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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Sweet Cane

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Sweet Cane, or Calamus, is mentioned in various passages of Scripture (; , etc.), from which we learn that it was fragrant and reed-like, and that it was brought from a far country (; ): Dan also and Javan going to and fro carried bright iron, cassia, and calamus to the markets of Tyre.

If we recur to the method which we have adopted in other cases, of examining the writings of ancient heathen authors, to ascertain if they describe anything like the substances noticed in the sacred writings, we shall experience no difficulty in identifying the 'sweet cane, or reed, from a far country.' It is stated to be a produce of India, of a tawny color, much jointed, breaking into splinters, and having the hollow stem filled with pith, like the web of a spider; also that it is mixed with ointments and fumigations on account of its odor. Theophrastus describes both the calamus and schœnus as natives of Syria, or more precisely, of a valley between Mount Lebanon and a small mountain, where there is a plain and a lake, in parts of which there is a marsh, where they are produced, the smell being perceived by anyone entering the place. This account is virtually followed by Pliny, though he also mentions the sweet calamus as a produce of Arabia. A writer in the Gardener's Chronicle (ii. 756) has adduced a passage from Polybius (v. 46), as elucidating the foregoing statement of Theophrastus: 'From Laodicea Antiochus marched with all his army, and having passed the desert, entered a close and narrow valley, which lies between the Libanus and Anti-Libanus, and is called the Vale of Marsyas. The narrowest part of the valley is covered by a lake with marshy ground, from whence are gathered aromatic reeds.'

That there may be some moderately sweet-scented grass, or rush-like plant, such as the Acorus Calamus of botanists (long used as a substitute for the true calamus), in the flat country between Libanus and Anti-Libanus, is quite possible; but we have no proof of the fact. Burckhardt, in that situation, could find only ordinary rushes and reeds. Though Theophrastus, Polybius, and Strabo mention this locality as that producing the calamus, yet others give Arabia, or the country of the Sabeans, as that which produced the aromatic reed; while Dioscorides, the only author who writes expressly of the drugs known to the ancients, mentions it as being the produce of India.


Fig. 325—Andropogon calamus aromaticus

As this plant is a true grass, it has necessarily reed-like stems. They are remarkable for their agreeable odor: so are the leaves when bruised, and also the delightfully fragrant oil distilled from them. Hence it appears more fully entitled to the commendations which the calamus aromaticus or sweet-cane has received, than any other plant that has been described, even the attar of roses hardly excepted. That a grass similar to the fragrant andropogon, or at least one growing in the same kind of soil and climate, was employed by the ancients, we have evidence in the fact of the Phoenicians who accompanied Alexander in his march across the arid country of Gedrosia having recognized and loaded their cattle with it, as one of the perfumes of commerce. It is in a similar country, that is, the arid plains of Central India, that the above andropogon calamus aromaticus is found, and where the fragrant essential oil is distilled from its leaves, culms, and roots.

If we compare the foregoing statement with the different passages of Scripture, we shall find that this fragrant grass answers to all that is required. Thus in , the fragrant reed, along with the principal spices, such as myrrh, sweet cinnamon, and cassia, is directed to be made into an oil of holy ointment. So the calamus aromaticus may be found mentioned as an ingredient in numerous fragrant oils and ointments, from the time of Theophrastus to that of the Arabs. Its essential oil is now sold in the shops, but under the erroneous name of oil of spikenard, which is a very different substance [SPIKENARD]. In it is mentioned along with spikenard, saffron, cinnamon, trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes. Again, its value is indicated in Isaiah (), 'thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money;' and that it was obtained from a distant laud is indicated in , 'to what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country?'—while the route of the commerce is pointed out in , 'Dan also and Javan going to and fro occupied in thy fairs: bright iron, cassia, and calamus were in thy market.' To the Scripture notices, then, as well as to the description of Dioscorides, the tall grass which yields the fragrant grass-oil of Central India answers in every respect.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Sweet Cane'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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