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Its engaging style and heady subject matter are sure to fascinate anyone who likes to nose around in the hothouse of culture. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Includes bibliographical references and index. Social history. Howes, David, —. Synnott, Anthony, — III. Title GT C53 '. The meaning and power of smell vi vii 1 Part I In search of lost scents 1 The aromas of antiquity 13 2 Following the scent: The politics of smell 6 The aroma of the commodity: The commercialization of smell Notes Bibliography Index v Tables 1 2 3 4 5 Olfactory classification system of the Suya Indians of Brazil Olfactory classification system of the Serer Ndut of Senegal Olfactory classification system of the Kapsiki of Cameroon Inca olfactory terms Chinese table of correspondences vi Acknowledgements This book is the result of several years of study of the social role of smell in the West and across cultures.
From that period on we have been gathering material on smell in culture— more material, indeed, than we have been able to use here—and working out how to order and interpret our findings. The opinions expressed in this book are, of course, entirely our own. Constance Classen would like to thank Gregory Baum and Lionel Sanders for their advice and encouragement.
A fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada enabled her to research and write her contribution to this book. She is indebted to Lawrence Sullivan for making it possible for her to carry out her research as a fellow of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University. David Howes would like to thank Michael Lambek, Alain Corbin, Marguerite Dupire, Rob Shields, Gail Guthrie Valaskakis and the students in his psychological anthropology classes at Concordia University for the encouragement and highly constructive criticisms they have provided.
Chapters 1 and 2 were researched and written by Constance Classen, while the other chapters represent more of a collective effort. Chapter 6 is taken from C. Classen and D. Introduction The meaning and power of smell Smell is powerful. Odours affect us on a physical, psychological and social level.
For the most part, however, we breathe in the aromas which surround us without being consciously aware of their importance to us. It is only when our faculty of smell is impaired for some reason that we begin to realize the essential role olfaction plays in our sense of well-being. One man who lost his sense of smell due to a head injury expressed this realization as follows: You smell people, you smell books, you smell the city, you smell the spring—maybe not consciously, but as a rich unconscious background to everything else.
My whole world was suddenly radically poorer. Interestingly, while for many people commercial perfumes had fond associations, many listed them among the odours they disliked. Some stressed the physical discomfort perfumes gave 1 2 Introduction them: Others complained that perfumes obscured natural odours and desensitized the senses in general. A scent associated with a good experience can bring a rush of joy.
A foul odour or one associated with a bad memory may make us grimace with disgust.
Gf Tricked Into Free Tubes Look ExciteRespondents to the survey noted that many of their olfactory likes and dislikes were based on emotional associations. Such associations can be powerful enough to make odours that would generally be labelled unpleasant agreeable, and those that would generally be considered fragrant disagreeable for particular individuals.
The smell of sports stadiums was a preferred scent of another because he associated it with his favourite sports. Likewise some seemingly innocuous or pleasant scents, such as carrots, cantaloupe and flowers, were strongly disliked by certain respondents because of the bad experiences associated with them: When my father passed away two years ago, we put a certain kind of flower in front of his picture.
The perception of smell, thus, consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves, but of the experiences and emotions associated with them. In one well-known test, women and men were able to distinguish t-shirts worn by their marriage partners—from among dozens of others—by smell alone. Introduction 3 In spite of its importance to our emotional and sensory lives, smell is probably the most undervalued sense in the modern West.
While it is true that the olfactory powers of humans are nothing like as fine as those possessed by certain animals, they are still remarkably acute. Our noses are able to recognize thousands of smells, and to perceive odours which are present only in infinitesimally small quantities. Smell, however, is a highly elusive phenomenon.
Odours, unlike colours, for instance, cannot be named—at least not in European languages. Nor can odours be recorded: In the realm of olfaction, we must make do with descriptions and recollections. Most of the research on smell undertaken to date has been of a physical scientific nature.
Significant advances have been made in the understanding of the biological and chemical nature of olfaction, but many fundamental questions have yet to be answered: Is the nose the only part of the body affected by odours? How can smells be measured objectively? There is also a body of research in the psychology of smell. Various experiments have been done in an attempt to find out the effects of odours on the performance of tasks, on mood, on dieting, and so on.
Smell is cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon. The intimate, emotionally charged nature of the olfactory experience ensures that such value-coded odours are interiorized by the members of society in a deeply personal way. The study of the cultural history of smell is, therefore, in a very real sense, an investigation into the essence of human culture.
The devaluation of smell in the contemporary West is directly linked to the revaluation of the senses which took place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The philosophers and 4 Introduction scientists of that period decided that, while sight was the preeminent sense of reason and civilization, smell was the sense of madness and savagery.
In the course of human evolution, it was argued by Darwin, Freud and others, the sense of smell had been left behind and that of sight had taken priority. Even on those rare occasions when it is the subject of popular discourse—for example, in certain contemporary works of fiction—it tends to be presented in terms of its stereotypical association with moral and mental degeneracy.
