Kyphi (or: Cyphi) is a compound incense that was used in ancient Egypt for religious and medical purposes. The term "kyphi" is Greek and a transcription of the ancient Egyptian term kp.t.

Historical references

The earliest reference to kyphi is found in the Pyramid Texts: it is listed among the goods that the king will enjoy in the afterlife. Papyrus Harris I records the donation and delivery of herbs and resins for its manufacture in the temples under Ramses III. Instructions for the preparation of kyphi and lists of ingredients are found among the wall inscriptions at the temples of Edfu and Dendera in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian priest Manetho is known to have written a treatise called Preparation of Kyphi-Recipes, but no copy of this work survives.

Greek physicians studying the Egyptian pharmacopia took interest in kyphi's reputation as a medicine. Dioscorides set forth the preparation of kyphi in his Materia Medica and this is thought to be the first Greek description of the material. Galen preserves a medical poem about kyphi from Damocrates, who in turn credits Rufus of Ephesus for the formula.

In Isis and Osiris the historian Plutarch comments that Egyptian priests burned incense three times a day: frankincense at dawn, myrrh at mid-day, and kyphi at dusk. He reports that kyphi had sixteen ingredients and adds, "these are compounded, not at random, but while the sacred writings are being read to the perfumers as they mix the ingredients." Plutarch further notes that the mixture was used as "a potion and a salve". The seventh century physician Paul of Aegina records a "lunar" kyphi of twenty-eight ingredients and a "solar" kyphi of thirty-six.

Composition and manufacture

All recipes for kyphi mention wine, honey, and raisins. Other identifiable ingredients include:

  • cinnamon and cassia bark,

  • the aromatic rhizomes of cyperus and sweet flag,

  • cedar,

  • juniper berry, and

  • resins and gums such as frankincense, myrrh, benzoin resin, labdanum, and mastic.

Some ingredients remain obscure. Greek and Aramaic recipes mention aspalathos, which Pliny describes as the root of a thorny shrub. Scholars do not agree on the identity of this shrub: Alhagi maurorum, Convolvulus scoparius, Calicotome villosa, Genista acanthoclada and most recently Capparis spinosa have been suggested. The Egyptian recipes similarly list several ingredients whose botanical identity is uncertain. Spikenard is listed as an ingredient in some recipes.[2]

The manufacture of kyphi as given in the Edfu text involves blending and aging of sixteen ingredients in sequence. The result was rolled into balls and placed on hot coals to release a perfumed smoke.


  • Budge. An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, E.A.Wallace Budge, (Dover Publications), c 1978, (c 1920), Dover edition, 1978. (In two volumes, 1314 pp.) (softcover, ISBN 0-486-23615-3)

  • Manniche, Lise. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. University of Texas Press, 1989. ISBN 0-292-70415-1

  • Manniche, Lise and Werner, Forman. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8014-3720-2

  • Miller, Naomi F. "The Aspalathus Caper" in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, #297 (1995), p. 55-59.

  • Plutarch, Isis and Osiris (Frank Cole Babbit, translator), from The Moralia, Vol. V of the Loeb Classical Library, 1936.

  • Scarborough, John. "Early Byzantine Pharmacology" in Symposium on Byzantine Medicine (John Scarborough, editor), Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985, pp. 229–232. ISBN 0-88402-139-4