Gum Ammoniac and Ammon

Jim Kollens

Amun was the chief of the Egyptian Gods.  He was identified with the accomplishments of the Pharoahs, after the defeat of the Hyksos rulers of Egypt.  The Hyksos rulers were viewed as oppressors of the people, therefore Amun was known as the protector of the poor and less fortunate.  The Pharoahs built lavish temples in his honor.   Eventually, Amun became identified with Ra, the sun God, and thus became known as Amun-Ra.

The Kushite tribes of the Libyan desert worshiped a God who appeared in the guise of a ram and protected their flocks. The Egyptians perceived that this God was none other than Amun, the king of Gods. The word Amun or Ammon comes from the Egyptian amoni meaning ‘shepherd’ or ‘to feed.’   Or, it may have meant “the hidden.”

When the Greeks made headway into Egypt, they realized that Amun was the form in which Zeus appeared to the Egyptians.   Therefore they called him Zeus-Ammon.  So,  when we see depictions of Zeus-Ammon, his appearance is quite similar to other statues of Zeus, but he bears the horns of a ram.  The Romans called him Jupiter-Hammon.

The principle shrine of Zeus-Ammon was in the Siwa Oasis, the Oasis of Ammonium, in the Libyan desert.  This place was west of Memphis, the capitol of Egypt.  There was a plant which grew in abundance around the shrine that yielded an amazing resin.  They burned this resin as an offering to Ammon.  Therefore, the resin takes it’s name from the God, and is known as ammoniac.

Gum Ammoniac or Ammoniacum is a resin incense of a most unusual kind.  It is gathered from a perennial  herb,  Dorema ammoniacum.   Unlike other resins which are gathered by scoring the plant, gum ammoniac is collected after the herb is naturally scored by insects.  The plants are quite tall, six to nine feet high and are common to many areas such as in parts of Persia.

Gum Ammoniac gives off a powerful bouquet when burned.  Many people may find the smell obnoxious.  When combined with other resins, however, it takes on a different character, amplifying the other fragrances of the entire mixture.  It has very masculine aroma, not to be ignored.

Ammoniac has medicinal value.  When eaten, it is secreted by the bronchial surfaces and helps with expectoration.  It is useful for bronchitis, asthma, and colds.  It has also been used to relieve ‘hard swellings,’ applied as a plaster.

Gum ammoniac is also used in gilding as a binder to hold gold to paper or parchment in the art of making illuminated manuscripts.  Although there are other substances that can be used for this application, ammoniac is superior in that it is known to remain active (as a glue) for 900 or more years and is fast to apply.

Gum Ammoniac is also known by the following names:  gum ammoniacum, gum amoniacu, gum hammaniacum,  and gum armoniac.   It should be noted that three very different substances have been variously called “ammoniac.”  These are 1) Gum Ammoniac, the subject of our discussion.  Further we find 2) Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride), from the same region but not the same product.  And finally 3) Bole Armeniac, something entirely different: a clay-like earth from Armenia with medicinal qualities.

It is said that  gum ammoniac is closely related to another incense resin, galbanum (Ferula gummosa), which is mentioned in Hellenic as well as Biblical texts.  The herb is also said to be related to asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida), hing, a resin used in Indian cooking as a substitute for onions.  (Asafoetida was used as a substitute for the famous spice of ancient times, Silphium – also a Ferula, , which was made extinct by over-harvesting.  It is still used in Apician cooking for this purpose.)  Perhaps the “relation” of these two plants to true gum ammoniac is more because of a confusion with Ferula Tingitana, known as “African Ammoniac.”

Continuing the ancient history, the cult of Zeus-Ammon was present throughout the Hellenic world. Pindar wrote an ode to him.    There are stories connected with the God and his shrine in Siwah.

The shrine  was visited by Alexander the Great, who traveled through the desert at great hardship.  He accomplished this, supposedly, by following birds. His purpose was to consult the famous oracle that resided there.  Amongst other things, the oracle told him that he, Alexander, was the son of Zeus-Ammon.

A famous myth connected with the God was given to us by Herodotus, the historian, known as “the father of history.”  It tells a story of Herakles, known as Hercules by the Romans.  Heracles desired to confer with Zeus himself.  But Zeus did not wish for Herakles to see his body, so the God wore the head of a ram and covered his body with its skin.

Incense for Zeus or Zeus-Ammon: Prepare 3 parts high quality frankincense,  1 part gum ammoniac, 2 parts bensoin resin, and one-half part dried oak leaves.   All the resins and oak leaves should be powdered and thoroughly mixed together.

Old Recipe for Expectorant Pills: Take of dried root of squills, in fine powder, 1 scruple; gum ammoniac, lesser cardamom seeds in powder, extract of licorice – 1 drachm.  Form them into a mass with simple syrup.  This is an elegant and commodius form for the exhibition of squills, whether for promoting expectoration, or for the other purposes to which that medicine is applied.  The dose is from 10 grains to 1 scruple, three times a day.  (from Household Cyclopedia of General Information, 1881)



Alchemy Works carries gum ammoniac and many other herbs and resins.  The owner is very knowledgeable and helpful:

You can also purchase gum ammoniac from gilding supply houses but this author cannot recommend any (I haven’t tried any of them).

Further Information:

For a more thorough discussion of Amun, see the following article:


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