Scents in Ancient Cultures

Viti Vinci 05/09/2022

Perfume usage goes back thousands of years; fragrances have been discovered in ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire. These fragrances and perfumes were used for hygiene and cleanliness, as well as ceremonially and as a symbol of nobility.

First, lets talk briefly about Nefertum, the God of Perfume. From the union of Ptah and Sejmet, Nefertum was born, the lovely movement, god eternally young whose crown was a lotus flower. The myth says he was born from the lotus flower found in the waters of Nun, symbolising the rising of the sun.

Ancient egypt

In ancient Egypt the most popular scents were floral, woody and fruity.

They had such a zest for life that they wanted to prolong it even after death in the realm of Osiris and, for that, they used funerary equipment: food, furniture, amulets, perfumes and cosmetics. It was thought that scent brings us to the threshold of eternity, connecting us to deities. In fact, perfume was said to be proved by the deity itself (the temple in actual fact).

Scent had a deeply religious and symbolic significance. On the threshold of the eternal life scent had a crucial part to play. In the tomb of Tutankhamun amongst its fragrant treasures is proof of a connection between scent and the life-death-rebirth cycle. During the special ceremony a priest would enter the tomb at night and proceed to the niche at the innermost room. Here he would light a candle, burn incense and present a jar of madjet while he recited a short prayer asking for the eye of Horus (symbolised by the unguent) to be vigilant for the deceased and illuminate his path in the hereafter.

They used sweet moringa oil for the funeral procession of Osiris and mandrake in an unguent intended to facilitate eternal life. In their temples, in the morning they would burn incense of resin to purify the air and revive the spirit. By means of odour the officials could reach parts of the divine power which they could not see. Scents were believed to originate from the gods in the first place. They would also use myrrh, cypress and juniper along with scent unguents.

King is represented offering the sacred oils and presenting heaps of incense as well as incense trees. The recipes of unguents and other sacred preparations were deemed important enough to be inscribed in stone on the walls of the temples, not in public places and only the priest and the staff had access.

On the other hand, scent was used as an erotic factor. Perfumes took the form of unguents, and they were personal and intimate. Furthermore, the true making of divine virility was the scent with which the god communicated his presence. In some love poems you can even find that the release of scent coincides with the moment of the women’s climax. The presence of scent became a coded message conveying “sexuality”.

Perfume was also a sign of wealth and opulence and hair and wigs were scented with solid perfume (normally scented fat) in the form of unguent cones. Another scent that was used greatly was the lotus flower; of great significance in the Egyptian world. In many representations, men and women carry these flowers in their hands and bury their noses among scented petals and the flower or bud often adorns the unguent cone on their heads. It also played an important role in rituals.

Scent had the ability to cause sedation and excitement by narcotic plants; a state of mind controlled by inhaling lightly narcotic substances. When an Egyptian buried his nose in a lotus flower the effect must have been considerable, the scent may have been sufficient to achieve alterations of consciousness. Another example, the scent of the mandrake was inhaled and had a stimulant effect, as described in a poem where the woman loses any inhibitions towards her slave.

The lotus extract was mixed with wine to obtain a drink with a narcotic effect; this is why in funerary banquet scenes it is common to find lotus flowers adorning and perfuming wine jars. During the same banquets, the Egyptians represented themselves manipulating mandrake fruits which, mixed with alcohol, have sedative effects. It is not unreasonable then to think that they used lotus flowers for the same purpose (let’s not forget that the Nymphea lotus was commonly used as an anaesthetic in the First World War when opiates were scarce).

Other cultures

There are humorous Roman frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum showing bands of cupids in perfume shops mixing scents. In ancient Egypt, Palestine, and the Roman Empire, temples almost always had perfume factories nearby producing the great quantities of fragrances they needed.

A 2003 archeological find at Pyrgos on Cyprus, the island where Aphrodite first stepped foot on land after her birth at sea, discovered a perfume-making workshop from circa 1850 B.C., the oldest one in the world. In the ancient world, oils were used as the carrier medium for perfumes, therefore it was more subtle, and you’d have to be closer to the skin of the wearer to feel its heady power. In Greece and Rome, the abundance of olive oil made it the most popular oil for the perfume industry.

