Perfume was widely used by the ancient civilizations, who made perfume by boiling plants in water or by extracting them with fats or oils, rather than through distillation. All methods are still used today in different parts of the world. In Egypt women would create pomades – greasy balls of petals and fat – and place them on top of their heads so they would slowly melt and drip down their faces and shoulders during the course of a warm evening. King Darius III of Persia (c. 380–300 BC) had fourteen parfumiers in his retinue specialising in roses, lilac and violets and the Greeks too favoured floral scents such as crocus and hyacinth. The Romans on the other hand engaged in a profitable trade in spices, herbs and balsams from their North African and Middle Eastern provinces. Animal scents (such as musk, ambergris and civet, procured from deer, whales and cats, respectively) often smell repulsive in pure form and required considerable processing to become tolerable let alone pleasing. Their heady aromas, associated with the exotic and mysterious East, became looked upon by the Europeans as 'aphrodisiacs'.
Scent is often regarded as an individual affair but it can also be a collective experience – spectators at ancient Greek games were anointed with different perfumes as they entered the stadium, and in Arab culture it remains customary at the end of a meal for the hostess to pass a box around the guests which contains a selection of perfumes and a censer.
Scent is often regarded as an individual affair but it can also be a collective experience – spectators at ancient Greek games were anointed with different perfumes as they entered the stadium, and in Arab culture it remains customary at the end of a meal for the hostess to pass a box around the guests which contains a selection of perfumes and a censer. For the Dassanach people of Ethiopia, scent is a vital part of group identity. Cattle are so valued to the pastoralist members of the tribe that the smell of everything associated with cattle is considered prestigious: men wash their hands in cow urine and smear manure on their bodies, whilst girls and women apply ghee (clarified cow butter) to their skin to ensure fertility and attract men.
The West assigns primacy to the visual, to how we 'see' the world, and in an increasingly neutralized and deodorized society it can be said that our olfactory experience of our environment is much diminished. However, many cultures understand the world through other senses. In most European languages the same words are used to describe taste and smell but many other tongues around the world have much more extensive vocabularies to describe the one thousand or so different scents the human nose is able to distinguish. For the Ongee people of the Andaman Islands, odour is a fundamental principle. If a person is ill, it is due to an excess or loss of odour. To summon certain spirits to the community, rotten meat is hung on the trees and women and children disperse their body odours to the winds by swinging on swings. Many miles away, the Suyá people of Brazil classify animals by odour and regard humans too as having different types and intensities of odour according to factors such as gender, status, stage in the life-cycle or illness. For the Suyá, smells are not just good or bad, but are codified to represent certain concepts.
Scent is important part to ritual and ceremony. The ancient Chinese used mugwort, orchid and lotus to attract 'kind spirits' and incense has been used for centuries by several world religions. Linked to concepts of religion, folklore and magic is scent's associations with medicine. Foul smells are often associated with illness and death. In Ancient Egypt an official edict called on people, even slaves, to wear perfume to stop the spread of disease and, as in several other cultures, perfumes were used to embalm mummies, not only to aid with preservation but to overcome the smell of the corpse; to overcome mortality itself. Strong-smelling plants were believed to possess curative powers; Babylonian herbalists were esteemed in society and during times of plague in medieval Europe, doctors wore scented robes and 'beak masks' filled with dried roses and carnations in an effort to ward off the 'evil' smell of disease. As advances in science and hygiene led to a greater understanding of germs, odour was no longer held to either transmit disease or prevent it, but it remains central to alternative medicinal practices such as aromatherapy and herbalism.
It was the medieval alchemists who perfected the art of producing a true alcoholic distillate in which substances kept their smell for much longer and seldom went rancid. Alcohol was also lighter on the skin than a greasy unguent and it remains the base ingredient for commercial perfumes today. The art of modern perfumery in the West has its origins in 18th-century France – Napoleon is said to have used two bottles of eau de Cologne a day, liberally pouring it over his head and shoulders. Today, thanks to the time- and money-saving science of synthetics, perfume is a global industry that does not just produce fine fragrances but also ingredients to mask the less pleasant smells of everyday items such as the rubber in a child's toy, the fat in soap, or the castor oil in lipstick.
Further information is available in the Museum's Introductory Guide to Scent, which is available here.