Onycha : the Purple Pearl
My fools for senses,
Our past olfactory adventure lead us towards the canals of la Serenissima ! Through the true prism that is Venetian red, we have smelt the richness of this city blocked at the crossroads of three different worlds, this shred of an Empire amidst a barbaric realm, hanging onto its tiaras and its titles as much as it was moving away from Byzantium – its mother. Despite its vintage Mistouko flair, Venetian Red smells of the sea or rather of the laguna, the animal rancidness of seashore mud. It is also one of the very few perfumes containing a raw material which is slowly becoming fashionable in the niche world and which saw and aided in the glory of old perfume days : I mean onycha.
More enigmatic even than all the other animal ingredients we have studied so far, onycha is unseizable and is at the very heart of a centuries-long controversy about the composition of the most-holy incense of Solomon King. We could have written an Overview on the history of perfumes in Venice however we deemed it more interesting, more essential, more urgent and more enticing to dive into the abyss and discover thither the Secrets of Onycha : the Purple Pearl.
First of all : what is onycha ? It simply is the operculum of a family of mollusks that can only be found in southern seas and which has always been used as an incense ingredient. Babylonians first mentioned it as « supur tamti », meaning « sea fingernail » because of the mollusk’s shell which resembles a human fingernail or a horse’s hoof. Anciens mentioned at least three different qualities of sweet hoof –unguis odoratus in Latin : Ibn al Baytar and Avicenna both speak of a black and a red one whilst Dioscorides mentions a black and a white one. What stands for certain is that there were and still are some on the shores of the Red and Persian seas. The red variety was used to dye the sacred vestments of Hebrew priests, giving birth to the famous kingly purple –it would later dilute into the hyacinth and purple of paramentic arts- whereas the black variety was rather used as an incense.
Onycha had many benefits. The most obvious one considering our trade is its fixative power in perfumery, like the rest of the animal materials such as musk or ambergris. It is not this one which caught our attention but rather its supposed medicinal properties. The Greeks believed onycha could cure or at least tame people suffering from epilepsy or hysteria.
We shall look into this later as we feel it is crucial we wrote a little paragraph about the mosaic onycha, that of the Exodus. Some would have had it be labdanum rather than the blatta byzantiana –yet another name for onycha as you might have guessed. The theory is tempting : the word onycha is close to onyx, the black stone but most of all, some saw onycha as a very bad attempt from the Greek Fathers at translating the word shecheleth which itself is close to the syriac sheheleth : to exude which in turn became labdana in Arabic… It is easy to see how close it would then be to labdanum but we shall see it is not the case.
For why indeed is onycha mentioned in the recipe for Qetoret, the incense of Solomon ? Why was this operculum used to dye the clothes of Hebrew priests and the Veil of the Temple which hid the shekina, the Real Presence of YHWH ? Why was it thought to be an ailment against hysteria and epilepsy ?
Firstly, if it is present in the Qetoret, it is as an allegory of the Chosen People, which core is unsullied whilst its outer core is impure and needs to be cleansed. That is why we would prepare the onycha by washing it with Karshina lye and let it sit in caper wine. This process was a metaphor of repentance : the man is cleansed with the soap of repentance and fortified in his faith with the wine that is the Law.
As for the priests, it is interesting to realise that the onycha –in Hebrew shecheleth- was the mollusk used to dye the clothes of the Cohanim and notably that of the High Priest. This very dye, this blue of Tyr, in Hebrew was called : tekhelet – sounds familiar, does it not ? So was it purple or was it blue ? Well, if it were so easy we probably would not be discussing such matter here. It turns out that the very notion of « blue » did not really exist during the Antiquity. The purple is that of royalty but mostly it was the colour of the skies where God has His mansions and also that of the Ten Commandments. It is not widely known but the Jewish tradition believes they were carven out of two sapphire blocks.
We are starting to hear a leitmotiv : onycha seems to be a reminder of the Law, of the Ten Utterances said by YHWH to the Hebrews so they may convert and live, this very Law which first verse is –following the Samaritan rule : I am.
Such is the object of our development : onycha has a link to the performative utterances of an Eternal God which can shed a new light on its medicinal properties.
Mediaeval judaism harvested an extraordinarily prolific exegetic literature, the most eloquent example of which is Qabbalah. We looked for our answers at the very root of the Tree of Life. Alchemy, inheriting from Qabbalistic and Christian traditions established countless charts of correspondances between elements and materials, colours and stars, Heaven and Earth. One of them says that onycha is linked to the path going from the sephira Binah to the sephira Tiphareth.
Is it a coincidence then if Binah’s stone is the onyx ? This sephira is that of Understanding, non such in a mortal way of knowledge but it draws closer to pure contemplation. It is the act of contemplating YHWH, All in All and Eternal – He Is in every particle of His Creation, He Is truly and fully in every instant, every minute and every wave of the Universe known and unknown – He Is. Binah is also the Silence or the process of silencing one’s thoughts before entering a state of full awareness – this Silence is present in all traditions, be it athonite, Hindu or Buddhist. Binah is the Silence preceding Understanding, the Silence of Unknowing and onycha is the way that leads from it to Tiphareth. Binah at last, according to Moshe ben Jacob is…repentance – sounds familiar, does it not ?
This way from Binah to Tiphareth is called Chesed. It enables one to Understand, to Know this Eternal Presence in one’s life. It is the path allowing us to taste this Silence and to live by it. To taste Eternity and to live Eternally. To draw from the heart of the Mother-Spirit –as Binah is sometimes referred to- this Understanding, this taste of a God living fully in every second of every hour and to breathe such awareness in our lives as He breathed it unto His world.
Onycha, the Purple Pearl, is the sky, the sapphire royalty and even more than we could ever fathom : it is Life. It is the rose plucked by Ronsard, that of day we must learn to seize – through silence. Like all animal materials, onycha calls for a renouncement, a fight, an ascete’s arid way of life but it promises riches from another world.
Onycha soothes epileptics by silencing their thoughts. This shell hides another dimension, draws in the bottomless well, the endless Spring of Life, the Mother of all Knowledge, the Spirit which the Syriac Fathers called : the Mother Holy Spirit.
Onycha was never meant to fixate our perfumes.
It is meant to fixate our lives.
Through Sundark sea.