“While in Cairo I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a certain Sheikh … My servant warned me to beware of this man, and said he had the reputation of being a magician and dealing extensively with the evil one; however, I always found him very friendly and obliging, and he certainly pointed out to me many objects of interest that I should inevitably have missed but for him. One day, going to call on him at an unusual hour, I was struck on entering his room by a most peculiar odour. It was altogether unlike anything I had ever smelt before — indescribably rich and sweet — almost oppressively so — and yet its effects seemed stimulating and exhilarating… Sitting talking with him for an hour or so, my garments became permeated with its alluring fragrance, and when I returned to my hotel my servant, in brushing my coat, perceived it… ‘Effendi, where have you been? How comes this devil-scent upon your clothes?’ ‘What do you mean?’said I. ‘What is the smell that excites you so strangely?’ ‘O sir, be careful!’ replied my man, almost weeping. “You do not know, you do not believe; you English do not understand the awful power of the old magic of Egypt. I do not know where you have been, but O sir! never go there again, for you have been in terrible danger. Only magicians use this scent, and no magician can make it for himself; it is prepared by devils, and for every phial there must be a human sacrifice, so we call it virgin’s blood.”
And so begins The Perfume of Egypt and Other Weird Stories (1911) which C. W. Leadbeater assures us is based on a true story, but is ultimately a tease because we never get a formula for this accursed incense except for an account that it contains some mysterious gums and probably belladonna and Indian hemp. He does not disclose the identity of this “Effendi” though Leadbeater did spend time in Egypt and his teacher H.P. Blavatsky had lived in Cairo in the 1870’s where she was a student of the Coptic magician Paolos Metamon. He may also have read the stories of Egyptian magical practices in Edward Lane’s classic, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (1836) which provides a description of the use of frankincense and coriander incense in the divination ritual known as Al-Mandal, but also hints at more illicit Islamic sorceries: “the latter is natural and deceptive magic; and its chief agents, the less credulous Muslims believe to be certain perfumes and drugs, which affect the vision and imagination…”
Though Charles Leadbeater was best known for his book, Thought-Forms (1901) and an account of auras , Man Visible and Invisible (1903) , he also wrote The Science of the Sacraments (1920) .
This book includes his clairvoyant investigations of liturgical incense which were completed by himself with the help of a group of child seers. This is detailed in an autobiographical account by Dora Kunz, a celebrated Theosophical clairvoyant. Her parents knew Leadbeater, who advised them to send Dora at age 11 to his Sydney training camp for psychically sensitive children.
”So also are there Angels who live in and express themselves by what to us are perfumes and fragrances – though to use such words seems to degrade, to materialize the exquisite emanations in which they revel so joyously. A sub-division of that type includes the Angels of the Incense, who are drawn by its vibrations and find pleasure in utilizing its possibilities . . . Incense is always efficient in attracting the attention of any Angels who may happen to be in the neighborhood…”
In his visions he also found that, “some incenses were purifying, some stimulating and inspiring, some sympathetic and soothing, while some were definitely undesirable in effect, as, for example, amber, musk, calamus root, galbanum, dragon’s blood, which attract a distinctly low class of elemental.” Perfumes could have a decidedly evil effect which he references as “Voodoo and Obeah enchantments.”
Most of his olfactory studies were not published in his lifetime but one of his students, George Arundale, did provide more examples in The Lotus Fire (1939) which mostly mentions spiritually elevated scents like sandalwood and rose. Though he also includes a morally ambiguous flower :
“Jasmine with its rose, pale green, and possibilities of lower octaves arouses an oriental or Sufi type of devotion. It is distinctly a feminine or Astoreth scent.”
One fragment of unpublished notes survives (discovered by Leadbeater scholar Gregory Tillett) and includes a tantalizing bit about one of the “undesirable” incenses:
“Galbanum. Intoxicating, would suit dancing dervishes, or a negro revival … chiefly etheric… Colour very dark, practically black.”
This is an intriguing association because he clairvoyantly sees a black colored fragrance associated with non-white people and their savage or primitive spiritual practices, as well as a denser (etheric) realm inhabited by “low class” elementals or nature spirits.
As a further curiosity, there was one other 20th century occultist who made similar comments about galbanum – Aleister Crowley. Crowley respected Blavatsky but loathed the later Neo-Theosophists and referred to Leadbeater as a “senile sex-maniac” so he was unlikely to have read any of these more obscure theosophical references to incense.
In his posthumously published and revised version of Liber 777, he gives extensive lists for the correspondences of perfumes and incenses based on his years of experimenting with various resins and essences obtained from his London pharmacist E. P. Whineray.
He lists the element Air as the primary correspondence for galbanum, but also says the scent suggests “danger or even evil” and later calls it “demonic.” It is ironic that someone with a public reputation as a notorious black magician should use the descriptor ”demonic” to refer to a classic perfumery material which is mentioned in the book of Exodus as a holy incense. But Crowley did not give any justifications for his perceptions, he did not refer to the sulfurous and intensely raw green qualities of galbanum, nor did he refer to galbanum’s botanical cousin asafoetida (AKA Devil’s Dung) which is infamous in formulas for summoning and banishing demons.
Galbanum retains its mystery with a disturbing radiance reminiscent of the legend of the emerald that fell to Earth from the crown of Lucifer during the war in Heaven, a green fire that is at once angelic and infernal.