by Jim Howard
In Chapter 19 of La-Bas, during the description of the Black Mass performed in Paris in the 1880s, Huysmans gives a description of the incense used:
De la rue, des feuilles de jusquiame et de datura des solanées sèches et de la myrrhe [myrthe]; ce sont des parfums agréables à Satan, notre maître!
There are problems with this text, and the ingredients have been translated into English in more than one way. The problem originates even before translation from the French, however. In the French publications of La-Bas themselves, there are discrepancies. In some editions, myrthe (myrtle) is given as an ingredient, while in other editions, myrrhe (myrrh) is given:
The original 1891 Tresse et Stock edition has myrrhe.
The Plon editions from the 1920s and 1930s have myrrhe in some editions, and myrthe in others.
The Ouevres Complet edition from the 1920s, intended to be the definitive edition, has myrrhe.
More recent French editions, to this day, continue to alternate between myrrh and myrtle.
This has resulted in varying English translations over the years. The original English translation by Keen Wallis in 1924, has:
Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.
Additionally, he mistranslates “de la rue” as “from the street”, and uses his imagination to add the word “asphalt”, creating “asphalt from the street”. “De la rue”, of course, has nothing to do with the street, and is referring to the herb rue (in fact, Syrian rue, as we will see).
A new translation by Brendan King in 2001 (Dedalus Press) has:
Rue, leaves of henbane and thorn-apple, dried nightshade and myrtle, all fragrances pleasing to Satan, our master.
Another new English translation by Terry Hale (Penguin Press) has myrrh again.
Even authors writing about the subject of Satanism translate this phrase differently. Richard Cavendish, in his book “The Black Arts”, translates as myrtle, while Gerhard Zacharias, in his book “Der dunkle Gott” (English: “The Satanic Cult”), translates as myrrh.
Most translators also translate the phrase as referring to three nightshade plants, instead of two (which was Huysmans’ intention).
From analyzing the text and these substances, it is possible to come up with a reasonable idea of what the original ingredients of this incense were. For three of the ingredients, there is no problem: henbane, thornapple, and (deadly) nightshade have always been common ingredients in the potions of sorcerers, including the witches ointments of the middle ages. These three plants from the nightshade (potato) family, all contain varying degrees of chemicals such as atropine and scopolamine, and all have similar effects on humans. The concentration seems to be higher in the seeds of these plants, however, with less strength being found in the leaves, which were apparently used in this incense of the Black Mass.
However, in the original French, is Huysmans referring to three nightshade plants, or two? "des feuilles de jusquiame et de datura des solanées sèches" might better be translated “of the dry leaves of henbane and thornapple from the nightshade family”. “des solanées” is plural, referring to the nightshade family as a class of plants, and actually means “of the nightshades”, as opposed to an actual plant named “nightshade” (which would have been a different word in French). So we should exclude a plant called “nightshade” from the list (whether it be deadly nightshade or some other plant called nightshade), and understand that Huysmans was simply remarking that henbane and thornapple are both from the nightshade family.
The plant rue is more of a mystery. At first, one would think that this would be the common garden herb, ruta graveolens. However, it is difficult to understand why this would be a plant pleasing to Satan. The only use of the plant in any kind of spiritual manner seems to be in connection with aspersion in the Catholic Church: sprigs of rue were bundled together and used to sprinkle Holy Water.
However, there is another form of rue which was mentioned throughout history, and seems to have many more traditions associated with it. This is Syrian rue, peganum harmala. This plant, along with ruta graveolens, were considered to be different varieties of the same plant, and in medieval Latin they were both called ruta. In French, Syrian rue was known as rue sauvage or “wild rue”. When Huysmans was referring to rue as an ingredient in the incense of the Black Mass, he was undoubtedly referring to this type of rue. This plant was known from ancient times throughout the middle east and around the Mediterranean, as a plant whose seeds had many uses, including as a dye, as an aphrodisiac, as a drug for various purposes, and finally, as an incense which produced a thick, intoxicating smoke. (It's use as a purificatory incense is especially common in the Zoroastrian and later Persian tradition, up until this day, including in homes and at weddings, being available under the name esfand).This would mix well with the ingredients of the incense already mentioned.
Now to the most difficult question – did Huysmans intend to mean myrrh, or myrtle? In French, this is a difference of only one letter – myrthe as opposed to myrrhe. Myrtle was a fragrant plant mentioned in the Bible. Its branches were used for decorative purposes, such as in the feast of the Tabernacles. It was also apparently used for fragrance, and was mentioned with other perfumes. It does not seem to have had a major use as an incense, or to have had any other unique properties or negative connotations, that would have made it stand out as a plant “pleasing to Satan”. Myrrh, on the other hand, does have some strong connotations. Although myrrh is mentioned in the Bible as being both an anointing oil for priests, and as an ingredient of a perfume for women (both in the Song of Songs, and for the harlot in Proverbs), it also has other, darker connotations. Apparently a form of myrrh was considered to be a pain-killing drug in ancient times, and was sometimes also mixed with wine. (In La-Bas chapter 20, myrrh is also actually mentioned in a different context, as part of an ingredient in a bitter liqueur served before a dinner, which would have been Elixir Combier). A mixture of myrrh and vinegar was offered to Jesus before he was crucified – he turned this down. Myrrh was also used as an antiseptic, and for embalming. Myrrh was one of the three gifts presented to Jesus by the three wise men - the other two being gold and frankincense. While the first two gifts were interpreted as good signs, the gift of myrrh was seen as an omen presaging Jesus’ death – myrrh was associated with the suffering and death of Jesus, and was used to embalm the body of Jesus after it was taken down from the cross. Furthermore, myrrh is in the form of a resin, which is how it is described in La-Bas.
For a final analysis of the incense, here are the relevant sections from La-Bas (the translations are from the King translation, unless noted otherwise):
He approached the braziers flanking the altar, stirred the smouldering pots of incense and threw in leaves and chunks of resin.
This is the incense, made up of leaves and chunks of resin. “Chunks of resin” is an accurate description of what myrrh looks like, and certainly would imply that this was myrrh, and not myrtle.
“I’m … I’m suffocating, the smell of that incense is intolerable.”
“You’ll get used to it in a while.”
“But what are they burning to make it stink like that?”
Here comes the description of the incense, with a corrected translation based on what we have learned:
“Rue [i.e. Syrian rue], the dried leaves of henbane and thornapple from the nightshade family, and myrrh, all fragrances pleasing to Satan, our master.”
Next is a description of the participants of the Black Mass inhaling this mixture (Huysmans gives no indication that the mixture here is different from the incense burning in the incense burners):
"Oh, but this is an ordinary low mass," Durtal said to Madame Chantelouve.
She made a sign to the contrary.
Indeed, at that moment, the altar boys passed behind the altar and then re-emerged, one carrying copper chafing dishes, the other censers, which they distributed among the congregation. The women enveloped themselves in smoke, some of them lowered their heads over the chafing dishes, breathed the perfume in deeply, and then, unsteadily, began to unfasten their dresses and heave lascivious sighs.
“But I can’t help thinking, for the moment, of those women you described to me, those who held their heads over the warming-pans to breathe in the fumes of resins and plants. They’re using the same techniques as the Aissaouas, who also throw their heads over braziers, whenever the trance, essential to their rites, is slow in coming.”
According to the notes in the back of the King translation, Aissaouas refers to “A Muslim religious community in North Africa ”. They are apparently a heretical Sufi sect widespread in Morocco.
Thanks to Brendan King for much help and criticism.