Grenouille exercises his abnormal passion for scent by murdering maidens in order to sniff up their sweet fragrance. In the end, through his de-scenting of maidens, Grenouille is able to invest himself with an odour so attractive that he is torn to pieces and eaten by a frenzied crowd. Why this cultural repression and denigration of smell?
Generally speaking, those elements which are systematically suppressed by a culture are so regulated not only because they are considered inferior, but also because they are considered threatening to the social order. In what ways, one wonders, could a heightened olfactory consciousness be dangerous to the established social order in the West?
Through smell, therefore, one interacted with interiors, rather than with surfaces, as one did through sight. Furthermore, odours cannot be readily contained, they escape and cross boundaries, blending different Introduction 5 entities into olfactory wholes. Such a sensory model can be seen to be opposed to our modern, linear worldview, with its emphasis on privacy, discrete divisions, and superficial interactions.
This is not to suggest that an olfactory-minded society would be an egalitarian utopia with all members harmoniously combining into a cultural perfume. As we shall see, olfactory codes can and often do serve to divide and oppress human beings, rather than unite them.
The suggestion is rather that smell has been marginalized because it is felt to threaten the abstract and impersonal regime of modernity by virtue of its radical interiority, its boundary-transgressing propensities and its emotional potency. Contemporary society demands that we distance ourselves from the emotions, that social structures and divisions be seen to be objective or rational and not emotional, and that personal boundaries be respected.
Thus, while olfactory codes continue to be allowed to reinforce social hierarchies at a semi- or subconscious level, sight, as the most detached sense by Western standards , provides the model for modern bureaucratic society. While the high status of sight in the West makes it possible for studies of vision and visuality, even when they are critical, to be taken seriously, any attempt to examine smell runs the risk of being brushed off as frivolous and irrelevant.
None the less, the role of odour in culture is such a profound and fascinating subject that a number of scholars in different fields—including history, sociology and anthropology—have sought to explore it in their work. Aroma, indeed, offers the first comprehensive exploration of the cultural role of odours in different periods of Western history up to and including the present, and in a wide range of non-Western societies.
Just as important as the actual use of odour in the ancient world, however, were its metaphorical and literary uses. The range of classical olfactory expressions—in the form of quips, paeans, and condemnations—comes through vividly, even after so many centuries, in the writings of contemporary playwrights and poets. Consider, for example, the lyrical beauty of the following olfactory evocation of a kiss by the Roman epigrammatist Martial: Breath of balm from phials of yesterday, of the last effluence that falls from a curving jet of saffron; perfume of apples ripening in their winter chest, of fields lavish with the leafage of spring…13 These lovingly crafted lines on scent are an indication of the intimate meaning odours had for the ancients.
The combined influences of Christian asceticism and barbarian austerity led to a decline in the use of perfumes after the collapse of Rome. With the Crusades, however, the peoples of the West were once again brought into contact on a large scale with the spices and perfumes of the East which had so entranced the Greeks and Romans. Aromatics were an essential part of the good life of medieval to Enlightenment Europe.
So much so that court etiquette in seventeenth-century Versailles, for example, demanded that a different scent be worn each day of the week. At the same time, fundamental spiritual and curative powers were attributed to scent by Christendom. This move is brought out in the works of many writers of that period, such as Baudelaire and, later, Proust, who used olfactory symbolism in their writings to create an evocative atmosphere.
The final section of Chapter 2 examines the attitudes of nineteenth-century thinkers—from Darwin to Freud—towards odour and explores their influence on the olfactory norms of the modern West. This chapter deals with how smell is used to structure and classify different aspects of the world, from time and space to gender and selfhood.
Other topics considered include the smell vocabularies of non-Western cultures and the use of olfactory codes as models for social organization. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how smell symbolism is linked to other sensory symbolic systems in certain cultures. Aromatics are employed across cultures for a variety of purposes, including seduction, healing, hunting and communication with the spirits.
Among the Umeda of New Guinea, for example, a hunter sleeps with a bundle of herbs tucked under his pillow, the aroma of which is supposed to inspire dreams of the chase. The next day he has only to act out his scentinspired dream to enjoy a successful hunt. The Warao of Venezuela, who have developed a complex system of aromatherapy, enlist powerful herbal scents to combat the evil odours of disease.
The Amazonian Desana use scents, along with other sensory stimuli, to help direct hallucinogenic visions. These and other ritual uses of scent translate the olfactory classification systems discussed in the previous chapter into practice. Through having developed an understanding of the social history of smell 8 Introduction in the West and an appreciation of its cultural elaboration in nonWestern societies in the two previous parts, we are better able to penetrate the olfactory symbol systems of the contemporary West in this concluding section.
As olfactory preferences and aversions tend to take root deep in the human psyche, evoking or manipulating odour values is a common and effective means of generating and maintaining social hierarchies. This may explain why smell is enlisted not only to create and enforce class boundaries, but also ethnic and gender boundaries. Such olfactory social codes often pass unnoticed by us, for they tend to function below the surface of conscious thought.
