Our fascination with perfume began thousands of years ago, with the burning of scented plants mixed with gums and resins to create incense that was used for ritual as well as practical purposes – for merging with the natural world to increase the effectiveness of hunting, for example, as well as for calling the owner of the animals to ensure plentiful game, and protection on the hunt itself.
Anthropological evidence shows that from around 7,000 – 4,000 BC olive and sesame oils were combined with plants and flowers to make the first ointments. Some anthropologists speculate that early hunters, having covered their bodies with the scent of fragrant plants to mask their smell and attract game, noticed the healing properties of the plants they used and their curative effects on wounds sustained in hunting, and this is what led to the formulation of ointments and balms. Others believe it was women who first began to explore the effects of different fragrances as they met them in the plants they worked with and gathered.
Whatever the true origin of our use of fragrance, by at least 2,697 BC, it was certainly well established and we read in The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine, for example, of many uses for scented herbs.
By 430 BC in Wales, the laws of Dynwal Moelmud show that plant medicine had also come to be highly regarded in the West and was protected and encouraged by the state, with commerce, healing and navigation known as the three civil arts.
One of the interesting folk uses for fragrant herbs within these Welsh traditions was the practice of burying illnesses beneath aromatic plants. The sin eater, for example, would lay out wooden stakes in his garden, beneath which he would bury an animal bone with the name of a patient scratched on it. He would then plant flowers or herbs on top of these graves, according to the nature of his patients illness: thyme for colds and fevers, for example, rosemary for lethargy, parsley to purify the blood, and marigolds, among their other more spiritual virtues, to ease skin complaints and inflammations.
All of these plants might today be used by a herbalist to cure the same ailments, either as a tea or a salve, but in this folk practice, it was the energetic or sympathetic connection between plant and patient (represented by the name on the bone) that mattered. Each morning the sin eater would walk his garden, whispering to the plants and crushing a few of their leaves between his fingers. As they then released their aroma, it carried away a little more of the illness until the patient was cured.
As in all shamanic practice, these plants were regarded as spirit allies who brought healing to the body, rather than medicinal substances. Chinese Taoists also believed, for example, that a plant’s fragrance was its soul, a belief later endorsed by the Gnostic Christians of 100-400 AD, for whom fragrance was the spirit of the plant and a gateway to the greater soul of the world. In their ceremonies surrounding death, the corpse was washed in perfume and incense lit around it so the soul of the deceased would mingle with these fragrances and, through them, find its way to god.
It is, however, the Egyptians that are most associated with perfume and who left most evidence of their fascination with the mystical attributes of scents. Manuscripts such as the Papyrus Ebers (1,550 BC) describe the use of plants such as elder, aloe, cannabis, and wormwood. Others, from even earlier, record the use of herbs in temple incense, oils and salves. Cinnamon was used to anoint the bodies of the living, for example, and myrrh considered more precious than gold to embalm the dead.
Wall paintings, such as those at the temple of Edfu, show the distillation of perfume from white lilies. Others depict the use of aromatic cones (called bitcones) as adornments for the heads of temple dancers. These cones would melt into the hair and release their fragrance as the maidens danced for the pharaohs and gods.
Another use for aromatics was in fragrant sweetmeats called kyphi (which means welcome to the gods). This mystical substance was eaten in the temples of Ra to induce states of trance. Through the audience with the gods this brought, healing dreams would result, which were said to be the most potent cure for grief and a comfort to the soul.
Incense cubes made from scented plants, gums and honey were also used by the Egyptians to consecrate their temples. The earliest known use of perfume bottles is also Egyptian and dates from around 1,000 BC.
But the use of fragrance to engage the gods was not restricted to China and Egypt. Quite independently of one another a number of cultures evolved through their experience the conviction that beautiful smells provided a doorway to another world.
The Hebrews used fragrance in their religious ceremonies and to initiate priests, for example; their anointing oil consisting of cinnamon, myrrh, and calamus, mixed with olive oil. The ancient Greeks also believed that perfume was god-given and that sweet aromas were how the deities made their presence known. They used the word arómata to describe the use of fragrance, making no distinction between medicinal and mystical perfumes, incense and medicine, or between spiritual and pragmatic uses. Every plant contained magic. Bay, for example, is a staple of Greek cooking, but was also used by the oracle priestesses of Delphi, who would sit within its smoke, heads covered, to enter the otherworld and allow the spirits to speak through them during their divinations.
In India, too, in ceremonies of prophecy, seers called dainyals would cover their heads with cloth and surround themselves with cedarwood smoke, the aroma of which would send them into trance and chanting.
Fragrant plants were also used extensively throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was an ambassador for the connection between religion and the healing spirit of the plants. As well as an Abbess, Hildegard was a herbalist and is credited with the invention of sweet-smelling lavender water, which she saw as truly divine.
Carmelite water was also developed at this time and offered a miracle cure for spiritual diseases such as melancholy (regarded as a form of soul loss) and for improving the powers of mind and vision. The monks who produced Carmelite water guarded its spiritual formula, but we now know it was based on melissa (a plant regarded as a spiritual communicator) and angelica (angel root, which was equally effective against evil spirits and infectious diseases, both of them forms of spirit intrusion).
Another plant with a spiritually protective purpose during the Middle Ages was rue, which was also bestowed second sight. Indeed, rue was believed to be so powerful against conditions such as soul loss and melancholia that it was named from the Greek word, reuo (to set free) and was used in many spells and formulas devised by the Welsh sin eaters, who knew it as gwenwynllys and used it as an antidote in cases of spiritual as well as physical poisoning.
It was France, however, which emerged as Europes leader in the therapeutic use of fragrance. The term aromatherapy, in fact, was invented in 1928 by Rene Maurice Gattefoss, a French chemist whose interest was stimulated in essential oils when he burned his hand in a laboratory accident and plunged it into a pot of lavender oil to cool the burn. It healed within days, faster than any other treatment available at the time. Gattefoss was inspired and began to experiment with essential oils and fragrances from that day.
He also inspired others, including Jean Valnet, a French doctor who worked as an army surgeon in World War II, and found essential oils such as thyme, clove, and lemon to be just as effective in treating wounds and burns. He later extended his work with fragrances, using them with equal effectiveness to treat psychiatric problems.
Today there are over 20,000 commercial fragrances on the market and the number of new releases each year has increased by more than 400% since 1973. The age-old associations between pleasant smells, a healthy soul, and the visionary calling of perfumes to and from the gods has not been forgotten, however, even in these times.