Discovering Oud part II - Sketch of an incredibly rich Cultural History

In the second part of this broad-stroke exploration of Agarwood / Oud, I will focus on it’s multiple facets and sketch glimpses of its incredibly rich cultural history

If you have missed the first part, briefly unveiling what it actually is, as well as my personal and professional history with it, you can find it here.


A first question that I get asked very often is something like "So what makes oud so special?"

I'll try answering this to give the big picture

1. Rarity, Treasure hunts and long term trading value.

Oud is rare. First so in nature,  It take several decades up to 100 years+ for a tree to produce the highest quality of oud naturally.

It has been highly sought after and expensive since antiquity, and has always been associated with a bit of a wild treasure hunt for the finders and their rich patrons. No surprise that quality wild agarwood is mostly extinct today in many source regions and countries (and that most woods and oils marketed as wild are, in fact, not). 

High quality agarwood has always been extremely rare and rarity tends to drive human crazy, especially for the things they value most.

On top of this rarity and luxury status, agarwood, along with sandalwood, and contrary to the vast majority of aromatics, can retain its full fragrance over very long periods when handled appropriately (many centuries for the wood but also decades and decades for oils, both usually developing interesting traits, like  (increased) complexity and depth. etc. A vast majority of the prized aromatics, on the contrary will degrade much more rapidly. In passing, pure essential oils of good quality will always develop positive qualities with aging a bit like great wines (versus poor ones), and will outlast the vast majority of similar but industrially produced oils by many years, even for more ephemeral substances. This curing process might change their formulation, thus making them potentially random and therefore inappropriate for medical aromatherapy, but not at all, on the contrary for high end perfumery or energy work.

The longevity of agarwood fragrance permits its storage and long distance trade as a high-value commodity, much in the same way as precious stones and metals so it is no surpise became a “star of trade routes” since very old times, and an important diplomatic or princely gift..

The nest of  the  mythical  bird  Sīmurgh was honored in poetry as having been made of this agarwood. Simurgh is a benevolent, mythical bird in pre islamic Iranian mythology and literature. It is sometimes equated with other mythological birds such as the "phoenix". 

2. A unique and mesmerizing fragrant universe

What all the civilizations that used agarwood / oud traditionally  immediately understood when distillation became available (but not the Western word except for the lone passionate amateurs), is that quality ouds, are as rich as full perfumes in themselves : most of them have an amazing structure (basenotes, fixatives, a rich heart, symphonic top notes openings etc), complexity and am often surprising fragrance evolution and transformation over hours when worn, where often a choreography of very different notes dance in succsssion, associating with one another to give different accord. The longevity and projection are globally much beyond most other aromatics offer (with vast differences with different ouds)

The diversity I briefly touched upon above means that while there are (dozens of) olfactive families / general profiles, each high quality oud will be unique, so there are in fact thousands of different ouds. Ouds are an ode to the beauty, diversity and singularity of nature.

Ouds are of course also traditionally used in many perfume tradition from the Middle East and Asia, to make rich combined fragrances  and oud is a classical elements in many traditional (and contemporary) attars, mukhallats, bakhoor, and other blended incenses.

Speaking of incensing, the raw material itself: the resin infused wood is a fabulous aromatic of its own, high quality natural woods can be directly heated (my favourite way) or burnt (the traditional way ) and will give an extraordinary fragrance, which can fill up a room with heavenly scents.

Quality wood ground to powder will likewise be a premium ingredient for the most exclusive incense (though it is safe to assume that unless the producer is known and vouched for and the prices extremely high, it won't be that in incense cones or stick that mention containing some of it) 


3. A powerful medicinal substance

Since the earlier Vedic times (the first written mention of agarwood, unless new discoveries have been made since my research days), Agarwood has been recognized and used as a major medical substance. Of course it’s price renders its use limited but most. It is nevertheless a remarkable substance for healing, and also for energy work, definite one of the “major aromatic materia medica”.

