A History of Smells: From Ritual to Art

The first perfumer

In the religious and secular rites of Ancient Egypt, aromatic compositions were given an extremely important place. They were used to fumigate rooms, create ointments, and embalm. The statues were rubbed with fragrant oils in the hope of appeasing the gods, ingratiating themselves and gaining protection.

Egyptian perfumers used vegetable oils (flax, olive, rose, lily), fat of cattle and fish, resin. A lot of raw materials were brought from the so-called land of Punt (territory in East Africa), where, according to the ideas of that time, the gods lived.


The earliest known aromatic compositions date back to the 3rd millennium BC. NS. They are mentioned in the bas-reliefs on the walls of the temples. Essences were used as an offering to the gods and also in medicine.

A pleasant smell as part of hygiene

In ancient Greece, aromatic compositions were used mainly for therapeutic and hygienic purposes. With raw materials imported from the Middle East, new scents have been created. Rubbing the body with oil has become an integral part of everyday life.

The Romans adopted perfumery culture from the Greeks. The expansion of the empire and its ties led to an increase in the import of raw materials and technologies from Africa, the Arab world, and India. The Romans did not bring anything innovative directly to the process of creating perfume, but they were the first to use blown glass for bottles, which made it easier to store, transport and trade priceless essences.


The function of aromatic compositions as a means of communication with the divine world was preserved in the Middle Ages. Fumigation with incense highlighted sacred sites and had the symbolic meaning of purification. The use of any fragrances in everyday life was condemned, as it was considered a means of seduction. Hygiene was also condemned: clerics and doctors saw in frequent bathing a source of illness and sins, because in hot water pores open, which makes it easier for microbes (and the devil at the same time) to enter the human body.

Nevertheless, the scented plants were used for medicinal purposes. Gardens were laid out at the monasteries. People resorted to the power of plants, spices and aromatic compounds to get rid of the unpleasant odors inextricably linked with epidemics.


If in the Christian world the use of perfumery was limited in the Middle Ages, in other parts of the world the situation was different. The art of extracting and mixing essences was practiced from China to Spain, from Persia to the Aztec empire.

For example, in China, famous for its exquisite rituals, men and women used perfumed ointments, which were stored in small lacquered boxes. Women applied plum blossom oil to their hair, and rice powder was used for makeup. Resins and incense were burned during Buddhist rituals.

The Aztec cleanliness standards shocked the conquistadors. All Indians maintained daily hygiene, and training began in early childhood. The use of makeup was allowed for women of the privileged classes during religious ceremonies and weddings.

Maya burned resin (white copal) and flowers of a rubber tree in order to "feed" the gods with smoke and aromas, ask them for help or thank them.

The revolution in perfumery was made by Arab scientists who invented distillation. Avicenna, doctor and philosopher of the 11th century, was the first to obtain rose oil from a distillation still. Since then, 30,000 bottles of rose water have been exported annually to countries from Granada to Baghdad.


Flowers in a bottle

At the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for pomanders increased significantly - original scented balls, which were worn as a means of protection against viruses (which was especially important during periods of epidemics). The pomander was made of gold or silver and usually consisted of several compartments, each of which contained aromatic substances: musk, civet, amber, jasmine, myrtle, and so on. In the 17th century, pomander became a fashion accessory that was worn as rings and pendants, added to bracelets and to the belt. Later, already in the Baroque era, a strong scent began to be considered vulgar.


In the 18th century, pomanders were supplanted by bottles of snuff, whose scent was more delicate. In the same period, aristocrats began to use vases filled with fresh plants, salt and water to perfume the air in their homes. This elegant solution lasted only half a century - until the French Revolution.


Perfume for Napoleon

In 1709, Johann Marie Farina, an Italian perfumer who settled in Cologne, created the formula for a new type of scented water - cologne. (The novelty was named after the city where it was invented.) Wanting to reproduce the smell of a spring morning in Tuscany, Farina combined the essences of bergamot, lemon, mandarin, neroli, lavender, rosemary and added more alcohol than was previously practiced.


The original product was so popular that it spawned nearly 2,000 parodies. Many tried to get hold of the formula, but the perfumer passed it on to his successor only on his deathbed.

Farina even supplied cologne to Napoleon's court. The French emperor ordered dozens of liters of wonderful water, as he strangled not only himself, but even his horse.


From ritual to art

In the 18th century, the final transition of perfume from the category of a means of combating unpleasant odors to a work of art took place. In the 19th century, thanks to industrialization and the replacement of some raw materials with synthetic ingredients, perfume production became much cheaper, which made a variety of perfumery products - soaps, creams, colognes, powders, eau de toilette, perfumes - more affordable.

For thousands of years, perfumery products have been made from natural raw materials. The enfleurage technique (extraction of essential oils using animal fat) was completely forgotten in 1939. Today, all the ingredients are synthetic, which significantly expands the perfumery palette. Moreover, every year 2-3 new molecules are created, which are then used in perfumery.


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