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STORAX - STÝRAX- ΣΤΥΡΑΞ

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What is Stýrax?

Stýrax (storaxGr. στύραξ, ΣΤΥΡΑΞ), or as we say in English storax, has been used as an incense offering since antiquity for the worship of Gods in ritual, both within Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion, as well as other traditions. Of the eighty-seven sacred Orphic Hymnsstýrax is called for thirteen times, with the exception of frankincenseno other single resin being asked for more. There is Biblical reference to storax and in the ancient Egyptian [1] tradition as well. Modern science has identified stýrax resin as being one of the components used by the Egyptians in mummification. The Roman scholar Pliny (1st Century CE) lists storax as one of the ingredients of the "Royal Unguent" of the Parthian (Persian) kings. These are just a few examples.

The word 'storax' is an alteration of the Late Latin styrax. In the Orphic Hymns, the Greek word for storax is στύραξ although it may have been called stactí (Gr. στακτή) in other texts. The Hebrew word appears to be nataph (Hebrew: נָטָף‎, nataf) and the Egyptian word for this incense was likely ab [1]. Both the Greek word stactí and the Hebrew nataph may have actually referred to myrrh or even some other resin. There is confusion about the name and the confusion continues into our time.

In contemporary times, if you shop for stýrax, you find a product which has been harvested from the sweet gum tree, Liquidamber styraciflua, sold as storax. Indeed, this is what is referred to as storax in modern times, but, if we are to trust the scientists, it is not the stýrax of ancient times. Further, this author has also encountered a product that smells and looks suspiciously like the powdered bark of Storax calamitos (black styrax) with vanilla added, marketed as storax (and incorrectly identified as Styrax officinalis).

Ancient stýrax, the incense mentioned in the Orphic hymns, appears to have come from the Snowbell Bush, Styrax officinalis. This substance was a sweet oleo-resin and is also known as Jewish frankincense, red storax, or sweet storax. Although botanists seem certain of the identification of ancient storax with Styrax officinalis, for some unknown reason, the present-day shrub is said to no longer  generate the resin. In any case, the correct resin either cannot be produced because of an evolutionary change in the plant, or, if this information is incorrect, the product is simply not currently available. At least to this author's knowledge, it is not obtainable in the United States. If you are curious enough to find the most correct resin available, there are several possible solutions.  

 

Benzoin IS Stýrax

Benzoin (also known as gum benjamin although it is not technically a gum) is the dried resinous balsam harvested from several shrubs, all with the genus-name: Styrax. These include Styrax benzoin (benzoin Sumatra), S. besides, as well as S. tokinensis (benzoin Siam) and S. paralleloneurum. Styrax officinalis, established as the true stýrax of antiquity, is the Mediterranean variety of benzoin, being of the same genus. Likewise, all the various benzoins could be thought of as varieties of stýrax. All the shrubs which produce benzoin are related to ancient stýrax because they are of the same genus, but it is difficult to know exactly how similar the fragrance of these resins may be to Styrax officinalis. My guess is that they would be somewhat alike. By comparison, consider the various types of frankincense gathered from different but related plants such as Boswellia sacra, B. carterii, and B. thurifera. These are all of the same genus, but are different species, yet they are all called frankincense. Although you can distinguish between them, nonetheless they have a sameness. As all the resins produced by Boswellia plants are, generally, considered frankincense, this author views all the resins produced by plants of the Styrax genus as stýrax. In other words: benzoin is stýrax. 

In Indonesia and Malaysia, benzoin is known as kemenyan or kemayan. In Thailand benzoin is known as kamyan or kumyan. In Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic) it is known as kam nhan, nyan or yan. (See Monograph on Benzoin)

From time-to-time, less common varieties of benzoin appear on the market such as Singapore Benzoin and Mirra PeruMirra Peru is identified by some as a variety of myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and by others as Styrax weberbaueri. Pictures of the plant of origin are not available to this author, consequently it is difficult to say which identification is correct.