Olfactory management takes place on numerous levels: At the level of the body, for instance, deodorants suppress unwanted odours while perfumes and colognes allow for the creation of an ideal olfactory image. At the level of the workplace, the concern is with how to develop an attractive olfactory atmosphere that will stimulate and refresh workers, as opposed to the stale air that is usually found in the enclosed modern office building.
In the marketplace, businesses Introduction 9 are increasingly concerned not only with new ways of marketing perfumes, such as home fragrance products and aromatherapy, but with the addition of synthetic fragrances to a variety of products, from processed foods to house paints. The chapter ends with a discussion of how odour, as it is increasingly simulated by fragrance engineers and commercialized by marketers, is passing from the realm of modernity to that of postmodernity.
When considered as a whole, the three parts of Aroma offer intriguing juxtapositions of olfactory beliefs and practices from different cultures and eras. In classical Greek cosmology, for example, an odour of spices was associated with the sun. The present-day Desana of Colombia attribute a honey-like sweetness to the sun.
Among the Batek Negrito of Malaysia, however, the sun is thought to emit pathogenic foul odours. In modern Western cosmology, of course, the sun is basically a visual entity, with no olfactory identity. At times such different beliefs and customs are seen to overlap as cultures interact with each other. As an essay on the history, anthropology and sociology of odour, Aroma is necessarily restricted in the amount of space that can be devoted to any one topic.
Our objective has been to be comprehensive rather than exhaustive. We hope that the present work will stimulate further research into the cultural construction of smell and, indeed, of all of the senses. It might be argued that by focusing on smell to the exclusion of the other senses we have been guilty of sensory bias, and that the role of smell in culture can only be understood within a multisensory context.
However, historians, anthropologists and sociologists have long excluded odour from their accounts and concentrated on the visual and the auditory, without being accused of any sensory biases. The argument must, therefore, be turned around. By demonstrating the importance of odour and olfactory codes in both Western and nonWestern societies, we wish to bring smell out of the Western scholarly and cultural unconscious into the open air of social and intellectual discourse.
It is only when a form of sensory equilibrium has been recovered, that we may begin to understand how the senses interact with each other as models of perception and paradigms of culture. People of antiquity used scent not only for purposes of personal attraction, but also as an important ingredient for everything from dinner parties through sporting events and parades to funerals.
In our own age, by contrast, the notion of a perfumed dinner party or parade is so alien as to seem absurd. Concomitantly, many of the foul smells which infused the lives of the inhabitants of earlier periods in Western history have been eliminated from our modern First World consciousness. In effect, therefore, an olfactory gulf lies between our own deodorized modern life and the richly scented lives of our forbears.
The period focused on in this chapter is the first century AD. References are also made to selected works from earlier and later periods of antiquity, however, in order to indicate the continuity of certain beliefs and practices. Garlands and floral crowns were thought to make fitting offerings for the gods, and to bestow on their wearers an essence of divinity when worn by mortals.
Pliny writes in his Natural History, for example, The smell of some plants is sweeter at a distance, becoming fainter as the distance is lessened; for instance, that of the violet. A freshly gathered rose smells at a distance, but a faded rose when nearer. All perfume however is stronger in spring, and in the morning; as the day draws near to noon it grows weaker.
Young plants also have less perfume than old ones; the strongest perfume however of all plants is given out in middle age. It is certainly the case that a soil which has a taste of perfumes will be the best soil… The earth [after a shower] sends out that divine breath of hers, of quite incomparable sweetness, which she has conceived from the sun.
This is the odour which ought to be emitted when the earth is turned up, and the scent of the soil will be the best criterion of its quality. These included spices such as cinnamon and cassia, and aromatic resins, such as myrrh and frankincense. The sale of these aromatic products made the fortune of many an Arabian merchant, as endless caravans carted loads of olfactory wealth through the dusty deserts of Arabia en route to the markets of The aromas of antiquity 15 Greece and Rome.
Arabia felix, happy Arabia, was the name the Romans wistfully gave to the country that produced such a fragrant bounty. The cultures of the ancient Middle East, however, had olfactory traditions that were in many respects more developed than those of their Western neighbours. The Greeks and Romans sometimes deprecated the extensive use of perfumes by the Egyptians, Persians and others as sensualist foppery.
More than they deprecated, however, they admired and imitated. Just as aromatics travelled to Greece and Rome from the East, there is no doubt that many aromatic customs also came via the same route. With their home-grown and their imported aromatics the ancients created gloriously heady blends of perfumes.
Megalium, the great creation of the Roman perfumer Megallus, was made of balsam, rush, reed, behen nut oil, cassia and resin. The most famous of Egyptian perfumes, Kyphi, was a blend of sixteen ingredients. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, this perfume had the power to relieve anxiety, brighten dreams, and heal the soul.
It is not only the ingredients of ancient perfumes that sound exotic to us now, but also the ways in which they were prepared. Whereas when we think of perfumes today, we inevitably imagine them as liquids, an inhabitant of the ancient world would be just as likely to enjoy perfume in the form of a thick ointment, to be smeared liberally on the body, or a fragrant smoke, infusing the air with its odour.
