Onycha is an incense ingredient which is, to this day, still shrouded in mystery.
It’s prevalence within the bible have led many people to become curious about Onycha.
Unfortunately, it’s origins are not so clear.
The Bible says in Exodus 30:34 :
And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. And the incense you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
Unfortunately this key reference does not give any detail as to what Onycha is actually comprised of.
The etymology of the word Onycha originates from the Greek word for ‘fingernail’, and translated from Hebrew, the word is Sheheleth, which is defined as:
‘the claw or nail of the strombus or wing-shell, a univalve common in the Red Sea.’
There are several theories which correlate with the small shred of evidence we have.
The most credible ones are listed below:
Labdanum is a resin which is harvested from the Rock Rose bush. The reason some people believe this to be Onycha is due to the flower petals of the bush being in the shape of a fingernail.
Gum Tragacanth is a resin which is harvested from the Astragalus species. When the resin is formed, it typically forms in a hideous fingernail shape. This incense is still often used as a binder for many types of incense.
Mollusk Opercula is the ‘lid’ of a whelk-like shellfish. The substance is secreted around their shell in order to protect themselves in dry environments. These shellfish are often found near the red sea.
The dried lids look similar to fingernails and have been used as an incense fixative since ancient times, particularly in India, Tibet, Japan, Israel, and the Middle East.
For example, in Japan, the ingredient is known as Kaiko. The compound is slowly heated in order to rid it of the shellfish aroma. It is then ground into a powder and incorporated into incense mixtures.
Some other methods to get rid of the shellfish odor included using lye.
Opercula lids are used in a similar fashion in other countries, although the preparation methods vary.
So What Exactly is Onycha?
It’s hard to say for certain, however, if you trace the origin of the Hebrew incense mixture known as Qetoret, it is said that Onycha is:
“rubbed with Karshina lye to make it more pleasant and then soaked in Cyprus wine to make it more pungent.”
This processing method would already eliminate labdanum as a possible suspect for Onycha because labdanum does not need to be treated and smells delightful on it’s own. It also doesn’t seem to have any connection to the Hebrew word.
Gum tragacanth seems possible until one realizes that it doesn’t come from the sea, as the Hebrew word seems to suggest. Rather, it comes from a tree.
Due to the various processing methods used for Opercula lids, as well as it’s obvious correlation with the Hebrew word, it is most likely that this is the fabled biblical ingredient known as Onycha.
So what do you think? Is it a little weird to use a shellfish derived compound as an incense ingredient? It may seem so, however, it’s known to be an excellent addition.