Though there are older mentions, The Sushruta Samhita (composed circa 1000 BCE), describes how people of the Gangetic plain used smoldering agaru for worship, as perfume and to fumigate surgical wounds. The Sushruta Samhita is an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery, and one of the most important such treatises on this subjects to survive from the ancient world. It is one of the three foundational texts of Ayurveda (traditional medicine system from India). Today, the The Indian  Council for Ayurveda  summarizes  the medical  properties  of  agarwood / oud  as  follows: “Agarwood  is  considered  stimulant,  antiasthmatic,  carminative,  tonic,  aphrodisiac  and astringent.”

in China, the  association  of  Buddhism  with  perfumery  did  grow  in  consequence  form the  intertwined  arrival  of  foreign  aromatics  and  Buddhist  ideas  from  India.  Wandering  Buddhists, among other travellers coming from , or trading with, the  West  and  South  considerably  strengthened  the  promotion  of  aromatics  over  the  course  of  the  centuries and  incense  became  part  of liturgical  and  meditative  practices. The earliest reference to agarwood in China stems from the third century CE. It arrives on a ground with predisposition: The  title  of  the  manuscript  Han gong xiang fang (On the Blending of Perfumes in the Palaces  of  the  Han)  from  the  second  century  CE  indicates  an existing interest  in,  and efforts  towards  an  art  of  perfumery.

For Chinese medicine, Agarwood is seen as a major Chi / qi (energy) unblocker, facilitating circulation, and ying / yang integration. There is a nice image, associated to these proprties: when the great Tao master Zhang San-feng finished his work on earth and ascended to heaven, he was found disappearing from the cave where he was meditating leaving behind a pair of straw shoes and three pieces of agarwood. Zhang Sanfeng was a legendary Chinese Taoist purported to have achieved immortality. He has received credit for the development of a Taoist spiritual "internal martial arts" style, as opposed to the "external" style of the Shaolin martial arts tradition.

Linked to energy circulation, one of the reasons, that also very likely made oud such an important aromatic historically is the fact that it can be strongly pheromonal (most often masculine musky pheromones, but sometimes also more feminine ones) and that it has been recognized as a major aphrodisiac since antiquity, that has been largely shown to "work” on both women and men (though of course, those things are never mechanical, as for example for some people oud is "too much" and they will not feel attracted at all, rebuked by the animalic sides that makes so many people love, and get crazy about it)

Zhang Sanfeng


4. A natural process with rich symbolic potential

Though many aromatic molecules are produced by plants to defend themselves against aggressions from their environment (attracting pollinators is the other big reason), agarwood  is  distinguished  by  a very special development. To put it bluntly, when the tree starts to decay, it turns into the priceless substance. Such a process can  be - and has widely been - compared with the spiritual maturation of the human self, according to Asian notions. 

Here is the synthesis of the spiritual comparisons I found:

  • Within an  environment  of  mould  and  decay and external aggression,  the originally  odourless  and  hardly  usable  wood  develops  a deep and profound  aromatic  character  of exceptional  nature.
  • The positive maturation in response  to  demanding external conditions, has been seen in many cultural contexts as metaphor of human life itself
  • Young agarwood has very limited fragrance or no fragrance at all. It takes dozens of, up to hundred + years for agarwood to sublime, which evokes the time, effort and patience humans, and their endeavours, need to mature.
  • When we complete our life, our physical body decays (// when the actualy tree dies) but the essence of the spirit / the sould (// the smoke) remains sublime and reaches the divine.
  • Each piece of agarwood has its own fragrance and shape, which differs from one another – a metaphor for diversity indicating that we all have our lessons to learn; the lessons themselves as well as the results achieved are different because of our singularities.


From those different reasons emerge the main uses of Agarwood / Oud over millennia. From Vedic times in India, through Chinese, Japanese and Muslim civilizations, to our contemporary times, the core uses of Agarwood has evolved on (at least) five main levels, of course interrelated.