As in our day, the well-to-do of antiquity bought their scents from perfumers. In one Greek play, for example, a perfumer named Peron is mentioned: These vessels were kept in shady upper rooms of the shop where they would be shielded from the damaging heat of the sun. Clients shopping for a scent would have their wrists anointed with different oils by the perfumer, for, then as now, it was held that perfumes were sweetest when the scent came from the wrist.
Perfumers employed other tricks of the trade to sell their wares as well. The early Greek botanist Theophrastus tells us, for instance, that the scent of roses is so powerful that it will overwhelm most other perfumes. Perfumers wishing their clients to buy attar of roses, therefore, would scent them with it first, after which all other perfumes they tried would seem relatively odourless.
The amounts of perfumes and fragrant flowers used on such occasions could be enormous. The account in the New Testament of Jesus having his feet perfumed with expensive ointment provides a well-known example of this last custom. The true perfume lovers of antiquity were not content to anoint themselves with simply one scent, however, but would use different perfumes for different parts of the body.
Antiphanes, in reference to this fashion, writes of a wealthy Greek who The aromas of antiquity 17 …steeps his feet And legs in rich Egyptian unguents; His jaws and breasts he rubs with thick palm oil, And both his arms with extract sweet of mint; His eyebrows and his hair with marjoram, His knees and neck with essence of ground thyme. Such a discriminating use of perfumes indicates that the ancients were not simply content to douse themselves with one strong scent or another, but had a highly developed sense of olfactory aesthetics.
Some places were particularly well known for their foul odours, for example the tanneries, where nauseating-smelling hides were made into leather, and the laundries, where fullers— washers and dyers of clothes—used large quantities of urine as a cleansing agent. Some places, in turn, were characterized by their 18 In search of lost scents fragrance, for example temples.
Indeed, fragrance was such an important element of temples that not only were they heavily scented within, but perfume was occasionally mixed right into the mortar. Pliny, for example, writes that At Elis there is a temple of Minerva in which, it is said, Panaenus, the brother of Pheidias, applied plaster that had been worked with milk and saffron. When the citizens of Rome wished to cleanse themselves of the odours and grime of the city, which they customarily did once a day, they retired to the public baths.
There, they could work up a sweat in the sudatorium, have a warm bath in the tepidarium, and then cool off with a swim in the cold water of the frigidarium. When finished, the bathers entered the unctuarium, anointing room, where those who could afford it were massaged and anointed with perfumes by slaves. After passing through the various chambers of the baths, the refreshed Roman citizen could go out into the city again in good odour, clean and sweet-scented.
The homes and possessions of the well-to-do, however, were often perfumed with the same care as their own persons were. The walls of rooms would be daubed with perfumed unguent and the mosaic floors sprinkled with fragrant water and strewn with flowers. When the weather was cold, fires of scented wood would keep the homes of the wealthy both warm and perfumed.
Likewise, cushions might be filled with dried herbs, and powdered scents placed between the bedclothes to render sweet the hours of repose. Clothes were incensed with perfume and stored in chests of fragrant wood together with aromatics. Bath and pool water might be perfumed as well. At the other extreme, the unkempt home of a poor family, living in crowded, dirty conditions, might smell very differently.
Clothes stored in cedar chests, for example, were not only kept fragrant, but also protected from moths, which dislike the scent of cedar. Likewise, incense burning in storerooms both perfumed the wares within and helped keep out rodents. Incense was also believed to purify the air of the contaminating influences of illness or misfortune.
Thus, even poorer families would keep burning censers at their front doors in order to protect their homes from the malignant emanations of the world outside. For those people who lived in apartments, a pot of fragrant violets on a window-sill might serve the purpose instead. Lamp oil, which had a notoriously bad smell, was perfumed by those who could afford it, adding scent to light.
Purple dye, for example, used only in the clothing of the royalty and aristocracy because of its high cost, had the pungent odour of the decayed shellfish from which it was made. She is pleased with the smell, not with the hue. Such homes, at their best, would be oases of fragrance in the city, enveloping their inhabitants and guests in a sweet, inviting blanket of scent.
This extract also tells us the three kinds of scent necessary for a successful dinner party in ancient Greece or Rome: Fresh flowers were often strewn on the floor of the room in which the banquet was held. These garlands could be made of many different kinds of flowers or leaves, such as roses, violets, hyacinths, apple-blossoms, thyme, rosemary, myrtle, bay and parsley.
Worn around the forehead as a crown, a garland was supposed to alleviate the effects of drinking, and worn on the breast it was said to enliven the heart. In an olfactory example of gilding the lily, perfumes might be added to the wreaths to make them more odorous. Scented water would be offered to the guests in between courses for washing their sticky hands, as most foods were eaten with the fingers.
The diners would be further scented with perfumed unguents brought to them in alabaster boxes by slaves. Innovative hosts would try and introduce an element of novelty into this arrangement, as recorded in the following description: Bring in some water for our hands. Where are the dice? Will you have some perfume?
