By Sherika Tenaya
It is hard to say when exactly perfumery made the transition from spiritually significant item of ritual, medicine and survival - as used by indigenous peoples - to the body adornment and personal expression accessory we use today. Much of our human history has been lost to time or, more accurately, to conquering victors who didn’t care to pass on the stories or culture of those they defeated.
Therefore, what we know of the conception of perfumery begins, according to Mandy Aftel, world renowned perfumist and author of the highly engrossing book Essence & Alchemy, with ancient Egyptian priests who, “blended the juices expressed from succulent flowers and plants, the pulp of fruits, spices, resins and gums from trees, meal made from oleaginous seeds, wine, honey, and oils to make incense and unguents.”
It was in Egypt where the use of aromatic materials morphed into something more than religious ceremony and pomp: they were used as personal bodily adornment as well as a type of currency. Aftel remarks, “From Egyptian times, fragrant blends were used for bodily adornment and curative purposes as well as in religious ceremonies. ‘This will be the way of the king...and he will take your daughters to be perfumers,’ says the Bible (1 Sam. 8:11-13). The Jerusalem wall paintings reveal that the perfumers were indeed women, and that they were as likely to serve the court as the temple. Moreover, aromatic substances, being rare, precious and easily transported by caravan, were used for barter - costus, sandalwood, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and most especially, frankincense and myrrh. These ingredients were so important and so difficult to obtain that the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut sent a fleet of ships to Punt (Somalia) to bring back myrrh seedlings to plant in her temple.”
In a very colorful rendition of ancient Egypt at the time of Cleopatra’s reign, Stacy Schiff, pulitzer prize winning author of the captivating book Cleopatra: A Life, brings to life the city of Alexandria, which she describes as the “Paris of the ancient world” and enumerates, in detail, how they used scent to create opulence during their festivities,
“At banquets those intricacies [of elaborate floor mosaics] vanished under lush carpets of lilies and roses, with which Egypt was abundantly supplied. ‘The general rule,’ gushed one chronicler, ‘is that no flower, including roses, snowdrops, or anything else, ever completely stops blooming.’ Strewn in heaps over the floors, they lent the impression of a country meadow, if one littered at meal’s end by oyster shells, lobster claws, and peach pits. There was nothing rare about a banquet order for three hundred crowns of roses, or for as many braided garlands. (Roses were crucial, their fragrance believed to prevent intoxication.) Perfumes and unguents were Alexandrian specialties; attendants sprinkled cinnamon and cardamom and balsam perfumes on banqueters’ crowns as musicians played or storytellers performed.”
Egypt seemed to have something of a lasting influence on the differing peoples that became enmeshed in their long history. The Jews, for example, seemed to carry on the practice of using unguents and aromatic oils on their bodies. Indeed, Moses, the leader of the Hebrews who famously fled from Egyptian oppression in the book of Exodus in the Bible, was commanded by the Lord to create a holy oil from olive oil and fragrant spices.
Furthermore, Aftel describes the fascinating discovery of a perfume workshop found in some old ruins in Jerusalem, “In the basement of a house in Jerusalem that dates from the first century B.C., archaeologists have uncovered evidence - ovens, cooking pots, and mortars - of a perfume workshop for the nearby temple. Wall carvings and paintings from the period document the process of perfume-making in detail.”
Even the Romans were not left totally untouched by the Egyptian preoccupation with fragrance and seemed to take the obsession a few shades beyond overboard. “Wealthy Romans used scented doves to perfume the air at feasts, rubbed dogs and horses with unguents, brushed walls with aromatics, and sprinkled floors with flower petals.” Aftel writes, before hilariously documenting the antics of what can only be described as the neurotic tendencies of the emperor Nero who, “Was reported to have had Lake Lucina covered in rose petals when he threw a feast there, and he was said to sleep on a bed of petals. (Supposedly, he suffered insomnia if even of them happened to be curled.)”
In many ways, our entanglement with the sensual nature of aroma, while changed and transformed through the ages, still manages to hold the same sway over us. Charging us with passion, inciting obsession, suffusing our rituals with meaning and overpowering our reason - in much the same manner as love - it’s no wonder we become so easily ensnared by both.