Perfume History The human use of scents, aromas and fragrances has its origins lost in ancient times. Why, when and how people first started to prepare them may never be known, but archeological findings, early written texts and oral tradition show that the history of aromas goes deep back in time. Early civilizations offered scent flowers, herbs and resins in worship of their Gods. When burned, some plants released stronger aromas and scented smoke fires became part of religious rituals, a mystical mean of communication between heaven and earth, a tradition followed by many religions until present day.
When looking back into history, many agree that the Egyptians, during Queen Sheba’s rule, were the first to incorporate perfume into their culture.From the religious ceremonies involving the burning of incense to the embalming of the dead, perfume was an integral part of Egyptian life. Even scents like myrrh were considered more valuable than gold. In the Bible, one of the Three Wise Men brought this as a gift to the newborn Christ. But perfume did not only linger in spiritual ceremonies: the Egyptians were also the first to anoint their bodies with the scents of cinnamon and honey. Depicted on the walls of the temple of Edfu, one can also see the depiction of the art of floral extraction as perfume is distilled from the flowers of the white Madonna lily.This “essential accessory” was reserved mostly for the powerful and the wealthy. Both men and women alike wore the precious scents.
With the death of the mystical Cleopatra, so also died the Egyptian grandeur and appreciation of beauty. For thousands of years perfumes had been used widely as an integral part of their culture even though almost all of the herbs and flowers were from abroad, from Palestine, Persia, India, and Arabia. In Persia, perfume was also a sign of rank.In the palaces one could see kings with crowns of myrrh and of labyzuz and smell the aromas of sweetly smelling scents drifting in the air of their apartments.
In the backyards of homes belonging to the wealthy, one could find exquisite gardens holding jasmine, lilacs, violets, and the famous red rose. This rose whose petals covered the floor when Cleopatra first met Mark Antony and that would become the symbol of the House of Lancaster during the War of the Roses, was known all over the world for its perfume which increased in intensity as the petals dried. The Persians began to master the art of preservation by placing the rose buds in sealed jars to be later opened for a special occasion. Persians also used perfumes after bathing. It was not until after Alexander the Great, with his desire for conquest, defeated Darius III of Persia and moved to Egypt that he adopted the use of perfumes.It is said that his floors were sprinkled with scented waters and that his clothes were imprinted the perfumes of fragrant resins and myrrh. But the perfume found its magic in the folds of ancient Greek religion.
The Greeks believed the Gods were perfume’s inventors and it was said that the visit of a God or Goddess was marked with the sweet smell as a token of their presence. They held a special place in ceremonies. It is interesting that the first “gold medal” in the Olympic Games was a piece of art in the shape of a golden violet. Perfume was an integral part of Greek society, even though some of the greatest philosophers like Socrates found them “effeminate”.However Greeks also made their mark on the world of perfume.
They played an important role in the science of perfume by categorizing them by the part of the plant from which they were made and documenting their compositions. The Romans first celebrated scent around 750 B.C. in religious ceremonies to celebrate the Goddess of Flora. Each year the ceremonies would be held to celebrate the first flowers of the season.Later, the ceremony was held each year on April 28, four days before May Calend (this ceremony was adopted by the British and is now known as May Day). The Romans were also known for their gardens, but the flowers were mainly used for garlands to be worn in their maiden’s hair. When the Roman’s began their world conquest they began to adopt the use of perfume into their own culture.
Greek influence was especially prominent in the use of perfume in religious ceremonies. As the Roman culture began to adopt these scents, one could see its effect everywhere.In fact, it was Constantine the Great who brought the use of scents into the Christian church. He had oils and incense burned in the church of St.
John-in-Latrine, which was home to the early Popes for thousands of years. Even today, one can see the continuing of this ceremony as the Pope gives his annual blessing of the Golden Rose. It is clear how perfume has played a significant role in religion.But this did not just belong to the cultures described above. Mohammed centers his religion on the enjoyment of material pleasures, including perfume. He promised his believers the Garden of Paradise where the most exotic perfumes could be found.
