanum calls for uses that are sensual and subversive, wild and free, glamorous and embodied.

On Dittany of Crete

One of Tom and my goals for Otherworld Apothecary is to provide rare and potent magical herbs and resins for practitioners. Pursuing this goal prompts us to undertake sojourns and hikes to ethically wildharvest local plants, to grow others in our gardens, and also to import quality materials from exotic lands. Last week, we got a shipment of ethically harvested Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) directly from Crete.

Dittany of Crete is a species of oregano which only grows wild on the mountains and cliffs of the island of Crete. As such, it’s fairly rare and not often found in commerce. Though it can be grown in warm climates (Tom and I have given it a try ourselves), the yield is not very high. We have been to a number of metaphysical shops and seen herb merchants selling marjoram or oregano labeled as Dittany of Crete instead. But the true plant is fairly distinctive. Dittany of Crete may be easily recognized both by the characteristic woolly white-grey hair on its stems and round leaves and the fairly bright pink-purple bracts that surround the flowers during the growing season. Perhaps due to this beautiful plant’s rarity it’s developed quite a large magical reputation.

Dittany of Crete

In the ancient world, Dittany of Crete was considered a potent healing herb. It was said that the wild goats that lived in the mountains of Crete sought out the herb to heal themselves of arrow wounds. Virgil relates this bit of lore in the Aeneid Book XII when the goddess Venus heals the wounded hero with the plant:

Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.

The “father of modern medicine”, the Greek Hippocrates, prescribed the herb as a panacea, especially good for digestive complaints and healing wounds.

The Cretan name for this plant is Erontas “love herb”. Cat Yronwode, folk magic collector and hoodoo practitioner, was taught by a folk magician in the 1960’s that Cretan women made sorcerous love magic with the herb. There’s romantic folklore that states that young men, smitten by love, would climb the dangerous cliffs and steep rocky mountains of Crete to obtain a bouquet of the flowering herb to give to their sweethearts to prove their love, bravery, and physical prowess. Thus, it developed a use in love magic, particularly as an aphrodisiac fed to a lover to increase their passion for the magician.

But perhaps the bulk of Dittany of Crete’s magical reputation comes from a branch of western esotericism formed New York City in 1875, the Theosophical Society. The Society was formed by a number of leading occultists, including the controversial Helena Blavatsky, and was part of a web of occultists that included the Spiritualists, the Hermetic Order of Light, the Hermetic Order of Luxor, the Mesmerists, various Rosecution groups and others. The contributions of the Theosophists to the history and practice of modern occultism could be a book in and of itself (and will probably be the subject of another blog post), but include the The Hidden Masters, a focus on Universalism, and the notion of a recurring enlightened teacher incarnating through the ages. But here I will constrain myself to their use of Cretan Dittany, which they consider a powerfully magical plant.

In The Theosophical Glossary, Blavatsky writes:

“The Diktamnon is an evergreen shrub whose contact as claimed in Occultism develops and at the same time cures somnambulism. Mixed with Verbena it will produce clairvoyance and ecstasy. Pharmacy attributes to the Diktamnon strongly sedative and quieting properties. It grows in abundance on Mount Dicte in Crete and enters into many magical performances resorted to by the Cretans even to this day.”

And, Blavatsky gives a more mytho-poetic treatment in Isis Unveiled:

“As the sun, what better image could be found for Jupiter emitting his golden rays than to personify this emanation in Diana, the all-illuminating virgin Artemis, whose oldest name was Diktynna, literally the emitted ray, from the word dikein. The moon is non-luminous, and it shines only by the reflected light of the sun; hence, the imagery of his daughter, the goddess of the moon, and herself, Luna, Astarte, or Diana. As the Cretan Diktynna, she wears a wreath made of the magic plant diktamnon, or dictamnus, the evergreen shrub whose contact is said, at the same time, to develop somnambulism and cure finally of it; and, as Eilithyia and Juno Pronuba, she is the goddess who Æsculapian deity, and the use of the dictamnus-wreath, in association with the moon, shows once more the profound observation of the ancients. This plant is known in botany as possessing strongly sedative properties; it grows on Mount Dicte, a Cretan mountain, in great abundance; on the other hand, the moon, according to the best authorities on animal magnetism, acts upon the juices and ganglionic system, or nerve-cells, the seat from whence proceed all the nerve-fibres which play such a prominent part in mesmerization. During childbirth the Cretan women were covered with this plant, and its roots were administered as best calculated to soothe acute pain, and allay the irritability so dangerous at this period. They were placed, moreover, within the precincts of the temple sacred to the goddess, and, if possible, under the direct rays of the resplendent daughter of Jupiter — the bright and warm Eastern moon.”

In essence, the Theosophists considered it sacred to the goddess of the moon, and a powerful aid to achieving trance states.

This usage, in turn, impacted the magician Aleister Crowley. In many of the journals which detail his workings, he mentions using Dittany of Crete as an incense to help him obtain evocation to visible appearance, as a boost to his own spirit sight as well as source of magical power for the spirit. It is in one of these workings where he and George Cecil Jones are attempting to manifest the Goetic Demon Buer (published in Chapter 57 of Magic Without Tears) where he says “we decided to use this [Dittany of Crete], as H.P.B. [Helena Blavatsky] once said that its magical virtue was greater than that of any other herb”.

Modern practice mostly continues upon these foundations laid by Crowley. Dittany of Crete is used as a herb to promote spirit sight. It is added to animating potions for crystal balls and scrying mirrors and burned to help spirits manifest in the dense white smoke that arises. Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft suggests Dittany of Crete be mixed with the incense where “a materialization is required in the operation”. We include it in our Visions Incense and our To Call Spirits Incense for this purpose, and in various other blends to promote clairvoyance and ecstatic trance. Lastly, Janet and Stewart Farrar, drawing on the association of the herb with the wild goats of the ancient world, include Dittany of Crete in their incense to the Goat-foot God, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and this recipe has been shared widely amongst modern witches.

All told, Dittany of Crete is a potent ally to magical practice and we’re excited to be able to offer it ethically harvested directly from its native hillsides of Crete.