Indeed so much emphasis was placed on the enjoyment of sweet scents at dinners, that occasionally the food itself seemed paltry by comparison. Martial 22 In search of lost scents writes sarcastically of one such occasion: Thus one is said to boast that the smell of his food is enough to bring a man back from the dead.
In the former: In fact, one favourite Roman seasoning agent was a fermented fish sauce, garum, which had quite a putrid smell. Meals—which could be comprised of many courses interspersed with entertainments— customarily ended with a sweet-scented serving of fruit. And it is prepared in such a way, that you may not only have the ornament of a garland on your head, but also in yourself, and so feast your whole body with a luxurious banquet.
A character in a play by Cratinus, for example, proclaims: Consider now, how sweet the earth doth smell. How fragrantly the smoke ascends to heaven: There lives, I fancy, here within this cave Some perfume seller, or Sicilian cook. Yet, if it were bitter in flavour, as myrrh, for example, was, it could instead detract from the taste of the dish.
In such cases, however, scent seems to have taken precedence over flavour. In one Greek play, Bacchus, god of wine, describes his favourite wine in terms of its floral bouquet: Honey, which would have different scents according to the flowers used by the bees in its confection, was another common ingredient of perfumes.
In the modern West we think of perfume and food as constituting two very different categories, distinct both in odour and in edibility. In the ancient world, however, there was no such division: Whereas most modern perfumes would be highly distasteful and probably poisonous, an ancient perfume composed of, say, attar of roses, cinnamon, honey and wine could be quite delightful to the palate.
The following verse by Xenophanes offers an idea of this odorous interplay. A willing youth presents to each in turn A sweet and costly perfume…another pours out wine Of most delicious flavour, breathing round Fragrance of flowers, and honey newly made, So grateful to the sense, that none refuse, While odoriferous gums fill all the room.
The guests at a banquet would eat comfortably reclined on couches. In fact, to sit down to eat was regarded as such hardship that one upper-class Roman, who disapproved of Julius Caesar, gained a reputation as an ascetic for vowing to eat seated so long as Caesar remained in power. Incense was customarily burnt at the end of the meal, if not before, as the guests enjoyed themselves with goblets of wine and discussed the issues of the day.
This incense served not only to clear away the scents of the food and render the atmosphere agreeably spicy, but also as an offering to the household gods who would be invisibly present during every meal. The majority of the inhabitants of the ancient world, of course, enjoyed much simpler meals than the banquet described above.
This was mostly due to a lack of wherewithal, but also, as in the case of the vegetarian Pythagoreans—out of concerns of ethics or health. Thus Nicostratus writes of a freshly baked bread: A large white loaf. It was so deep, its top Rose like a tower quite above its basket. Roman theatres, for example, customarily had their stages sprinkled with saffron or other scents.
Such scents helped mask the many unpleasant odours which often accompanied public spectacles: This can be seen in the description of the games held by Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, in the second century BC in the city of Daphne. As part of the parade which initiated the games, two hundred women sprinkled every one with perfumes out of golden pitchers. During the games themselves, on the first five days every one who came into the gymnasia was anointed with a saffron perfume shed upon him out of golden dishes… And in a similar manner in the five next days there was brought in essence of fenugreek, and of amaracus, and of lilies, all differing in their scent.
The spicy, sweet scents offered to the spectators The aromas of antiquity 27 at such events would not only serve to please and excite them, but would help make them feel involved in the activities in a way that a purely visual display could not. Not only would the spectators see and hear the pageantry, they would breathe it in and feel identified with it and each other.
In the modern West, we tend to think of the use of perfumes as a purely individual matter. In antiquity, however, collective perfuming was an important means of entertaining and impressing the masses and of establishing group solidarity. This complex is expressed, 28 In search of lost scents for example, in the following Greek epigram: In this play a courtesan, Acroteleutium, convinces a man, Pyrgopolynices, of her love by pretending within his earshot that she can sense his presence by his odour.
How do you know? My sense of smell tells me; if he were inside, my nose would sense it from the odour. The man I want to see is around here somewhere; I can certainly smell him. This woman sees more with her nose than she does with her eyes. In the following epigram, a lover describes how he will use a variety of scented flowers to maximize the olfactory and visual beauty of the crown and make it a fit adornment for his beloved.
Apart from their purely romantic uses, wreaths were customary offerings to make to a god, particularly the gods of love. Athenaeus, pondering this matter, writes: Perhaps the offering of the crowns is made, not to the beloved object, but to the god Love. For thinking the beloved object the statue, as it were, of Love, and his house the temple of Love, they, under this idea, adorn with crowns the vestibules of those whom they love.
These gods were not only sweet-scented themselves, but also delighted in the presence of perfumes. Thus Plato writes of Eros: In order craftily to substitute for such a reek another odour, whenever she strips and enters the bath she is green with depilatory, or is hidden behind a plaster of chalk and vinegar, or is covered with three or four layers of sticky bean-flour.
