About oils

Doubtless, if one likes the ‘Nahuatl-Spanish subverted’ theory and the suggestion that our so-called  ‘pharma’ jars are actually subverted images of Christian religious artefacts, then it will be necessary to explain why so many roots and leaves are shown near each jar. One easy way to do it is to claim that the ‘jar’ simply represents a generic measure. Another is to argue that each container was meant to contain only a smidgen of each substance.  A dash of cactus juice and a drop of passionfruit?

Or how about ritual oils themselves?  Some churches more than others used a large number of ingredients, but the oil was invariably made by members of the religious (who would hardly appreciate seeing the recipe-book’s margin filled with adolescent sketches of naked female figures and ha-ha versions of Christian religious objects).

I really don’t see that the Nahuatl-Spanish-subversive theory is easily defended.

About those holy oils.  I first transcribed a recipe from an Armenian site that has vanished, later re-publishing it in a post here. ( “Paradoxical history of balsam #3“). I see now there is another site ( HyeEtch) offering the Armenian recipe.

Here’s another, this from the Malankara Orthodox church in the heart of the old spice routes. You will see by comparing it with the Armenian recipe that at some stage permission was given to substitute ‘Balsam of Peru’ (Myroxylon balsamum var. pereirae)  for the exceedingly rare true balsam.  ‘Balsam of Peru’ as it happens is neither Peruvian nor a balsam. Otherwise, as one would expect, the interesting ingredients are eastern plants.

The olive oil the main ingredient itself is prepared with much care and attention, if not purchased. These days we buy the virgin olive oil. In olden days the olive was prepared after special selection of the seeds and following certain formalities with utmost attention. As soon as the olive oil is ready, the ingredients like cinnamon (1/8 portion of the Olive oil), Nard (Jatamansi) (3/20 portion of the Olive oil), Nutmeg (1/20 portion of the olive oil), Saffron (1/20 portion of olive oil), Storax (½ portion of the olive oil), Clove (1/20 portion of the olive oil), Dry Ginger (1/20 portion of the olive oil), Black Pepper (1/20 portion of the olive oil) and Balsam Peru (Half portion of the olive oil) will be taken in the exact proportions. Among these Nard (Jatamansi), Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove, Dry Ginger and black Pepper are locally available and they will be powdered nicely after the [necessary] warming up. Jatamansi (Nard) is a local medicine, which has a tail like thing as that of the squirrel, having the same color of the squirrel’s tail. Olive oil of good quality, Storax, Saffron and Balsam Peru are usually imported from the Middle East. Storax is a gum like thing usually taken from a tree “Styrax”. It is in ivory color and is a semi loose compound. When it is heated, we will get loose liquid. The Holy Mooron will be prepared in big glass jars. The jars will be completely covered with coir systematically to avoid breakage. The powder of the six local ingredients will be put into the jars equally. And olive oil will be poured into the jars and the powder will be mixed into the oil. The oil and the mixture in a jar will be up to the 3/4th portion of the jar and ¼ portion of the jar will be left free for boiling of the substance. The number of jars will be decided in accordance to the quantity to be prepared. As soon as the powder and the oil are poured into the jars, they will be kept in the hanging position on strong iron rods above the big stainless/brass vessels. ¾ portion of the vessel will be filled with water, while the jar will be immersed in the water in it. Then only the vessels will be kept on the fire grate. Saffron will not get dissolved in olive oil so easily. So usually saffron will be dissolved in pure water and the liquid will be made highly concentrated. Balsam peru is clear and red in color. If a small drop is taken on a needle and shown to burning light, it will produce extra shining light. Pure Balsam will remain sink in the water and it will produce bright light when shown to the burning light. On this basis the quality of the Balsam is identified. As soon as the powder is mixed in the olive oil, the concentrated saffron will also mixed in the proper proportion in the jars. When the water in the stainless steel/brass vessel [have been] boiled, the jars will be kept open. Whenever more quantity is to be produced, more number of vessels, jars and proportionate quantity of the ingredients are to be arranged. After boiling the water in the vessel for three hours continuously storax will be added in the due proportion into the jars. Again the same water is to be boiled for one more hour. After this process, the water in the vessel is to be allowed to cool down. In due course of time the temperature of the jar will also get down. When the jar will get cooled, it could be removed from the vessel. Again the substance in the jar is to be stirred well with a metal rod. The mixture of olive oil and the ingredients will be transferred to bid clean vessels with wide openings. From there perfumed oil will be transferred to the bottles meant for the consecration.

The perfumed oil has to be prepared at least two weeks before the consecration. This is the usual practice and teaching of our Church Fathers. Interpretation of the preparation of the Holy Chrism (Mooron) When the ingredients are mixed together and processed as mentioned above and finally Storax is added to it, we get the final mixture of the Holy oil.

“Ingredients and preparation of Holy Mooron (Holy Chrism)” from the site of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.


Christianity’s anointing oils base their use on a passage from the Jewish law (Exodus 30: 24-25).


It would be interesting to argue the thesis that holy oils were an impetus to imports of these materials, since every ordination, royal coronation, installation of a bishop, and every death saw their use.

On the presence of eastern material in Bacon’s time see e.g. my posts “Thesaurus artis medicae Aegyptiacos Pt 4 .” and the list of ‘spiceries’ in a ninth-century antidotary analysed by Riddle (quoted and cited in comments about folio 16v here).

Added to which we have early copies of the Bencao literature which show plants laid out, and even drawn, just as we see in the ‘pharma’ section so called. My own opinion? The containers, and the roots and leaves, can all be demonstrated as eastern and not far western items. But you knew that, didn’t you? 🙂


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