Spikenard! A research paper by Julia Allman

This originally appeared as my research paper while I was going to school for my certification. Spikenard has always piqued my interest, and it was enlightening to learn more about it. Hope you enjoy!

“And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of Spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. But there were some who were  indignant among themselves, and said, “why was this fragrant oil wasted? For it  might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply. But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good, but Me do not have always. She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. Assuredly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

This Scripture came to mind on the first day of my Aromatherapy Certification Program, when I realized that one of the essential oils that we were going to study was spikenard. I have always admired this passage of Scripture for the passionate outpouring of devotion on the part of Mary and the total acceptance and celebration Jesus gave to her through her act. I have also always been intrigued with what manner of oil this was, carried in such an exquisite vessel. So now I have the opportunity to thoroughly research it!

In this research paper, I would like to start off by sharing passages and thoughts from antiquity on this oil and then I would like to move to the chemical makeup of the oil as well as the many properties and uses it provides.

There is another section from the Bible where Spikenard can be found – in the Song of Solomon. The Song of Solomon is about the richest king in the history of Israel and the sexual intimacy he shared with his bride, a simple young woman from another country named the Shulamite.

The Shulamite says in Song of Solomon 1:12-14:

While the king is at his table,
My spikenard sends forth its fragrance.
A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me,
That lies all night between my breasts.
My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms
In the vineyards of En Gedi.

In Song of Solomon 4:12-15:

A garden enclosed
Is my sister, my spouse,
A spring shut up,
A fountain sealed.
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
With pleasant fruits,
Fragrant henna with spikenard,
Spikenard and saffron,
Calamus and cinnamon,
With all trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes,
With all the chief spices—
A fountain of gardens,
A well of living waters,
And streams from Lebanon.

Pedanius Dioscorides, a first century Greek Phycisian and pharmacologist, wrote the transcript De Materia Medica. He is quoted as saying that Spikenard, “smelt like goats!” That is an interesting opinion especially in light of the previous text! In the Song of Solomon, Spikenard seems to be portrayed as having a pleasant, desirous odor (Touregypt.net).

Pliny the Elder, a first century author and naturalist, among other things, was recorded as calling Spikenard “little goat”. The root has a hairy appearance and at one time, thought to be an animal’s tale! (Touregypt.net).

In my research I came across the name of John Bartram. In Christopher Hobbs’ article The Medical Botany of John Bartram, from the website healthy.net. John Bartram, called “the greatest botanist in the world”, was highly regarded in his day and was encouraged by and had entries in Benjamin Franklin’s publications. In the book, “America’s Curious Botanist; A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram (1699-1777), Bartram writes of Spikenard, but this Spikenard is the American version, Aralia racemosa, not the same Genus or species that I am researching (Hobbs).

Spikenard appears throughout history in unexpected places. The book Spikenard: A Book of Devotional Love Poems, was written in 1898. I thought this book had an interesting title and it was among the resources I found while studying Spikenard.

Spikenard has a history of being used in the famous Egyptian Temple perfume, Kyphi as well as being used in the sacred Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In 1926, components within a decorative jar found in the famous Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s (1332-1323) tomb were analyzed and found to consist of neutral animal fat and resin or balsam.  In later years the fragrant component found is believed to be a cousin of Valerian Spikenard, Nardostachys jatamansi (Touregypt.net).

From the Scriptures I shared at the beginning of this paper and the historical use of this oil, it is apparent that Spikenard has great value and holds honor through the ages. Touregypt.net poses this question:

Why was Spikenard so expensive? Because of where it grows and thedifficulty in obtaining it. Spikenard is not native to Egypt, Punt or the Middle East. It is native to the Himalayas and grows at high altitudes. Its use in the ancient world is a demonstration of their sophisticated trade routes and of the importance placed on aromatic material: they went to a lot of trouble to obtain this little root. Spikenard was packaged in carved alabaster boxes, carefully brought down by caravan and exported over the ancient world. As recently as one hundred years ago, spikenard was imported from Nepal to Egypt for use as a folk medicine. Beyond various medicinal uses, like valerian, it has relaxing, sedative properties. Spikenard was anciently believed to bear mystical and romantic powers. (Touregypt.com)

Tisserand calls spikenard “one of the most fascinating and obscure essential oils, difficult to obtain” (Rose 137).

