Opoponax – from monastery to Meisel

Opoponax, also known as sweet myrrh, grows in particular in Iran, Italy, Greece, Turkey and in Somalia. The herb grows one-third meter to one meter in height. A resin is extracted from the stem by making an incision. The resin is drinkable in liquid but has a bitter taste, and the odor of the fresh resin is supposedly also quite unpleasant. The resin hardens when exposed to air and creates little dried pieces, which is how it is most commonly sold. And here is where the story starts getting more olfactory interesting and pleasant: the dried resin is inflammable and if burned as incense it gives a woody balsamic smell that has been a part of spiritual ceremonies for many, many, many years.  The name opoponax, sometimes spelled opopanax, has its origin in the Ancient Greek word for vegetable juice and healing. 
Photo: getreligion.org

The opoponax resin and oil also have an interesting role in medical history. The oil/resin are muscle relaxant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and stimulate circulation. They can be used for antiseptic and anti-parasitic purposes, and have been used throughout history as treatment for various medical conditions such as spasms, asthma, bronchitis, chronic visceral infections, painful menstruation, arthritis (mainly Chinese medicine), hysteria and hypochondria (!). In Somalia specifically, opoponax resin is used in folk medicine to treat stomach problems and for wound healing.

It is not difficult to find sweet myrrh essential oil for private medical use, a google search will lead you to several web stores that offer it. Its primary use is by topical application, for example mixed with coconut oil you can use it for sore muscles and joints. Only use it externally. Opoponax is often used as incense in spiritual, religious and other ceremonies. Therefore you can also find it in web shops such as St John’s Bookstore that belongs to the St John Monastery in California. They sell dried resin pieces that they import themselves from Somalia. In their product description the scent is described as a “complex scent reminiscent of brown sugar, butter, and lavender, with hints of rosemary”.

When used in perfume making opoponax is often combined with frankincense, vanilla, rose, cinnamon, patchouli, sandalwood, lavender and citrus oils. It has a spicy-sweet herbal scent that is also popular at spas. 

So now you might be thinking… what perfumes are there that smell of this liturgical remedy? 
Not too far-fetched an example is Opoponax from Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. 

A magic place that you should go to if have not yet. It was founded by Dominican friars shortly after their arrival in Florence in 1221. The pharmacy used medicinal herbs grown in the monastic gardens to make medications, balms and pomades for the monks’ infirmary. In 1612 it opened to the public and still today we can go to Via della Scala to find elixirs, creams, waters, soaps, teas, fragrances and a million other things in beautiful bottles and boxes that all smell of ancient insight. I love the face tonics and hair products… If you are interested in reading more about Officinina Profumo-Farmaceutica di SMN, I suggest for example this article
Another overt tribute to opoponax is Imperial Opoponax from Les Néréides. A fragrance that combines opoponax with benzoin, sandalwood, amber and vanilla. I have seen this fragrance appear in many places in the online perfume world, and the reviews strike me as very heterogenous and puzzling. 
You will also find opoponax in the one and only Shalimar as well as in Opium from YSL, L’Eau Ambree from Prada and Pomegranate Noir from Jo Malone to give a few examples. Chanel perfumes often include opoponax, you will feel it in Coco Mademoiselle, Coco, Pour monsieur and Bois des Iles. In the case of Coco, an oriental spicy from 1984, Polge used opoponax with coriander, pomegranate blossom, mandarin orange, peach, jasmine and bulgarian rose as top notes, middle notes: mimose, cloves, orange blossom, clover and rose, and the opoponax comes as a base note with labdanum, amber, sandalwood, tonka bean, civet and vanilla.

In Opium from 1977 opoponax is bart of a woody base with among others (!) sandalwood, cedarwood, labdanum, benzoin, amber, musk, patchouli, vetiver and castoreum. Opium is a striking oriental-spicy  with quite a large number of ingredients… Top and middle include for example (!) mandarin, plum, clove, coriander, bay leaf, carnation, cinnamon, jasmines, roses and lily of the valley in the floral middle. Opium was quite controversial when it was launched as it was accused of glorifying drug use. In retrospect it seems that the controversy contributed to impressive sales numbers, the perfume was a huge success.

In 2000, Opium caused a new stir when ads with a quasi-naked Sophie Dahl in ectasy appeared. The photo taken by Steven Meisel was hugely admired in some countries and created massive protests in others (for example UK).  
The Opium provocations are far from over. Quite recently this film directed by Romain Gavras was banned, accused of glorifying drug addiction.
Opoponax has quite an interesting range of experiences don’t you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


3 + three =