The Koran speaks of those who make the journey across the razor-edge thin bridge of Al Sirat will drink form the waters that are “whiter than milk, more perfumed than musk”. It was an Arabian doctor, Avicenna, who was the first to obtain the oil from flowers, known as attar, by distillation. Before this revelation, perfumes were derived from the bark of twigs and shrubs in the form of resins. Visitors of Arabian homes would be sprinkled with rose water as a mark of esteem.Their coffees would be flavored with roses. A bowl of charcoal would be passes around after the meal and sprinkled with incense in which the guests’ garments would be wrapped. When the guest left, they would have their beards and garments sprinkled with incense as a parting gesture.
In India, perfumes also play a major role in their culture. Plants have always abounded in their country and the Hindu have adapted their scents into religion.The flames meant for sacrifices would be sending out aromatic scents of ointments and herbs. In Hindu marriages the bride is rubbed with scents by her handmaid and later the married couple will sit beneath a silk canopy enveloped by the smells of sandalwood and other delicious scents. The god of love, Kama, is always shown carrying his cupids bow and his five arrows that are each tipped with a fragrant blossom. The scent of patchouli, which personally reminds me of my hippie roommate from freshman year and still makes me feel nauseous to this day (patchouli, not my roommate!), was used later to scents Indian shawls. In China, incense is also used in religious ceremonies such as the death of a family member.
The body would be washed and perfumed and incense would be lit in the room. The mourners would carry lighted sticks scented with incense during the processional. Chinese women wore their hair in buns that were wrapped with flowers whose fragrances would last for quite some time. Appreciation of scents such as sandalwood spread also to Japan. The Japanese religion Shinto uses the burning of incense and other gums during ceremonial occasions. Now, in modern times perfumes, scents, and fragrances have continued to become part of virtually everyone’s lives.
You can find the scents of numerous plants and flowers in so many different perfumes and colognes. Like the ancient peoples who used the natural aromas of plants and flowers, we too in modern times, seek the comfort or soothing effect of aromas. More recently however, aromatherapy has become highly popular in the American culture. Using natural herbs, plants and flowers, it has been found that these aromas have various effects on people, from a natural aphrodisiac to a relaxing calming effect. Listed below are several common plants and flowers used today in aromatherapy.Peppermint, Mentha piperita It has been said that Peppermint has been known to relieve headaches. Just one drop of Peppermint in a teaspoon of cream or unscented oil (sweet almond or jojoba) rubbed gently onto your neck can actually help soothe a throbbing headache. Another way in which peppermint can help is by using its healing qualities with nausea (maybe I’ll try it next time I smell patchouli!).
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis “Rosemary is for remembrance.” This unique oil has said to “awaken the mind and stimulate memory”. Many report that Rosemary helps to retain more information and perform well on exams. It also can be very nourishing to hair and can be added to shampoo to add nutrients to stimulate hair growth.
Calendula, Calendula officinalis This is a common marigold and has bright orange, yellow, and deep brown flowers. It is grown mainly for its medicinal qualities. Therapeutically, calendula oils are known for its ability to soothe rough, dry, injured or cracked skin. We like to use it combined with the herbally infused oils of arnica and St. John’s Wort.Clary Sage, Salvia sclarea This can be used for several purposes, the first of which is stress, something that millions of Americans experience every day. If you have high blood pressure, diffusing clary sage into the room or bath may help.
It also has been known to help people with asthma or respiratory problems. Geranium, Pelargonium graveolens This can help many people feel emotionally uplifted. It is also known to reduce swelling, especially fluid retention and adema of the ankles.
Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia Lavender is the oil of “balance”.It provides relief for a multiple of problems including headaches, muscle aches, insomnia, skin problems, digestive disorders, and stress. It can also help to soothe a bee sting or bug bite.
It is evident that the use of herbs, flowers and plants in scents varies throughout different cultures and times, but the basic purpose remains the same- to provide people with a natural way to express themselves and as in the case of modern aromatherapy, to provide natural alternatives or solutions to common problems.