I would now like to turn attention to the chemical components of this intriguing essential oil.

Spikenard, whose Latin name is Nardostachys jatamansi, is in the Sesquiterpene and Sesuiterpenol chemical family. The Rhizome of the Spikenard plant is steam distilled to obtain the essential oil. The particular batch that we use in class was higher in Ketones, specifically valeranone and it is common for the chemistry of Spikenard to vary.

In the book Essential Oil Safety, Robert Tisserand, says that “the sedative effects of the constituents valeranone, valernal and valernic acid are regarded by researchers as especially potent following administration” (Tisserand 140).

In the Journal of Natural Medicine’s October 2009 Evaluation of volatile components from Spikenard; valerna-4,7-diene “A marked sedative effect was observed when Spikenard extract was inhaled and calarene ( a sesquiterpene) also found in agarwood was determined to be the principle active constituent.”

The Spikenard that we use in class was second highest in calarene, next to 3,7 guaiadiene in the sesquiterpene analysis.

The aroma is considered earthy, exotic, sensual, resinous, sweet, warm, radiant and woody. The evaporation rate is base. (The Aromatherapy Certification Program Data Sheets Binder)

In the book Aromatherapy, An A-Z, by Patricia Davis, spikenard is referred to as having a “musky”, organic and earthy scent, a “deep, peaty, and earthy aroma. It can be pale to dark amber in color” (Davis 281).

The therapeutic properties of Spikenard (Aromatherapy Certification Program Data sheets) are:

Central Nervous System Seditive

Clinical applications of Spikenard range from anxiety to menstruation problems to anti-fungal uses. According to The Aromatherapy Book, “Dietrich Gumbel mentions Nard oil as regulating heartbeat, harmonizing the blood circulation and externally … as uniting the functions of the skin layers into a harmonious, balanced skin picture, with an initial regeneration of all its functions. It is a soothing oil for the skin and is excellent when used against all kinds of skin irritations and allergies” (Rose 138).

Victoria Edwards recommends spikenard for staph infections, scleroderma and wounds that will not heal. Dietrich Gumble considers Spikenard to be very helpful for mature skin. “Hair and teeth are skin formations. Nard oil is the best treatment, because it transits balancing, soothing harmonizing, characteristics via the mucous membrane of the mouth …via circulation into the whole organism.” He also says it is drying and diuretic in nature (Rose 138).

Davis adds that “spikenard is good for heavy periods and vaginal discharges, especially candida. It can also be helpful for liver and kidney problems. It is helpful for inflamation of all kinds and for dispersing accumulated toxins. Balancing to menstrual cycles. It is an anti-fungal, so could be good to combat candida. Helpful for allergic skin reactions and all kinds of rashes. Being a balancing oil, it can be used in facial massage and skin care propations for all types of skin but is particulary valuble for mature skin” (Davis 282). Victoria Edwards says that “the oil redresses the skin’s physiological balance and causes permanent regeneration.”

Aromatherapists who work with the energetic qualities of essential oils would find this oil helpful in dealing with clients who have anxiety and who have old pain or emotional wounds they are holding on to as well as people who are facing death. It also, calms the heart, stabilizes the mind and settles the emotions. (Aromatherapy Certification Program Data sheets).

A recipe using Spikenard to “restore calm” is blended as follows:

2 drops Spikenard
4 drops Rose
4 drops Myrrh
And 1 Tablespoon Fractionated Coconut Oil

In conclusion, after researching this amazing oil, I am even more enamored with it now than I was when I began! I am amazed by the correlation of the Scriptural texts and uses of it throughout history and its therapeutic and energetic effects. It is an oil that has been given in times of recognition, celebration and importance and is received with utmost respect and even reverence. This aromatherapist will definitely being using spikenard in her essential oil repertoire!

6 thoughts on “Spikenard! A research paper by Julia Allman

  1. Reblogged this on honest aromas and commented:

    In light of today being Good Friday, we thought we’d share a post from June in which I included my aromatherapy paper on Spikenard. In the gospels, when the woman anoints Jesus’ feet with Spikenard in an expression of love, Jesus says that “she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:8 ESV). Today we remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and learning about this ancient oil seemed appropriate for the day 🙂 Have a great weekend friends!


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