Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Use of Frankincense in Aesop's Fables

A handful of large frankincense tears from Oman by Michelle Krell Kydd 

Aesop was an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BC, so it isn't surprising that frankincense appears in two of his fables; “The Crow and Mercury” and “The Mole and His Mother." Incense is deeply embedded in ancient Greek scent culture. It's the difference in how the aromatic resin is used in each of the fables attributed to Aesop that makes their inclusion interesting. 

In “The Crow and Mercury,” an ensnared crow prays to Apollo for help and promises to leave an offering of frankincense at the god’s shrine if he rescues him. The crow reneges on his promise after he’s freed, but soon finds himself ensnared a second time. 

A contemplative black crow by by Carl T. Bergstrom 

 The bird makes the same petition, but this time he directs his prayer to the god Mercury, who responds by reminding the crow of the unfulfilled promise he made to Apollo, ensnaring the crow in his false promise. It’s a befitting touché:  
A crow caught in a snare prayed to Apollo to release him, making a vow to offer some frankincense at his shrine. But when rescued from his danger, he forgot his promise. Shortly afterwards, again caught in a snare, he passed by Apollo and made the same promise to offer frankincense to Mercury. Mercury soon appeared and said to him, “O thou most base fellow? How can I believe thee, who hast disowned and wronged thy former patron?“ 
“The Mole and His Mother,” like “The Crow and Mercury,” is informed by ancient Greek scent culture. In this fable frankincense is used as a smell test versus a religious offering. 

The hand/paw of a European mole by Didier Descouens

When a young mole “insists he can see though blind from birth” his mother tests his sense of smell (as opposed to vision). The young mole identifies a few grains of frankincense as a single pebble, proving he can neither see nor smell: 
A mole, a creature blind from birth, once said to his Mother: "I am sure than I can see, Mother!" In the desire to prove to him his mistake, his Mother placed before him a few grains of frankincense, and asked, "What is it?' The young Mole said, "It is a pebble." His Mother exclaimed: "My son, I am afraid that you are not only blind, but that you have lost your sense of smell." 
Each fable features a protagonist that lies. A desperate crow makes false promises to gain freedom from a snare—he does this twice. A young mole exaggerates his visual aptitude and inadvertently conflates his inability to see or smell. 

When “The Crow and Mercury” and “The Mole and His Mother” are considered together, we learn that the promise of frankincense attracts the divine and its aroma exposes the truth. Consider this the next time you hold a few pieces of frankincense in your hand before setting them down on incense charcoal or an electric incense heater. 

Notes & Curiosities: 
Apollonius of Tyana threw frankincense into a fire as an offering accompanied by this prayer: "O thou Sun, send me as far over the earth as is my pleasure and thine, and may I make the acquaintance of good men, but never hear anything of bad ones, nor they of me." Apollonius engages in libanomancy, a method of divination using incense smoke (text from Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus). Learn more about frankincense as it relates to ancient Greek religion on Hellenic Gods

Aesop’s Fables Online Collection includes a search engine that allows users to find content based on specific words, themes or terms. The list of Aesop's fables is alphabetically sorted (in four sections) which isn't the case on many sites focused on Aesop’s Fables. The site lists 655+ fables and is regularly updated. 

English translation of the two fables referenced in this article by Reverend George Fyler Townsend. 

Glass Petal Smoke highly recommends purchasing incense resins from Katlyn Breen of Mermade Magickal Arts and Dan Riegler of Apothecary's Garden. Both vendors sell quality incense materials and make their own aromatic products. 

Image of Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) from Dhofar by Michelle Krell Kydd. All rights reserved. 

Image of "Portrait of a Crow" by Carl T. Bergstrom via Flicker Creative Commons, some rights reserved. 

Image of a anterior leg - mole hand of a European mole (Talpa europaea) by Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.