By: Sherika Tenaya
In my last blog, I described the power of scent and how potent a hold it has over the human psyche - coloring all aspects of our lives: from memory recall to sexual intimacy to conduit between human and the divine.
In my research for that blog, I came across quite a few astonishing and enthralling stories that demonstrate just how powerful a role scent has played in the drama that is human history, as well as its characterization in our myths and legends. Many, though not all, of these stories were pulled from the highly engrossing and superbly well written book Essence and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
In many cases, much of the mystique surrounding certain scents or essences was the way in which they were harvested - with the same care, concern and ritual as priceless religious artifacts. Like the story of frankincense, as told by Pliny in his Natural History treatise in which he stated that it could be found only in Saba, a nearly inaccessible part of Arabia due to the surrounding treacherous mountains.
Harvesting frankincense was a hereditary privilege, passed down through male members of certain families who were considered holy in their own right. While making their small incisions in the trees to harvest this precious material, these men were forbidden from having sex with women or attending funerals. The collected frankincense would then make its way to the town of Sabota on camel where it could only enter the city through one gate where priests would take one-tenth of the harvest for the god Sabin. To do anything else with the frankincense before the priests received their share was punishable by death.
The harvesting of sandalwood is also rather involved as the sandalwood tree is considered a hemiparasite, meaning it gets some nutrients from photosynthesis and the rest of its nutritional needs are gained by siphoning from the roots of its neighboring trees, who, in return for their unwilling donations, are gifted with a slow death.
The essential oil of sandalwood does not appear until the tree is at least twenty-five years old, so the tree must be at least thirty before any harvesting can be done. One cannot simply chop the tree down at this point because the precious oil is just as much in the roots as the trunk and branches. Instead, the tree must be wholly unearthed and the help of white ants enlisted to eat away the sapwood and bark. The ants very congenially leave the heartwood, where the oil is, untouched. The heartwood is then coarsely powdered and steam-distilled.
Sometimes certain scents capture our imaginations because figures in history gain almost comical attachments to them. For example, musk - an aphrodisiac of legendary proportions, was so well loved by the empress Josephine, that she filled her dressing room with it despite Napoleon’s indignant protestations. Forty years after her death, after multiple washings and coats of paint, the scent still remained.
The Arab love for roses is well renowned. According to Aftel, “They preserved them by gathering the buds and placing them in earthenware jars that they sealed with clay and buried in the earth. When roses were required, they dug up the jar, sprinkled the buds with water, and left them to air until the petals opened.” She even mentions a sultan who was so enamored with roses, that he forbade anyone else to grow them, as a jealous lover. He purportedly dressed in pink in their honor and had his rugs continually sprinkled with rosewater.
Perhaps one of the most famous historical figures whose love for scent was well known was the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. While everything we know of her and her story is given to us through the secondhand writings of men who hardly, if at all, knew her, and who were on the side of her enemies; her love for perfume and opulent taste in her immediate surroundings withstands.
Egypt was easily the richest country in the world at the time she lived and Egyptian women in general enjoyed a great deal of personal liberty that many of our history books ignore or fail to mention. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Cleopatra was said to have her own perfume workshop and was known to rub her mouth with solid perfume before kissing a lover so that “the scent would force him to think of her after they parted.” She even had the sails of the barge upon which she received Mark Antony, an incredibly important political meeting for her at the time, drenched in perfume. Later, she held court in a room with a carpet of rose petals, said to be several feet thick, that were fixed in place by nets fastened to the walls.
Even well after her infamous death, Cleopatra’s love for perfume touched the lives of two Hungarian brothers as late as 1923. Laszlo Lengyel was a major figure in dispensing “love potions” and other products, very popular at the time, that were said to enhance sexual desire and performance. Lengyel and his brother, inspired by the recent discovery of King Tut’s tomb, produced a perfume they said was based on a formula of Cleopatra’s that had been found in the tomb. Interestingly enough, the two brothers promptly developed serious illnesses, in accordance with the vengeful legends of what happened to those who disturbed such tombs, and only regained their health when they withdrew their new perfume off the market.
The power of scent was so remarkable that certain prudish governmental bodies attempted to impose legislation criminalizing the stuff. In England in the year 1770, an act of Parliament decreed: “all women, of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors, and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.”
Of course, such a thing was impossible to enforce for long. The following year in London, a man named James Graham gained national acclaim by setting up a business that aimed to help childless couples conceive. According to Aftel, this featured a “Celestial Bed” supported on a series of elaborately carved and colored pillars that Graham claimed to possess “magical influences which are now celebrated from pole to pole and from the rising to the setting sun.” The bed was the appetizer to the perfumed entree. Atop the bed was a dome that wafted “odoriferous and balmy spells and essences” that were said to enliven and vivify. The mattress was stuffed, not with the customary feathers, but with “sweet new wheat or oatstraw mingled with balm, rose leaves, lavender flowers and oriental spices.” To complete this scent-saturated experience of celestial lovemaking, the sheets themselves were scented with resins and balsams.
Across the world, scent is used as the tinder to fan the fire of desire. “In the highlands of New Guinea,” Aftel writes, “shamans say incantations over ginger leaves, which are thought to lend allure to the man who rubs them on his face and body. In the Amazon, Yanomamo men carry sachets of fragrant powders that are supposed to make attractive women tumble into their arms.”
Even Sigmund Freud, well known for his sexually-focused, if not obsessed, theories on human psychological development, suspected that the nose was related to the sexual organs and he therefore considered the repression of smell to be a major cause of mental illness.
When it comes to scent and the role it has played in our growth and development as a species, this blog is barely scratching the surface of what is out there, yet even so, fully captures the obsession - some might call it the possession - of scent upon our imaginations. So the next time you are rubbing your favorite scented bath product on your skin, remember the stories of old and immerse yourself in the delicious madness, the sensual grandness that scent has carried through the ages.