   

The Fragrance of Stýrax 

To describe fragrance is somewhat subjective, one person's experience sometimes contradicting another's. Both benzoin Sumatra and Siam, the most commonly available varieties, have been compared to vanilla. I find the Sumatra more vanilla-like, but others disagree saying the opposite. Benzoin Sumatra is a very smoky incense with a comforting, sweet, balsamic fragrance. You will likely recognize it, as it is a common ingredient in incense blends.  

Benzoin Siam, also possessing a familiar scent, is again very smoky and has a somewhat harsh or intense bouquet.  It yields a  powerful, unmistakably exotic fragrance that is almost anxious or forceful...a little goes far, and it burns through quickly. Too much Benzoin Sumatra in the air will actually burn your throat if you are reciting hymns or prayers, while the other types of benzoin are the opposite, i.e. almost soothing to the lungs.

There is yet another benzoin sold under the scientific name of Styrax benzoin (like Benzoin Sumatra) but harvested from shrubs in India (Indian Benzoin). Again, this benzoin produces much smoke.  It has an almost candy-like sweet fragrance, different from the other benzoins.


Uses of Stýrax 

In addition to its use as incense, benzoin has many other abilities. It is used in perfumery primarily as a fixative.   Benzoin has a variety of medicinal properties: it can assist in healing damaged skin, is antiseptic, and when inhaled as a vapor it is said to have a soothing effect on the lungs and can assist in the treatment of asthma. It also has medicinal value as an antiseptic and a local anesthetic. Taken internally, it is an expectorant, diuretic, and acts as a carminative. (Disclaimer: utilize any of these cures at your own risk; this author is only repeating what he has read)


Growing Stýrax

Another possibility is to grow and harvest your own stýrax. I am attempting this task myself and will update this article with my progress. It would seem that when the shrubs are large enough, one would gash an area of the trunk and wait for resin to form. This resin would be gathered up and allowed to dry. Or possibly one could dry the wood and use pieces of it as incense.

Styrax officinalis
, the Snowbell bush, is native to the Southwest (and parts of Europe) and  the plants and seeds can be purchased (with some difficulty). As stated above, the shrub is said to no longer produce the resin, a botanical enigma. However, it is possible that the wood itself is aromatic. It is a pretty shrub growing four to twelve feet tall, with delightful hanging flowers which are very fragrant. It is drought tolerant and can be found growing in California. But it is frost sensitive (this article says otherwise:  styraxofficinalis), so the shrub may not be hardy  in the North. However, it may be possible to pot it and bring it in during the winter, but this author has not tried to do so.  The plant is found in dry, rocky soils in part shade, but this article claims it prefers wet soil: styraxofficinalis  (perhaps they are confusing it with the American Snowbell).

The American Snowbell (Styrax americana) is another relative of ancient stýrax that has potential to produce a fine incense resin. It is a deciduous shrub, similar in appearance to S. officinalis, with dark green foliage, growing up to ten feet high. It yields hanging white flowers that are very fragrant. This shrub is also called Mock Orange, but do not confuse it with Philadephus coronarius, the Sweet Mockorange. The American Snowbell prefers moist to wet soils (it is even found in bogs) in full to partially shaded areas (again, I have found conflicting information on this). The plant is said to grow in zones 6-8 but another source gives the zone range as 5-9.  

I planted several Mock Orange in the fall of 2007. An article I read claims that they are rabbit tolerant. Well, whether it be rabbits or some other animal, something ate mine down to the ground. It had been a long winter in Chicago and, perhaps, the food supply became too low for these furry creatures. I'm afraid that they have killed all the shrubs.  Nonetheless, before they entirely killed them, the shrubs put out leaves. Therefore, they must have survived the winter.

April 18, 2009: I have just planted two new Styrax americana. These are much bigger than the originals that I planted and, hopefully, will withstand the gnawing of wild animals. They are about 5' tall with a trunk  approximately 3/4" thick. As I drove home with the plants in my backseat, I seemed to detect fragrance. I have planted them, but this time  surrounded with a tight chicken-wire fence. As time goes on, I will update this page with my progress. When they are big enough, I will try bruising the bark and see if I can obtain resin. If this is unsuccessful, I will dry out some twigs and see how fragrant they are when burnt.

