The Origins of Perfume

The origins of perfume are as layered as the ‘notes’ in a classic scent. Some say scent was discovered in Mesopotamia, others that it originated in Arabia, which is still known as the ‘Land of Perfumes’. The earliest records date from Egypt, in 2000 BC, when incense was offered at the burial of mummies and perfume was believed to be the sweat of the gods.

So, when man first discovered scent he used it as an offering: aromatic gums were burnt on altars and the word ‘perfume’ (from the Latin per – through – and fummum – smoke) aptly evokes its earliest use, but it wasn’t long before men and women began anointing themselves with unguents. Chinese maidens gathered aromatic grasses for fertility rites and Pharaonic courtiers wore wigs perfumed with unguents of lilies. In Kodo,the Japanese art of perfumery (which was introduced to Japan by the Chinese in AD 500),the main ingredients were cloves and nutmeg blended with sandalwood, musk, fennel and the prized agar wood.

The first record of the secular use of perfume appears in a passage that describes a ‘chest of perfumes’ that accompanied Alexander the Great on his campaigns in the fourth century BC. The first record of trade in perfume – in the form of incense – is in Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers sold him to merchants who arrived bearing ‘spicery, balm and myrrh down to Egypt,. It is said that Cleopatra immersed herself in clouds of incense,while Alexander the Great was said to smell naturally of musk – hence his attraction to women.

Walls were sprayed with scent and musk was often mixed with mortar to make muscadine walls in the hammams. In Mecca, the mosques were drenched in perfume. When the Temple of Minerva at Elis was built, the plaster was mixed with saffron and milk so that – even today – if you wet your thumb with saliva and rub it on to the plaster it will give off the taste and smell of saffron.

The Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic,recounts that nobles were perfumed with sandalwood and warriors carried perfumed powders as part of their battle kit. The perfumer, or attarwalla, was a pillar of the Indian community and effigies of Hindu gods were washed down with musk, sandalwood and agarwood water.

Much of our knowledge of early Arab perfumes comes from a book of perfume recipes by Yakub al-Kindi (AD 803-870) called The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation. In seventh-century Persia, under the Abbasid caliphate which ruled until the thirteenth century, perfume-making was refined into an art. The caliphs who controlled Persia traded with India, the East Indies and China, bringing back new materials from which to make perfume. Baghdad became the centre of the seventh-century perfume trade – there were fifty perfume shops and some fifteen hundred public baths in the city 一 and Arab perfumers traded all over the Arab empire. Returning Crusaders brought back Arab perfumes to the Christian world and, as late as the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth bitterly complained that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia, could not wash her hands of the blood of the murdered King Duncan.

The Persians invented the distillation process and the philosopher Avicenna was one of the first to apply the principles of chemistry to perfume and preserve the volatile aromas of flowers by distillation. By the thirteenth century Persia was producing most of the raw materials for scent. These were exported to Venice from where they, together with exotic merchandise and spices, were traded with the Middle and Far East.

The enduring quality of Egyptian perfumes was recognized when Tutankhamen’s tomb was excavated in 1922. The archaeologists found oily unguents that, after three thousand years sealed from the elements, still gave off a sublime smell. The most significant of these perfumes was the Egyptian sacrificial oil called kyphi (thought to be spikenard, whose literal translation is ‘Welcome to the Gods,). Pliny thought kyphi allayed anxiety and made dreams vivid. The priests made kyphi from sweetflag (odorous roots similar to iris roots that smell of aniseed), aromatic grasses, a tree resin, cassia, cinnamon, peppermint, juniper, mimosa, henna and raisins, all of which were steeped in wine for days with a mixture of honey and terebinth, a resin to which myrrh was added. Plutarch also records a recipe for kyphi which includes twenty-two ingredients: it must have had an overpowering intensity.