When she imagines that by a thousand dodges she is quite safe, Thais, do what she will, smells of Thais. Martial, however, enhances them by having the jar smashed in the middle of a street where it would spread its odour far and wide, the egg stinking not only of itself but of a dead chick within. Thais, who reputedly smells worse than all these things, cannot even mask her stench with the strong odours of beauty preparations.
Aristotle, indeed, devotes a section of his Problemata to the subject of foul body odour. Garlic and onions were particularly cited as culprits and lovers were supposed to refrain from eating these foods in order to keep their kisses sweet. Acerra always drinks till daylight. Another instance is during fasts. Fasting was widely practised in the ancient world, both as a health measure and as a religious rite, and the malodorous breath which resulted from it was a fairly common phenomenon.
The odour of stale perspiration, for example, was often described as similar to the smell of a goat. Perfumed pastilles were available, for example, as a remedy for bad breath. Martial writes mockingly of a woman who tries to mask her alcoholic breath by devouring pastilles made by the famous Roman perfumer, Cosmus. That snack discolours your teeth, but is no preventive when an eructation returns from your abysmal depths.
What if the stench is stronger when mixed with drugs, and redoubled the reek of your breath carries farther? So away with tricks too well known, and detected dodges, and be just simply drunk! Pliny recommended myrtle berries for this purpose. Bathing was the most important, and in the Roman empire frequent baths, as many as three daily, were an established institution.
The Romans and Greeks, both men and women, also removed their underarm hair, which would help prevent underarm odour. Besides, the Romans made use of aluminium salts, the main ingredient in modern antiperspirants, to check perspiration. A good, strong perfume, of course, could serve to hide a multitude of unwanted odours, and perfumes were undoubtedly often used for this purpose.
Such olfactory cover-ups only worked up to a point, however, for cynics were always ready to suspect the overly perfumed of underlying ill odour. Martial thus harshly observes to one scented lady: I would not have you Gellia, pride yourself upon alien trumpery.
You know, I think, my dog can smell sweet in the same way. The rich, of course, could afford all the olfactory niceties which the poor could not: Indeed, the very scent of perfume indicated wealth, for only the rich could afford to buy perfumes. The unguent spilled over the floor and the poor people in the vicinity hastened to scoop up some of this olfactory wealth for themselves.
For example, the following anecdote was told of the first-century emperor Vespasian. In response to a complaint by his son Titus about the taxing of public urinals, Vespasian handed the youth a coin and enquired if it smelled bad. When Titus replied in the negative, Vespasian said: Among the working classes, certain trades— tanner, fishmonger, fuller, for example—were characterized as foul due to the odours associated with them.
Martial speaks in disgust, for instance, of having to endure the embraces of such tradespeople after coming back from a journey: On the one hand, of course, the countryside would naturally tend to be more fragrant than the crowded, dirty urban landscape. City dwellers, however, were inclined to characterize their rustic counterparts as uncouth bumpkins stinking of goats and garlic.
In Clouds, Aristophanes has a character define the differences between himself and his wife in terms of their different social and olfactory categories: You smell of garlic. You thing of filth, you hick, goat, pig-sty, you mud-and-manure, you! Well, what do you want? You can have your grouse and fancy fish and fowl.
But let me go my way on a meal of garlic. If you perfume a slave and a freeman, the difference of their birth produces none in the smell; and the scent is perceived as soon in the one as the other: The wealthy, for example, were categorized as fragrant not only because of their use of perfumes, but because of their high status in society, while the poor were characterized as foul not only because of the malodours of their impoverished living conditions, but because of their low social status.
The ancients themselves were aware, to some extent, of the operation of these prejudices. Consider, for example, the following extract from a play by Pherecrates in which flatterers praise the sweet scent of a wealthy man: O you who sigh like mallows soft, Whose breath like hyacinths smells, Who like the melilotus speak, And smile as doth the rose, Whose kisses are as marjoram sweet, Whose action crisp as parsley.
Being in metaphorical good odour in the ancient world, therefore, depended on more than simply being fragrant. Among the different classes of people who were categorized by odour were women and men. There are several references in ancient literature to the different characteristic odours of the sexes.
As to the outcome, however, we do not know, for the debate is interrupted. There was a feeling in certain ascetic male quarters, however, that perfume should be worn only by frivolous females and that its use by men was a sign of effeminacy. The basic olfactory classification made of women was to associate desirable women with fragrance and undesirable women with stench.
Attractive young women, thus, are constantly described in terms of sweet scents in ancient literature. To enhance their desirable sweetness, as well as to purify themselves, brides would customarily anoint themselves with perfumes for their weddings. After some years of marriage, however, a woman might find her status changed from desirable to undesirable and from fragrant to foul.
Martial describes a bony, wrinkled old woman as having the odour of a goat. Prostitutes were available women, but they were not usually considered very desirable. This latter quality gave an added pungency to their stench, for the stink of the brothel was also the metaphorical stench of a corrupted social body. A more attractive or well-born prostitute might occupy the higher rank of a courtesan, and thus be deemed fragrant.
