The historic rituals and continuing daily pleasure of perfume.
Why do we wear fragrance or scent our homes? It goes far beyond the need to smell fresh or clean – simply showering daily or washing our hands in soap meets that need. When we reach for a particular perfume to wear that day, light a candle, or place a scent diffuser in a room, we’re tapping into a psychologically revealing and ritualistic way of communicating that stretches back to the beginning of history…
Even the word ‘perfume’ is steeped in scented historical associations. It translates from the Latin ‘per fumum‘ as ‘through smoke’ – referring to fragrant materials burned as scented prayers to the gods. The Ancient Egyptians used a kind of incense called Kyphi and the recipe for it varied, each temple having their own secret mixture featuring sixteen fragrant ingredients such as myrrh, resins, honey, raisins and juniper berries.
As the smoke rose skywards, it was believed these scented offerings conveyed messages and appeased the gods. Archaeologists have uncovered earthen pots containing scented unguents their bodies were embalmed in, scientific tests revealing a little bottle of perfume in Tutankhamun’s tomb contained coconut oil and frankincense. At Edfu, there’s even a still-intact room dedicated to fragrance, with recipes for ointments, perfumes and fragrant potions depicted in hieroglyphics on the wall. These perfumes were no mere afterthought, but literally a balm for the soul, ensuring a safe progression to the afterlife.
The very first the world’s first recorded perfumer was a woman named Tapputi, whose existence we know about from a 1200BC cuneiform tablet found in Babylonian Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq). She’s described as a chemist and fragrance maker for the royal court, whose professional title was ‘Belatikallim’, a high-ranking political role that included overseeing the entire Mesopotamian palace.
In China, both the ritualistic and domestic use of aromatic products was described as far back as 4,500 BC. Indeed, we might say most religions and cultural communities around the world have, at one time or another, wafted scented smoke, pounded together fragrant materials and anointed themselves to express their hopes and desires, mark their territories or communicate intricate, emotional pleas to their deities. Think of Catholicism – sometimes colloquially referred to as “bells and smells” – to see the thurible (or censer) still swinging aromatic incense strewn on burning coals, and the Middle Eastern practice, continued to this day, of bakhoor (an Arabic word also translating to ‘smoke’) where households burn individual recipes of aromats, standing over the smoke so their clothes are infused with the fragrance representing their family. Guests to their homes are offered this ritual, along with a dab of privately composed perfume oil – often a mixture of oud, flowers, and spices: a fragrant calling card to display your closest connections in society.
So, why do we continue these olfactory traditions all over the world? Simply put, fragrance speaks to us in a way that nothing else can. When we smell, the scent molecules are directly transmitted to the limbic system of our brains, triggering immediate emotional responses that bypass logic and resonate at a far deeper level. We’ve all had the experience of passing someone in the street wearing a familiar fragrance and being reminded of a person, place, or time of our lives we may not have thought of for decades. But suddenly, we’re there. We’re right back in that moment as though time travel were real. And I truly believe it can be, if only you find the right fragrance for you. Even more than this, a scent can speak for you – that invisible message takes up space in the world, it announces not only your presence but who you are, a glimpse at your soul that words, the way you dress or how you decorate your home on the outside can only hint at.
Have a look around your home, now, and wonder: what does it say about you? It’s irresistible to snoop among people’s bookshelves, music collections and nick-nacks when we visit their houses (or catch a sneaky look behind them during the endless Zoom calls and FaceTime meetings we’ve all had to become accustomed to thanks to various lockdowns!) How we choose to decorate the living spaces strangers might get to see is a very specific message, but the bedroom (or cupboards hastily stuffed with ‘tidied away’ items) might tell a very different story. The way we scent those spaces has become even more important during the pandemic – sales of fragrant candles and room diffusers soaring over the last eighteen months – as we seek to delineate improvised working-from-home environments from those we relax in. Not everyone has the luxury of a separate office space, so the dining room or kitchen tables have been called into action, or an area of the living room designated as the place the laptop and work files now live.
For many of us, shut in our houses or (when the weather was kind, and if we were lucky enough to have them) in gardens for months at a time, using fragrance has also been a way to travel with our noses – to express differing sides of our characters, uplift and revive our senses or grant us the cloak of comfort to swathe ourselves in when everything has been just a bit too much to cope with. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or desperate to experience something else other than your now all too familiar surroundings, fragrance can ground your fears and keep your feet on the ground; or alternatively be an escape – a way to travel with your nose and encounter newness no matter where you happen to be. Howsoever you choose to use scent – in your home via candles and diffusers or other fragrant vessels, as a fine fragrance or even as part of your skincare routine; these daily encounters with scent are not only good for your mental wellbeing, but a direct link with the past and the perfumed rituals we’ve enjoyed expressing ourselves and soothing our souls with for centuries, and still counting.
How to incorporate fragrant rituals into your everyday life:
– Take a few seconds to properly inhale the scented hand cream / bath oil / body lotion you’re using. Breathe in and out slowly several times. This grounds you in the moment, improves your sense of smell long-term and can become a little daily pleasure, just for you.
– Don’t be afraid to swap candles / room diffusers to suit your mood or time of day. Fresh, citrusy uplifting scents can revive flagging spirits around 4pm when energy levels need a serious boost.
– Consider lighting a cosier-smelling candle in the evening, something rich and woody that makes you feel like snuggling up, even in the warmer months. Done daily, this helps re-set your mind to ‘down time’ mode.
– When smelling a new fragrance for the first time, don’t focus on the notes (that’s like viewing an art exhibition by only noticing the colours of paint the artist used), but how it makes you feel. Ask yourself – What texture does this perfume remind you of (velvet, crisp cotton, or soft suede?) or where in the world do you imagine yourself wearing it? Picture the scene. Jot down a few words to describe it – whatever comes to mind!
This is how perfumers train their noses. Connecting with fragrance at a deeper, emotional level can be utterly life-transforming and fascinatingly revealing…