Opopanax is a resin that comes from a shrub plant in the Commiphora genus, which has around 190 separate species of flowering shrubs and trees, andincludes myrrh (C. myrrha). Depending on where the resin is sourced, it could be a number different species of Commiphora, particularly C. erythraea. These shrubs are native to the arid climates of east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a resin that’s so closely related to myrrh, it is often called “sweet myrrh”. While the two scents may be similar when used in incense, I find opopanax to have a much darker, richer quality to it.
The name opopanax comes from a completely different plant in the Apiaceae family, Opopanax chironium. From Greek etymology, “opos” means vegetable juice and “panacea” meaning all-healing, the name of the plant combined to mean “all-healing juice”. I cannot figure out why the resinous opopanax we know today adopted this name other than by the error of the Europeans reselling it. The gum from O. chironium is very visually similar to the resin of C. guidottii so the uneducated trader may have just labeled it "opopanax”. This presents a problem when looking at medical and magical texts through history, because anything mentioning opopanax is most likely in reference to O. chironium.
Known as “bissabol” in Hindi or “habak hadi” in Somali, this resin was one of Somalia’s most ancient trade goods. There is much historical confusion around the true nature and source of this resin, likely because of the numerous similar variants of Commiphora sp. Many different names came out through trade with the English, including East Indian myrrh, false myrrh, perfumed myrrh, sweet myrrh, female myrrh, perfumed bdellium, scented bdellium, opopanax, and others. Literature over the past century has identified these substances as coming from C. guidottii or C. erythraea.
Bissabol has been traditionally used in Africa as a potent wound healing substance, particularly for the wounds of female circumcision (read: genital mutilation) and childbirth. Modern research has confirmed C. guidottii to be an excellent aid in healing skin when used topically.
It has been speculated that the myrrh of the Bible was actually opopanax. Early 20th century materia medica museum curator E.M. Holmes suggests the usage of “scented myrrh” by Pliny was opopanax as well. Other sources posit that C. erythraea would have been easier for ancient Egyptians to acquire than C. myrrha, thus making the “scented myrrh” one of the substances they used for embalming. Again, this is all speculation, but in Pliny’s case the argument is likely true.
This has been a difficult resin to find any historical information on, let alone magical information. Most anything I could find in historical texts about opopanax is in reference to O. chironium. I am pretty certain of this because of the medicinal properties stated, the “disagreeable smell” that is often mentioned, and the European origin of harvest. Because we don’t know when the usage of “opopanax” came to mean the resin from Commiphora, I have to assume that most medical references throughout history aren’t the oleo-gum-resin we know today.
Magical Uses Through History
Let’s get this out of the way: seeing how blurred the lines are historically between myrrh, opopanax, and a variety of other Commiphora sp., I personally think it’s probable that they were used somewhat interchangeably. Because it’s impossible to find the ingredient opopanax as the resin in ancient texts, a lot of my research has been focused instead on finding sweet, scented, or perfumed myrrh. I will have a separate plant profile for what we know as myrrh today, but the information provided below could legitimately refer to the opopanax resin and so I have decided to include it.
Myrrh has been documented in incense, perfumery, and ritual uses for almost 4,000 years. Ancient Egyptians documented an incense known as kyphi. The recipes for this varied greatly and often had 15 ingredients or more, one of which was commonly myrrh. They used this incense daily to cleanse the home, in rituals to usher in the night, and honor the Egyptian gods. I’m not particularly informed about what ancient Egyptian rituals entailed, so if you have a good source of information for this please do email me.
The Old Testament provides information about how the Israelites used herbs in conjunction with shamanic experiences for priests to connect directly to God in the form of The Holy Ointment and Tabernacle incense. These recipes utilized entheogenic plants and myrrh, or equally as likely, scented myrrh.
“Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of kaneh bosm two hundred and fifty shekels. And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hiyn: And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary (Exodus 30:23–4).”