None the less, the higher-status courtesans were, like prostitutes, considered disruptive of family life and social order. Therefore, they are often described as agents of discord in ancient plays and stories. While they were supposed fragrant because of their attractiveness, it was a dangerous sweetness, intoxicating but potentially ruinous.
The seductive, perfumed Cleopatra, for example, is portrayed as ultimately leading Mark Antony to his downfall. Circe, with her potions and perfumes, is an example of the fragrant seductress. Fragrant virtue is represented in such feminine types as the flower-garlanded Graces. The plight befalling women who rebel against the established order is described in the story of the women of Lemnos who, having failed to make the proper offerings to Venus, goddess of fragrance, were cursed with a foul odour.
Witches, as completely antagonistic to the social order, are even more repulsive: While different types of womanhood were represented as fragrant or foul according to these models, however, to a certain extent all women were thought to be foul-smelling in the ancient world. From this perspective, the tradition of perfuming brides in the ancient world could be understood in part as a kind of cultural processing whereby naturally foul, disruptive women were symbolically turned into sweet, obedient helpmates.
Olfactory symbolism, thus, was used very effectively to pass value judgements on different groups of people in antiquity. Harsh odours—the stench of the wounded and dead, the acrid smoke of burning fields and towns—were an intrinsic part of ancient battles. A three-year truce, which gives the enemy time to rebuild their fleet, is said to smell of pitch and ships.
Interestingly, whereas we associate military surrender with a white flag, in some parts of the ancient world the leader of a besieged town would indicate a surrender by holding out an incense burner over the city walls. Incense had other military uses as well. It was, of course, of the utmost importance as a means of petitioning the gods for victory. While attracting the gods, it could also be employed to keep the army camps free of snakes, as described in the following lines from The Civil War by the first-century Roman writer, Lucan.
The limits of the camp were surrounded by a fire of fumigation, in which elder-wood crackled and foreign galbanum bubbled; the tamarisk of scanty leaf, Eastern costos, powerful all-heal, Thessalian centaury, fennel, and Sicilian thapsos made a noise in the flame; and the natives also burned larchwood, and southernwood whose smoke snakes loathe.
Military expeditions to the scented lands of the East inevitably left an olfactory mark on the Greek and Roman armies. Alexander the Great, for example, is said to have come to enjoy perfumes so much after his contact with the aromatic traditions of the Orient, that he had his rooms sprinkled with rich scents wherever he stayed.
Perfumes were also used for 40 In search of lost scents personal adornment by those Roman soldiers who could afford them. Pliny, for example, tells of warriors who had perfumed hair under their helmets. The liberator of a besieged army, for example, was given a crown of grass and wildflowers, taken from the place in which the army was enclosed.
A crown of myrtle was presented to a commander who had won a battle. Even today a laurel crown stands as a symbol of victory, though for most of us it is a purely visual image with no olfactory connotations. For an ancient Roman military leader, however, the odour of a crown of fragrant laurel leaves would be the ultimate smell of success.
The ancient custom of applying perfumes to the head and chest, consequently, was not simply an aesthetic practice but also a means of promoting well-being. Philonides, the physician, in his tract on the medicinal values of perfumes and garlands, thus recommended rose garlands to relieve headaches and to cool the body. Myrtle garlands he held to act as a stimulant and to counteract drunkenness, while he warned against the stupefying effects of wreaths of white lilies.
A lotion of wine and myrrh was prescribed for burns, while megalium, the famous creation of the Roman perfumer Megallus, was thought to relieve the inflammation caused by an injury. These perfumes may indeed have promoted healing by acting as germicides.
An example of just how unbearable such an odour could be is given to us by Homer, who tells of a soldier left stranded on an island by his companions due to the stench of his wounded foot. Aromatic plants in general provided the ancients with a wide variety of curative scents. Pliny mentions a number of such aromatic remedies in his Natural History.
Rue in vinegar was given to comatose patients to smell as a kind of smelling salts. Epileptics were treated with the scent of thyme. The smell of pennyroyal was held to protect the head from cold or heat and to lessen thirst. The scent of a sprig of pennyroyal wrapped in wool was believed to help sufferers from recurrent fevers, while the odour of pennyroyal seeds was employed for cases of speech loss.
Mint scent was thought to refresh the spirit. It was also commonly used to ease stomach-aches, as is indicated by the following epigram, making fun of a miser who prefers to cure his ills with the scent of money: Anise was also thought to relieve sleeplessness and hiccoughs through its odour and, when boiled with celery, sneezing.
Fumigation with bay leaves, in turn, was considered to ward off the contaminating odours of disease. The fragrance of apples, much appreciated by the ancients, was held 42 In search of lost scents to reduce the effects of poison, while the odour of boiling cabbage was thought to soothe headaches. This concern was perhaps most strongly expressed in the funeral practices of the ancient Egyptians.
The foulness of a dead and decaying body is expressed, for example, in the following Egyptian utterance addressed to a corpse: How offensive is your smell! How great is your smell! Incense was thought by the Egyptians to provide the deceased with a scent similar to that of the gods, who were, in fact, believed to sweat incense.