On the most evident level, it has provided a fragrant delight for wearers to savoir and enjoy. A sweet smokiness. An earthy, tone. Notes of berries, honey or dried apricot, deep animalic notes equating those of musk, civet or ambergris in depth, power and delights, ranging from light suede to funky barn. Those are just a small sample of the descriptions used in attempting to describe one example of the hypnotic fragrance. But there are thousands of different ouds, and to anyone not familair with ouds, they will seem to be totally different substances. Each individual oil and wood is very singular, and also reacts differently to each individual, therefore giving each highly personalized scents.

To that, one must also add a “boost of energy and joy” and “a special aura both energizing and protective” recognized by people who wear it,

The process of creating this aura of scent is a simple one-the layering of essential oil extracts from Aloeswood (pure or in attar) on to the body and clothes, or the fragrant smoke of directly burning Aloeswood into the clothes, garments, hair, etc.

This last process leaves a sweet smelling scent, which can last for days. It surrounds the wearer with this very special  of aura that is carried from home, to the workplace, or to wherever the person may go in this vast world.



On the secondary level,  agarwood has always and everywhere be the object of “craze” and almost addictive collecting fervor, of reaching amazing prices, of refined and exclusive practices for the nobility and the wealthy.

In short it has been an object of the most fervent passions for almost as long as history has been recorded.

As is the  case  with  other  exlcusive niche  products today,  the  competitive  demand  and  a special mystery-related  aura  made  agarwood  become  a  medium  for  many individuals in various parts of the world to showcase their aspired personal status, refined taste, and connoisseurship.

As well a subtle mark of social status (in traditional context or refined connoisseur circles).  There is a Middle-Eastern saying, on the lines or let me smell the oud you are wearing and will know about where you come from (aka which social status, wealth, degree of refinement. etc).

Traditions of offering oud gifts also abound and has a strong link to the idea of hospitality (mostly in the Muslim world), diplomatic or sumptuary gifts, etc

Finally remarkable pieces of agarwood have always been collected, in some countries, like Japan, some of them are even exposed in museums, attracting considerable crowds.

On yet another level, the culture surrounding burning Aloeswood also acts as a social gathering point and a generator of human connection. The bringing together of friends, associates, fellow connoisseurs, courtesans or family to enjoy the burning of this sacred wood has long history for providing bonding and nurturing of social relations. Friends compare and share different oils and woods. Coals are lit, smoke rises, stories are shared, and ultimately relationships are deepened.

One of the very well known and refined forms erudite, and creative socialization is Kōdō (香道, "Way of Fragrance") is the art of appreciating Japanese incese, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct, in which Oud has a central place, and arguably  the royal seat.

Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process, from the tools (香道具, kōdōgu), to activities such as the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香). Kōdō is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with kadō for flower arrangement, and chadō for tea and the tea ceremony


Next is the level in which the medicinal and energetic properties begin to work their magic.

In many traditional medicine systems including Chinese, Tibetan, Unani, and Ayurveda, Aloeswood is highly prized for its healing properties. 

It is known to realign rebellious chi / energy, and to help the body’s circulatory system. It's quasi pheromonal nature, combined to its effect on chi / energy, make it also a sought after aphrodisiac, used on its own or in compoumd medicines

And, because Aloeswood is psychoactive, it is used to treat nervous disorders such as neurosis, obsessive behaviour, and exhaustion.

Contemporary aromatherapy also recognize many performative properties for Agarwood, the fragrance being universally considered as exhilarating and elevating.

On the most ethereal and subtle level, it creates an environment which encourages spiritual transcendence.

It has been called “wood of the gods” because it has been used in religious and ritual ceremonies to invoke and communicate with the divine in every culture agarwood has been integrated.

It is thought in different traditions that the burning smoke from  Agarwood not only repels negativity but  calls for divinities / spirits / angelic beings to come to the place where the scent is emitted.

As a powerful spiritual tool, it has been recognized for more than 2000 years, and it might become interesting again in our current times of uncertainty and massive global challenges.

It creates an environment conducive to spiritual insight, meditation, trance and gnosis, and this environment can be carried with the user at all times, creating a spiritual armor of sorts.



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