The Holy Ointment ingredients and usage of “an hiyn”, an Egyptian unit of measurement, suggests the formula came from the Egypt. The “kaneh bosm”, meaning fragrant cane, likely refers to cannabis.
The Tabernacle incense is described in the Bible in great depth over six chapters detailing exact procedures to make the blend. The ingredients are articulated via a message from YHWH in the Old Testament, including “sweet spices, stacte and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense.” The Talmud details the recipe further, adding myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, spikenard, saffron, costus, agarwood, and mastic. Stacte is considered by Dioscorides and Pliny to be a myrrh in a distilled or liquid form. All of these ingredients are considered to have certain psychoactive compounds. The priests would inhale the smoke to connect, commune, and receive visions directly from God.
Ancient Grecians deeply valued the frankincense and myrrh resins and imported as much as they could from Arabia. They were considered to be some of the most valuable substances in the world at the time for the scent and healing properties. Myrrh and sweet myrrh were burned at temples to honor the gods. The Oracle of Delphi reportedly had a similar incense recipe to the Tabernacle incense which she used to communicate directly with the gods before delivering prophecy.
Agrippa makes brief mention of opopanax as an incense corresponding to Scorpio. This comes from the medieval grimoire, Liber Juratus Honorii, or The Sworne Booke of Honorius. I think he was probably talking about the original version of opopanax, O. chironium. Aleister Crowley, having deep knowledge of grimoiric traditions, said in Liber 777, “Opopanax refers even more directly to Scorpio than does Siamese Benzoin. There is in it even less of sensuousness of pleasure; there is an overpowering richness of the deliciously abominable.” He connects the scent to the 24th path of the Qabalah, a path of complete and unavoidable transformation, death and rebirth. This path is represented in the tarot with card XIII Death. I’m still trying to figure out which plant he is referring to and will update this page if ever do I discover it.
Modern Magical Uses
Our modern magical knowledge of opopanax comes from the grimoires and historical occult writers as mentioned above. Due to the confusion of the identity of this plant, there’s an argument to be made that opopanax has different magical properties than what we correspond to it. However, I like to think that the secrets of the original opopanax have transmuted into what we use today, especially because there is so much mystery surrounding what the plant was, is, and how the name transferred. I have also spent much time working with this resin, and find the common attributes quite accurate.
Opopanax is considered a highly mystical ingredient and incense that reveals secrets and occult knowledge hidden deep in the subconscious. It is connected to Scorpio and its rulers Mars and Pluto. Hence, it’s a wonderful plant for trance work, divination, and meditation. Shadow work is particularly strengthened with opopanax in incense blends. It’s also a fierce protector of the astral body thanks to its connection to Mars. Its associations to Pluto and XIII Death make it a powerful ally for deep transformation. It is a great resin to use for working with the dead and necromancy. I use it in my Protection, Hedgeriding, and The Wild Witch incenses. References
Thulin, M., & Per Claeson. (1991). The Botanical Origin of Scented Myrrh (Bissabol or Habak Hadi). Economic Botany, 45(4), 487-494. Retrieved May 31, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4255391
Gebrehiwot, M., Asres, K., Bisrat, D., Mazumder, A., Lindemann, P., & Bucar, F. (2015). Evaluation of the wound healing property of Commiphora guidottii Chiov. ex. Guid. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 15, 282. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-015-0813-2
M.Serpico, R.White, "Resins, Amber and Bitumen" in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, P.Nicholson, I.Shaw (eds.), Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 430-474.
The Philosophy of Natural Magic, by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, L. W. de Laurence ed. , at sacred-texts.com
Roth, Harold. https://www.alchemy-works.com/incense_opoponax.html
Nemu, D. (2019). Getting high with the most high: Entheogens in the Old Testament, Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 3(Special-Issue), 117-132. Retrieved May 31, 2020, from https://akjournals.com/view/journals/2054/3/Special-Issue/article-p117.xml