August 29, 2009: The shrubs have grown and look very healthy. They appear to be very happy in this climate.

April 10, 2010: The bushes are just starting to put out leaves, so they seem to have survived the Chicago winter.

July 2, 2010: The shrubs are doing very well, have bloomed, and are growing, still too young to harvest either resin or bark/branches.

June 2, 2012: Shrubs still doing well, blooming, and still too small to produce resin. For some reason, they are growing extremely slowly. I am going to attempt some kind of soil amendment and if they achieve more size, I will try to score them and get resin. I have tried burning some small branches but had some difficulty in distinguishing the fragrance. I took broken-up branches and powdered them in a coffee-grinder. The powder burns beautifully on charcoal, producing much smoke, quite suitable as an offering. The fragrance has a vague similarity to benzoin Sumatra, but much more woody and less resinous: pleasant. 

Summer of 2014: We had one of the coldest winters in Chicago's history and I lost one of the shrubs. The other is not doing well, nor did it do well last summer. I am considering removing it and amending the soil; we'll see what happens next year.


Stýrax and the Orphic Hymns

Stýrax is requested in the Orphic Hymns thirteen times, that is, if we include the hymn to the Ærinýæs which calls for mánna (Gr. μάννᾰ) + stýrax, and a list of these hymns follows. Mánna is sometimes translated as frankincense, but this does not seem to be accurate.

69. Ærinýæs [The Furies; Gr. Ἐρινύες] (mánna + 
stýrax)
57. Ærmís Khthónios [Terrestrial or Earthy Hermes; Gr. Ἑρμῆς Χθόνιος]
40. Dimítir Ælefsinía [Demeter or Ceres Eleusinian; Gr. Δημήτηρ Ἐλευσινία]
30. Diónysos [Bacchus or Dionysus; Gr. Διόνυσος]
60. Kháritæs [The Graces; Gr. Χάριτες]
49. Ípta [Ippa; Gr. Ἵπτα]
13. Krónos [Cronus; Gr. Κρόνος]
42. Mísa [Mises; Gr. Μίσα
25. Prohtéfs [Proteus; Gr. Πρωτεύς]
2. Prothyraia [Gr. Προθυραία]
44. Sæmǽli [Semele; Gr. Σεμέλη]
15. Zefs [Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς]
19. Kærafnós Zefs [Thundering Zeus or Jove; Gr. Κεραυνός Διός]


For assistance  in using incense as well as  SOURCES of benzoin and other incense offerings, visit this page:

Incense: A Primer and Sources
 


Plant sources:

(Sometimes the following sources may not have plants or seeds available) 

 

Mock Orange (Styrax americana): 


Mock Orange plants:   Gardensoyvey.com

                                 also:   Edgeofthewoodsnursery.com/trees.php

          sometimes here:  Native-gardens.com

 

The Snowbell Bush (Styrax officinalis): 

Styrax officinalis plants:  Laspilitas.com


NOTES:

[1]  "The 'laboratory' in the temple of Edfu contains an inventory of different resins. Among these a substance called ab is frequently used.  ...Ab resin is said to derive from a tree called nenib. In the Edfu laboratory there is a representation of the 'people from Nenib who bring Nenib wood and extract the resin'. In recent times an identification as stýrax (a solid resin deriving from Styrax officinalis L.) has been suggested. [Pazthory, art. cit., p.12.]"  (Sacred Luxuries by Lise Manniche, 1999, Cornell University Press, p. 29)


 

A NOTE ABOUT OIL LAMPS, CANDLES, AND INCENSE:  In Hellenismos, the ancient Greek religion, candles are symbolic of the light of the Gods, the fire of Hestia, the fire of Hephaestos, or sometimes the Fire-Æther.  Incense is an offering to the Gods.  Although both candles and incense are enjoyable to us, please keep in mind their actual purpose in ritual; they are not merely "atmosphere."  The pleasure we derive from them is simply serendipitous.*

*Serendipity:  Word History:  We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."  ( the Free Dictionary by Farlex)


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