Smell is the most primitive of our five senses. Aromas have the power to uncover buried memories, trigger emotions, alter moods and ignite sexual passions. Scents also have the power to connect us to the spiritual realm. Fragrance has been an invisible element in magical ceremonies and religious rituals for at least 5000 years.The smoke of incense has carried messages to the gods, cleared negative influences from sacred spaces, helped mystics achieve altered states of consciousness and lifted the souls of the dead to paradise.
The ancient Egyptians used vast quantities of incense and other aromatics. Priests anointed themselves with perfumes, fragrant unguents and scented oils several times a day. Flowers, spices and herbs were essential elements in the sacred art of mummifying the dead. When King Tut's tomb was opened early in the 20th century, 3000 years after it had been sealed, a faint whiff of perfume still hung in the air.
The most famous Egyptian scent was kyphi, a very intense concoction with the power to induce hypnotic states. Kyphi contained sixteen ingredients including honey, wine, bitumen and frankincense. The number sixteen was significant in Egyptian magic because it is the square of a square (four times four). Only priests were allowed to make and use kyphi. They mixed it according to a secret ritual while chanting sacred texts.
Each day at dawn, the priests offered frankincense to the Sun god Re. At noon they burned myrrh. Kyphi was saved for the daily sunset when it was ignited with great ceremony to encourage the Sun to return to the sky the following morning.
Egyptians also used perfumes as cosmetics. Women placed scented cones of wax on their heads. As their body heat warmed the cones, the wax melted down over them and scented their hair and bodies. Young men wore as many as fifteen different scents at once and Cleopatra perfumed the sails of her royal barge.
The Classical World
The Greeks and Romans were as addicted to fragrance as the Egyptians. The Greeks roasted spices on braziers, used aromatic oil in lamps, poured rose water on hot rocks to produce fragrant steam and filled fountains with perfume. The intoxicating fumes inhaled by the priestesses at Delphi allowed them to predict the future of kings and empires.
Romans burned incense to the Lares, their household gods, and before civic ceremonies. The Emperor Nero used more incense every few months than Saudi Arabia could produce in an entire year. The most extravagant use of fragrance was reserved for grand Imperial Roman banquets. Dinner guests rinsed their hands and feet in perfume when they arrived. Mists of fragrance and showers of rose petals drifted down on them from time to time as they ate. Doves whose wings had been saturated with perfume flew overhead, further scenting the air.
Frankincense and Myrrh
Throughout the ancient world, incense meant frankincense, a resin that comes from trees. Its spicy, sensuous smoke filed temples from Babylon to China. Frankincense quieted overactive minds and focused mental energies. Ascetics in India inhaled its smoke to achieve deeper levels of meditation.
Frankincense's value was surpassed only by myrrh, another resinous substance obtained from shrubs. Myrrh calmed turbulent emotions and provided strength and endurance during times of difficulties. Some find myrrh's scent vaguely medicinal. For others its smoky, sweet aroma evokes the very essence of spirituality. Myrrh was so expensive that only the super wealthy had access to it. It was so precious that "my myrrh" became a term of endearment.
After the Roman Empire fell, people continued to use herbs and flowers to scent their homes, clothing and bodies and the wealthiest churches still burned frankincense, but the art of perfume making was virtually lost in Europe. Luckily, the entire world did not slide into the Dark Ages.
The Queen of the Night
As the Europeans struggled with basic survival, the Persians, who believed a flower's fragrance was its soul, continued working on ways to extract botanical essences. Attar of roses, an intensely fragrant scent that is still used in perfume making, was developed in Persia during the Middle Ages.
Although attar of roses is powerful, most agree that the ultimate floral fragrance is jasmine. In India jasmine is known as the "Queen of the Night" because its creamy white blossoms open in the moonlight. Everywhere it grows jasmine is considered an aphrodisiac. Its sweet scent is so sensual, it borders on the erotic. It is entirely too much for some; for others it is as addictive as a narcotic.
Inhaling the scent of jasmine strengthens intuition, encourages artistic creativity and elevates the mood. In the last fifty years natural jasmine has become so expensive it is now out of reach for all but a few. It is the myrrh of our time.
The secrets of perfume-making returned to Europe with the Crusaders in late Medieval times and perfume shops began to open in London and Paris. The perfume makers cultivated auras of mystery around their establishments and themselves. Most dabbled in alchemy, astrology and the occult. Their dimly lit shops were filled with drying flowers, rare spices and odd-looking roots. Bits of mummies were strategically placed here and there to remind customers of perfume's historic connection to ancient Egyptian magic. The strong scent of camphor and thick frankincense smoke added to the exotic atmosphere.
People were convinced that certain perfumes possessed magical properties. Some made the wearer irresistible to members of the opposite sex. Other scents guaranteed eternal youth. Still others had the power to destroy one's enemies. The names of today's perfumes - Beautiful, Eternity, Obsession - would have made as much sense in the 16th century as they do in the 21st.