May 19, 2008

Aroma - The Cultural History of Smell

This book is a rich experience for those who are sensualists of the scented world. It has been out for some time (1994, by Classon, Howes and Synnott) and is well known, but I personally have only just started reading it, and finding it an immense pleasure. I had expected it to be dry and academic, but while it is authoritative in an scholarly way, the information and descriptions are far from dry. It is full of astonishing, detailed information on the history of people's relationship to the sense of smell. The first chapter on the ancient world opens up a new (old) world, to different ways of thinking about the uses of beautiful scents. It describes how intensely involved people were with fragrances and how refined their tastes were. The enjoyment of the natural world was a greater part of daily life. Nature and its scented works was always in the foreground of people's experience, minds, and influenced their emotions, which historians and anthropologists know to be true from the historical records of art, poetry and archaeological evidence.

In Roman times people bathed daily, and great thought was put into the fragrances used to enhance the body after extensive beauty treatments for the skin and hair, for both sexes. The arms were rubbed with mint, strong concentrations of rosemary scented and conditioned the hair, and fresh clothing was scented with powdered floral and spiced substances that wafted their beauty as people moved. Garlands of flowers individually chosen for their symbolic value and particular scents were placed on the head and around the neck, and commonly offered with hospitality. Hopeful lovers decorated the exterior of the homes of their objects of affection with these garlands, making it clear to everyone that passed that someone loved lived there. People expressed their yearnings, creativity and mood through fragrances.

Very different than our day is also their use of perfumes and fragrant substances as part of public and communal events. Parades, theatrical gatherings and dinner parties were all scented in imaginative ways, with saffron and cinnamon, attar of roses and strong herbs. People rubbed mint into the wood of the dinner table. People scented their wine and vied in creating imaginative variations of scented experiences for the pleasure and stimulation of their guests. Flowers and fragrant herbs were used as carpets in the home, each room's fragrance calibrated for the tastes of the family members and for the frequent celebrations that were part of daily life. The incense burning in the temples scented the streets. This afforded a communal experience that sensually and mentally unified the crowds of people who all were experiencing the same scent at the public events and the frequent and large private entertainments. People offered each other perfume as we would a cup of coffee to a visitor. Of course in ancient times, perfumes were such that even if ingested upon heavy and repeated exposure, they would be delicious and probably even nourishing. In our day, if you drank perfume or overexposed yourself it might be poisonous or induce some kind of chemical reactivity or allergy. Because ancient perfumes were always natural and organic, they were not so dangerous or overpowering as those we are so frequently exposed to. Ingesting cinnamon, honey, rose petals, herbs, saffron, resins and balsams, and enjoying flowers in full scented bloom was not overwhelming or harmful. On the contrary, these prized public scent experiences were known to be only beneficial and enhancing the body's health.

It was the cultural habit of awareness and pleasure people routinely took in their sense of smell that allowed them to develop discernment of the subtleties and concentrations of the presence of scented beauty. Also interesting is that the even subtle flavor and scent of water and the varieties of honey or other foods were prized. The fertility of the earth was judged by its perfume, and the spring rains bringing out the earth's fragrance drying in the sun was consciously appreciated. Honey was heavily used in food, beauty treatments and for fragrances and especially prized when scented by the different flowers the bees used to create it. The flavor of water from different streams was extolled and enjoyed. Conscious enjoyment of the fragrance of fresh bread, vegetables and fruit was a strong element in the appreciation of the necessities of daily life. Other ancient cultures such as the Egyptian and Persian were also involved in the use of scents for enjoyment and as aids to clarifying the mind through the senses. Fragrances were used to enhance awareness of the present moment and for personal and communal spirituality, as well for all forms of physical sensuality and the heightening of sexual attraction. Of course those who were not wealthy enough to patronize the perfumers experienced the more precious fragrances primarily through the scented public entertainments, and religious processions. Bowls of perfume and aromatic substances were carried to scent the air, public fountains were perfumed for holidays and special occasions, and there was always the enjoyment of the natural seasonal changes and the scents associated with them.

I am looking forward to the chapter on the nineteenth century European poets such as Baudelaire whose personal influence on a renewed cultural appreciation of the sense of smell was so deep. Reading this book has expanded and renewed my own appreciation of our primal human connection to the strongest sense of all, the sense of smell. To read of historical records that depict a way of life that shows the connection to the world's beauty available to us all through the sense of smell is inspiring.

Read this book! (if you haven't already) is vivid and pleasurable and shows how the many scents and fragrances of life have imaginative uses with so much more potential application and dimension than we presently employ.

Image above, Wall Fragment with Cupids and Psyche making Perfume Roman 50-75 CE Fresco
Los Angeles, Getty Villa. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2006


chayaruchama said...

Thank you- once more- for an excellent reference !

I just adore that fresco, btw.
[And am enjoying looking at your painting, every morning !]

yuki said...

It is splendid blog. I am studied.
Please link to this site.

Anonymous said...

You've made this book my newest lemming! And it's the price of a good bottle of juice, thank you very much. But one can never have enough education about scent. It's my theory that we of the computer/information era are becoming sensorily deprived, sitting in front of our screens endlessly reading blogs (well, at least MY ever increasing butt feels that way!). Perfume is the perfect accessory to the computer screen.

(you should have seen me trying to rub fresh oregano into my desk...!!)

Lucy said...

Chaya dear -- I am so glad you like that yellow and blue -- I think of you so often, I wish we lived next door to each other!

Lucy said...

Dear Vidal:

I am sure your desk gods are thanking you for the perfumed offering -- though maybe oregano could get a little strong for the early a.m. blog readings? Hey, you can always try toning it with some other strong herbal...I love the idea myself. Yes the book is expensive and only getting more so. There are some used copies I saw last I looked for under $40...

I often get as stiff as a board from sitting too long sometimes at the computer.

I recently saw an article in the Times on steampunk that showed someone had made a case for their computer so it looked like a fine piece of antique nautical or medical equipment or a musical instrument of wood and brass -- if that idea caught on, we could polish our computers and tvs with all kind of aromatic elixirs...