The Ancient Art Of Perfume

There has been a long history with flowers and the art of perfumes, fragrant blooms help to create some of the most well known scents. Popular flowers used in perfumes include rose, jasmine, violet and lavender; their distinct fragrances are careful extracted and blended with other scents to create enchanting perfumes. Fragrances have the power to affect our moods, convey how we’re feeling and evoke memories. We share some ancient origins of scent and how they’re used in different cultures.

Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.
— Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
 
Egyptian Blue Lily by Dr Robert John Thornton

Egyptian Blue Lily by Dr Robert John Thornton

In Ancient Egypt, perfume was used for both ceremonial and beauty purposes; fragrances were recognised for their positive effects on health and wellbeing. It was thought the fragrant blends were the sweat of the sun-god Ra. Nefertum was the god of perfume, healing and beauty. According to myths, Neferum was a beautiful young man who had arisen from water with lotus flower on his head and he had the delightful smell of blue lotus flower all around him. The blue lotus flower symbolised rebirth and regeneration, as the flowers open in the morning and close in the evening. Perfumes were generally applied as oil-based salves, and there are numerous elaborate recipes and depictions of the preparation of perfume in temples all over Egypt.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Similarly, in both Ancient Greece and Rome perfumes are associated with the gods, it was thought they were a gift from them and many fragrances were named after goddesses. Perfumes were used in all aspects of ancient greek life from elaborate bathing rituals, marriage and death. It was considered a good omen to use a special fragrance on your wedding day, while perfumes were also linked to hospitality at home, servants would bath the feet of guests with perfumed oils before they entered the house. The Greek scientist and philosopher Theophrastus, wrote a book called Concerning Odours documenting the use of fragrance in ancient greek life. The book described how scents mix with wine, how they are used as ointments for the body, and how they are used to scent the home. He also discusses the different fragrances for men and women; the lightest perfumes made from roses and lilies were best suited to men, while the best for women are megaleion, sweet marjoram, and myrrh oil. In Ancient Rome, perfumes were heavily used in daily life, both to scent a person, their belongings and space. They were not only used for their sweet fragrance but they also reflected a person’s social status. Emperor Nero was so crazy about roses, he had silver pipes installed so that his dinner guests could be spritzed with rosewater, and according to legend, he once paid £100,000 for a ‘waterfall’ of rose petals which actually smothered one guest and killed him.

 
Story of the Western Wing, illustration of the exchange of scented bags

Story of the Western Wing, illustration of the exchange of scented bags

A Lady perfuming her Sleeves by  Chen Hongshu

A Lady perfuming her Sleeves by Chen Hongshu

While in Ancient China rather than scenting the body with perfumes, scents were used as a form of disinfection and purity. It was thought diseases could be eliminated from special spaces by burning incense and fragrant materials in the rooms. However, during the Siu and Song dynasties noble Chinese began to use personal perfumes, importing herbs and spices via the Silk Road. Perfume pouches, known as xiangbao were a popular way to scent the body as well as repel insects and ward off evil spirits. The silk pouches were adorned with colourful hand-sewn patterns, would contain dried and crushed aromatic herbs. Throughout history, there may have been different forms and uses for perfume, but scents will always evoke personal meanings, memories and feelings.

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