In one inscription a deceased king proclaims: Your perfume comes to me, you gods; May my perfume come to you, you gods; May I be with you, you gods; May you be with me, you gods. The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with the Egyptian custom of embalming, but considered it a foreign The aromas of antiquity 43 practice and only occasionally made use of it themselves.
In Greece and Rome corpses were washed and anointed with perfume. The couch on which the body was laid was sometimes strewn with flowers and, in Rome, a branch of cypress on the front door marked the house of the deceased. Incense would be burnt in the house and along the funeral procession to propitiate the gods and to ward off the ill odour of death.
When the funeral was of someone important, flowers were also sometimes scattered along the route of the procession. In the former case, the funeral pyre would be made of fragrant woods to which scents were added. Martial describes the olfactory stages of cremation in the following epigram. While the lightly-heaped pyre was being laid with papyrus for the flame, while his weeping wife was buying myrrh and casia, when now the grave, when now the bier, when now the anointer was ready, Numa wrote me down as his heir, and—got well!
This legendary bird of perfumes was supposed to cremate itself on a pyre of spices when dying and then be reborn in the ashes. Similarly, the practice of cremation could be described as a process of purification, whereby the dead were released from their material bodies and transformed into pure essence, ready for their new ethereal existence in the afterlife.
When the pyre died down, the remaining flames were put out with wine and the bones of the deceased gathered. These bones would then be washed with wine, perfumed with ointment and stored in a funerary urn. When the body was buried, rather than burnt, perfumes would be sprinkled into the tomb. On regular occasions thereafter, as well, perfumes, along with food and drink, would be offered to the deceased at their grave sites.
Martial describes a runaway slave who makes his living stealing scents from funerals: There were various reasons for the funerary use of perfumes. One was to mask the odour of the corpse, which was considered not only unpleasant, but harmful to the living. A third was to provide the deceased with sweet scents, for the dead were believed to enjoy perfumes as much as or more than the living.
The Elysian fields in which the virtuous dead were said to reside by the Greeks, for instance, were characterized by their sweet scents. This association of breath with life and with the soul indicates that the importance placed by the ancients on having a fragrant breath was not simply a matter of aesthetics. A maid…whose breath was fragrant as a Paestan bed of roses, as the new honey of Attic combs, as a lump of amber snatched from the hand…on a pyre yet new Erotion lies, whom the bitter decree of the most evil Fates carried off ere her sixth winter was full.
Zeus is described by Homer as wreathed in a fragrant cloud. Homer writes of Aphrodite visiting her fragrant temple in Cyprus to be anointed with ambrosia by her attendants, the Graces. When she goes, she leaves all of Cyprus sweet-smelling behind her. Venus was said to have once given a ferryman a perfume which made him irresistible to women.
While this gift provided the ferryman with a great deal of immediate pleasure, it soon proved fatal to him, for he was killed by a jealous husband who surprised him in an act of adultery. When Persephone reached down to pick the fragrant flower, Hades carried her down into his subterranean kingdom.
This cosmic order is comically reversed by Aristophanes in his play Peace. In this play the character Trygaeus uses a giant dungbeetle to take him up to a heaven befouled by the god War. While flying upwards, Trygaeus beseeches the people on the ground not to make any foul smells and to cover their excrement with perfumes, so that his dung-loving steed will not turn around and head back down to earth.
Ambrosia and nectar were pure, ideal foods, fit for the sustenance of immortals. The gods, however, were also thought to enjoy feeding on the scents of burnt animal offerings and were amply provided with such by their worshippers. A wide variety of animals—from birds to oxen—were sacrificed and burnt as religious offerings in the temples of the ancient world.
Such offerings might be made on a large scale on the occasion of a religious festivity, or on a small scale, by an individual desirous of a divine boon. The supposed appetite of gods for the scents of burnt offerings was the subject of a number of ancient jests. Incense could also constitute the whole of a sacred offering. This was particularly the case among adherents of the Pythagorean cult, which originated in Greece in the sixth century BC.
Sacred statuary would also be anointed with perfume. This practice may strike us moderns, unaccustomed to perfume our images, as odd. Also contrary to modern habits was the ancient tendency to offer to the gods the same perfumes as were employed for personal use. In antiquity, however, a distinction was often not drawn between The aromas of antiquity 47 sacred and secular scents, and what humans enjoyed was presumed to be appreciated by the deities.
The addition of an olfactory dimension to sacred images and shrines was appropriate not only as an offering, but as a symbol of divine presence, for fragrance was the characteristic sign of the presence of a deity in antiquity. It is likely that divine inspiration, believed to stimulate god-like creative endeavours among humans, for example, was originally identified with the odour of divinity emitted by the gods.
Ambrosia and nectar, in particular, are described in ancient literature as life-giving essences. Thus in the Iliad, the goddess Thetis anoints the nostrils of a fallen warrior with ambrosia to prevent his body from decaying. An interesting variation on this theme is given by Ovid in Metamorphoses. When the Sun finds the dead girl, he tries unsuccessfully to revive her with his warm rays.
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