Perfume was at the heart of sacred Indian Tantric rituals, used in ceremonies and in their temples. The ancient Chinese and medieval Europeans believed that fragrance purified the air and prevented diseases. Ancient doctors would even use perfumes medicinally to treat infections and even mental illness.

In India, the traditional affectionate greeting – equivalent of the Western hug or kiss – was to smell someone’s head. An ancient Indian text declares “I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love”. We know that perfume existed in ancient India, around 3300-1300 B.C.E., and to the ancient Greeks, perfume was thought to be a gift from the gods, and many perfumes were named after Greek goddesses. They practised a form of aromatherapy in which certain scents were used to improve health, vitality, and moods. Perfume was used in almost all of their traditional rituals and ceremonies, from birth to marriage to death.

Although, rather than perfume, ancient Rome preferred talking about scented ointments made of flower petals, spices or other natural ingredients mainly originated from the East and city-states of ancient Greece. Their use was quite different from what we know now. The scented ointments were conventionally used to cure diseases, ward off epidemics or conduct religious ceremonies. In fact, the Latin term of perfume derives from “per fumum” (“from smoke”). The scented ointments were also used from Egypt to ancient Rome to cleanse the body. This type of cleansing could take place at home or in ancient gyms. The Patricians loved being massaged with ointments and scented oils right in the thermal baths, inside special areas called Unctorium. Oils or even wine were often added to the thermal water. The scented ointments were also playing the leading role during the most convivial atmosphere, for example, on occasion of official banquets. It was common to add some drops of essential oils to water and sprinkle tables and triclinia for the guests.

The Roman women, besides spreading it on their bodies, were using the perfume to adorn their hair. This tradition seems to come from Greece and Egypt as well. The Egyptian and Etruscan women kneaded herbs and flowers, especially fragrant ones, with fat or beeswax, making small cones in order to introduce them in their hairstyles. Once exposed to the sun, the cones would melt, giving off intense fragrance. It is also known that Cleopatra in Egypt was keeping some sort of a diary with her fragrant creations such as perfumed sails of her ships on occasion of battles. In many ancient cultures it was the widespread opinion that the gods only subsisted on the winds and fragrances sacrificed by humans. Burnt offerings, fumigation, and fragrance sacrifices were a way to talk to the unearthly, the heavenly – the gods – to be mild and merciful.

The origins of ayurvedic health concept date at least 5,000 years back to the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. Characterized by “veda” (knowledge), it already knew the positive effect of plant aromas as well as herbs, spices, resins, and minerals. Fragrances, that are distilled essences of plants and flowers, were appreciated not only for their medicinal properties, but also as natural perfumes.

The tradition of manufacturing perfume (the distilling of fragrances) can be traced back to earlier than 3,000 B.C. Distilling equipment made of terracotta from this period has been found in western India and Pakistan. Leather bottles were also used for distilling. In other advanced civilizations at times of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, as well as in the early Indus civilization (around 2,800 B.C.) and the high period of the Harappan culture fragrances, aromatic plants, plant extracts, and cosmetics were used only by the priestly caste during religious ceremonies and funeral rites to communicate directly with the gods.

The use of wild herbs and aromatic plants for ritual purposes and for treating illnesses, extends even further back in human history. According to legend, the Khoisan people, an ancient tribe in southwestern Africa, knew the use of wild herbs more than 100,000 years ago. Incense plants, resins, and blossoms were widespread in the ancient world; apart from a few, mostly local exceptions, the same sources of fragrances were used everywhere. Among the most popular and widely used sources were quince seeds, jasmine flowers, gum mastic, myrrh leaves, rosemary, lavender, juniper berries, cedar wood, oud or agarwood, lotus, and rose petals.

Bundles of aromatic flowers and bottles of fragrance were placed in the coffins that even the gods in the afterlife would still be able to smell the favourite fragrances of the dead. The basis for this tradition is the custom of cultivating flower gardens, widespread in Egypt and originally adopted from the Babylonians. This was done everywhere, even in the cities, to offer a pleasant environment for conversations with the departed.

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