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Onycha by Be en Foret

Onycha (pronounced ON-ee-kah)

  Gastropod shells, as an incense ingredient, has been found around the world, in ancient fragrance and medicinal formulas.  The most famous are called “Onycha” and are from the operculum of Muricidae mollusks.  An operculum is a kind of trap door that falls into place when the fleshy body of the mollusk pulls into its shell.  It has long been debated why certain shells were used in incense, but recently it has been scientifically proven that the shells and even cuttle fish bones contain a number of substances that help stabilize, bind and add depth to incense blends.

  One of the biggest questions concerning “onycha” is regarding its presence in the Hebrew’s Holy Tabernacle incense known as “Qetoret”.  The Hebrews consider shellfish “unclean” so why was it used in “Qetoret”, the holiest incense?  The obvious answer is because onycha was a fixative and an exultant, but I believe there was another esoteric reason.  For the Hebrews made an unwritten exception to the “unclean shellfish law” for a few, very particular, Murex mollusks.  These special Murex mollusks were used to dye clothes “Royal purple”, “Tyrian purple” and a particular blue color called “Tekhelet”.  These dyes were extremely expensive and worn only be people in high positions throughout the ancient world.   The Hebrew priesthood actually wore clothes, shawls and had fabrics dyed in these colors, in the holiest parts of the temple.  They are the very same mollusks that onycha comes from. Known commercial production of the dyes, by the Minoans in Crete, are dated to 2000-1800 BC.  The discovery of the Murex mullusks for producing dyes would have been much older, perhaps thousands of years older. Interestingly, there was a special "blackish clotted blood" color, which also came from Murex mollusks, was prized above all.

  To the ancients, menstrual blood held immense power.  It was a source of healing, regeneration and could influence almost everything, by remote or direct contact. “Wild indeed”, says Pliny, “are the stories told of the mysterious and awful power of the menstruous discharge .”  There were diseases that could be counteracted by sexual intercourse with a woman just beginning her period.  Compared to blood circulating in the veins and arteries,  the distinguishing feature of menstrual blood is its dark color. Dark red, purple, violet, and similar hues had special significance, being so closely associated with fertility.  In Sudan, it is still a tradition for Sudanese women to undergo Dukhan (a smoke bath with incense containing onycha) regularly after marriage.  Recently, it has been discovered that the smoke from onycha has a volatile compound that binds to estrogen receptors, which results in a surplus of estrogen in the body.  High estrogen levels in women results in a thickening of the buildup of the uterine wall.  This creates an ideal environment for a fertilized egg to grow and eventually form the placenta. If an egg is not implanted, the buildup is shed as menstrual blood.  Throughout history onycha fumigation has been used as medicine for increasing fertility, regulating the menstrual cycle and displacing the placenta after giving birth.    

  The Abrahamic religions did not completely lose their female component until after 500BC.  Before that time, the Hebrew’s God had a wife, Asherah, and the female principal was worshipped and acknowledged.  Woman’s power and prestige would have been indicated by the colors red and purple.  The use of onycha to fumigate a place of worship would have been an act of increasing the fertility of the women.  Remnants of the female principel in the Abrahamic religions is found in the classic design of their places of worship.  In the Middle East many religious structures were built as metaphors for the human body.  The temple as a body, so to speak.  According to archaeologist John Allegro and translator of the Dead Sea scrolls: “Hebrew temples were divided into three parts; the Porch, representing the lower end of the vagina up to the hymen, or Veil; the Hall, or vagina itself; and the inner sanctum, or Holy of Holies, the uterus. The priest acting as a phallus enters through the doors of the Porch, the “labia” of the womb, past the Veil or “hymen” and so into the Hall. On very special occasions, the priestly phallus penetrated into the uterus where the god himself dwelt and wrought his creative works.”

  It seems to me, that the acceptance of onycha into the Hebrew’s holy incense, was a remanent of ancient wordship of fertility and the female divine.  As the ideas of radical patriarchy took hold of the ancient world, male priests usurped the roles and symbols that were traditionally feminine. The priests, dressed in the colors of female power, red-purple menstrual blood, brought the smoking incense Qetoret containing, among other medicines, the fertility provoking onycha, into the holy of holy’s; the divine womb.


Cleaning Onycha:  Onycha, before it is cleaned, is like many seashells, quite stinky.  The stink comes from small organisms, bacteria and algae living on the shell   There are many strange and elaborate processes for removing the stench and I have not tried them all.  Some processes involve heating, soaking in vinegar, or frying in ghee.  Some processes take hours others months.  Many seem to not work at all.  What I have found works the best for me, is to use a substance that is not often found in nature in great quantities, but since the 1800’s, has been available:  3% Hydrogen peroxide.  I grind the shells to a fine powder and put them in a container. I cover them with hydrogen peroxide and let them sit, at room temperature, for up to 3 days.  Then I change out the hydrogen peroxide and soak the shell powder for another three days.  After which. I run fresh water over them and set them on a plate to dry.  Once dry, the resulting powder has a very light, fresh sea scent and is ready to be used for incense.