The Roman unguentum Parthicum Rhodicum was described by Dioscorides in his Materia Medica as a pomander of roses. This is his recipe:

Of fresh roses, beginning to fade but without any dampness, forty dragons; of Indian nard [spikenard], ten dragons; of myrrh, six dragons. When all these have been pounded, they must be shaped into little balls and then laid up in jars of clay and left to dry. Two dragons of costus [an aromatic northern Indian incense] and as much again of iris of Illyria may also be added.

The Florentine Medici family encouraged research into the medicinal properties of plants and Italian perfumers increased their production of scent compositions for the rich and mercantile classes, while Italian aristocrats also invented new scents. The Medici and the Dukes of Ferrara collected alembics, made essences and aromatic waters and hundreds of recipes were exchanged.

‘Frangipani’ – made by the old Roman family of the same name – which is a powder of every known spice added to orris root, with a touch of civet, became popular when Mercutio Frangipani, a learned botanist, sailed to the New World with Columbus and, as they approached the shores of Antigua, he breathed in the delicious scent of the sweet-smelling flowers that were called Plumerta alba. They were subsequently renamed Frangipani, after Mercutio, who distilled the flowers and made the perfume long-lasting with rectified spirits of wine.

Perfumers were also spice-sellers and alchemists, and perfume was bought from apothecaries. There were hundreds of therapeutic perfumes with as many as sixty ingredients each, which were burnt as incense. During the plague in Venice in 1504,Venetians applied Damask water made from a dozen aromatics together with civet and musk; and the Italian alchemist Girolamo Ruscelli made a perfumed oil for the hair and for beards from rose water, Damask rose oil, cloves, cinnamon, gum Arabic, musk and civet. In the sixteenth century, when the clergy and doctors ordered the closure of public baths because they thought that baths encouraged the spread of epidemics, bodily smells had to be counteracted by perfume. Courtesans carried sponges impregnated with musk, amber and civet between their thighs and under their armpits and their garters were soaked in scent. Perfumed sachets were sewn into their clothes to mask the smell of their unwashed bodies, while rose water acted as a disinfectant.

In the twenty-first century, we are apt to underestimate the role that scent and incense played at a time when foul odours pervaded the world and clouds of sweet-smelling smoke were required to mask them. As recently as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries London’s air was foul and the gentry carried scented handkerchiefs and pomanders to disguise the smells. Burning incense was often used to scent clothes, spices were used to scent bedding and were burned in houses to drive out reptiles and pests. And through the ages scent has always had as much to do with sexual attraction as with rituals and rites. Plutarch said that most men would only make love to their wives if they were powdered with spices and scented with ointments.

Perfume has also always possessed curative powers. In ancient times, frankincense and myrrh were known to have fumigating and cleansing properties and an old Chinese proverb stated that ‘a perfume is always a medicine’. The ancient Persian Pharmacopoeia has hundreds of perfumed preparations for healing; narcissus was used to treat melancholia while Megalium – an ancient Greek perfume made of myrrh oil, sweet rush (which is redolent of sweet basil) and cassia (which resembles cinnamon) -was thought to be good for wounds.

An antidote to poison, prepared for Mithridates of Armenia in about 80 BC, included thirty-six ingredients. Among them were frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, pepper, saffron and ginger mixed with wine and honey. It was said that poultices of spices had a healing effect on wounds and tumours.

The first eau de cologne was made in the seventeenth century by a young Milanese commercial traveller called Paolo Feminis, who eventually settled in Cologne from where he sold his Aqua Mirabilis. When we think of citrus smells we associate them, rightly, with eau de cologne. Feminis,s cologne was a divinely citrus aroma of spirit of rosemary, essences of bergamot, neroli,citrus cedrata (lemon zest) and lemon.

Guerlain opened for business in 1828 and this perfumer’s attempts to evoke moods and reproduce atmospheres, especially sensual ones, through scent were revolutionary. In focusing on the philosophy behind the making of perfume, Guerlain changed the way perfume was made and others followed his ideas. ‘L’Heure Bleue‘, which is made from roses, iris, musk and vanilla, was inspired by that crepuscular time of day just before sunset, while the bewitching ‘Shalimar’ conjures up a Mogul garden.

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