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Sensitive nature and the balms of the gods

Sensitive nature and the balms of the gods

Episode 1

Perfume: “From the Latin PRO, before, and FÚMUS, smoke in the sense of expanding steam. Fragrant smoke of something that is burned or boiled”1
Smoke: “Steam exhaling from bodies that burn or are hot, spreading in the form of a cloud through the air and remaining suspended for a short time”2

The ritual of burning aromata is as old as man. It impregnates the sacred environments, the rooms of everyday life of a certain type of aristocracy and royalty and the ancient pharmacies of Egyptians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks and Romans.

The first international trade routes developed thanks to the transport of perfumes, between the East and the Mediterranean basin, creating the caravan routes of Arabia, exploratory missions of plant hunters ( >Travelling into a landscape and queen Hatshepsut ) and conquest missions.

From the temple to the banquet, from the nuptial thalamus to the sensuality and vanity of consciously seductive women, the love for the balms of the gods has accompanied human evolution.

The sacredness of perfume
Getting to the gods pro fumo

The link with the sphere of the sacred and the act of ceremonial burning is visible in many etymological derivations: ambrosia comes from  ambrotos “immortal”, thymiamata, “aromas to burn” connected with thymiao, the act of burning and thyo, to produce smoke and offer sacrifices. Relatives of the same root are thymiateria “altars”, thysia “sacrifice”, thymiasis, the act of burning, thya or thyia for the plant having the balsamic wood. Instead incensum derives from the verb incendo, “I burn”.3
In fact, it was just through the smoke that sacrifices reached the gods: per fumum or pro fumo.

The ancient anthropomorphic gods were particularly sensitive to odours, across all ancient cultures.
In the temple of the Goddess Moon, in the ancient city of Mar’ib, in Yemen, capital of the kingdom of Saba, it was forbidden to offend the goddess by presenting oneself in the temple after eating garlic or onion. Some tablets tell of when two pilgrims dared “pray in her temple after eating onions and stinking herbs”4. The punishment was extremely severe, like those intended for far worse actions, such as sodomy.
The contrast between the “smell of the monster” and the nice smell, associated instead with gods and heroes, be they female or male, is specifically thematized in the Greek culture. In the first case we speak of disosmia, which was also the stench of Hades and Avernus, of horrible creatures like the Erinyes, the Harpies and the Chimera, associated with putrefaction and death. Euodia, or the nice smell, was constantly linked to heroes and gods, a sign of “holiness” (it is no coincidence that in the Middle Ages the saints called themselves “in the odour of sanctity”)5.

In some cases, perfume was one of the ways to read and interpret the divine will. Such a form of divination was called libanomanteia and it seems that the philosopher Pythagoras was among the first to divine with incense in the 6th century BC.

Moreover in the Homeric world, often also for the purpose of their preservation, the statuettes and statues of the gods were impregnated with fragrances and balms or covered with impregnated fabrics or treated with odorous oils, so as to acquire a particular degree of shine and fragrance.

Everyday life
The tomb and the thalamus

Perfumes and essences were also an essential ingredient of funerary and wedding ceremonies.
Egyptians not only presented the sacrificial victim filled with cleaned cloths, honey, figs, raisins, frankincense and myrrh, but in the latter they also immersed their mummies, worried about the smell of the deceased in the afterlife.
The habit of anointing and purifying the bodies of the extinct with essential oils and fragrant essences, before depositing them in their tomb, was a custom attested in different passages also of the Homeric world. The body thus seemed to regain life: together with the colour, in fact, the other great indication of vitality is the smell. In some parts of the Iliad, the anointing of the body, almost a magical ritual of protection, seemed to be the way the gods saved their heroes’ bodies from destruction.

In wedding rituals, the scented fumigations and fragrances played an equally important role in sacred or funeral rites, so that the Babylonians, for example, used to “join their brides while immersed in the fumes of incense”6.

The mirror

The use of perfume was not a privilege of priests and gods or relegated to specific practices, but also a daily habit, both aesthetic and medical, of kings and queens, without distinction of sex.
“In the Mediterranean of the Bronze Age, from the Mesopotamian world to Egypt, the use of ointments and perfumed substances is one of the main components of personal hygiene and body care”7
Due to the lack of documentation, it is difficult to distinguish with certainty between products with an aesthetic function and ointments for pharmacological uses. For the Sumerians, for example, the fragrant essence was exactly halfway between aesthetic and pharmaceutical. The Egyptians, at the time of the Pharaohs, were famous for the massive use of fragrant balsams, both for cosmetic and medical purposes.

In the 3rd and 2nd century BC, the kings of the Assyrians used spices and aromatic oils to perfume themselves, as a daily aesthetic practice. This is why Assurnasirpal and Sennacherib cultivated cedars, cypresses, and terebinths in their garden.
According to Cato one should cultivate in the garden everything necessary to make crowns of flowers and spicy aromas.
The Persians were famous for their love of luxury and fragrances, so much so that their capital, Susa, took its name from souson, in Greek “lily”. The monarchs, who lived between Persepolis and Babylon, wore on their heads a headgear made of myrrh and labyzos – a sweetly perfumed essence, more precious than myrrh – between beds, hundreds of concubines, daytime sleeps and sleepless nights spent singing and playing, massive thrones of gold and precious clothes.
Alexander the Great, learning from the Persians, used to pour precious essences and fragrant wine on the floor, burning incense and other aromas in front of him. He was, apparently, suffering from a real “perfumomania”, so that some of his conquest campaigns, like the one in Arabia, had as their primary objective the subjugation of areas famous for their perfumed essences or spices.
From Alexander the Great onwards the fashion for fragrances quickly rose. Caligola washed in warm and cold scented oils, Heliogabalus bathed in water together with rare essences and crocus balm.

Despite this transversal use between the sexes – it was the beauty practice of both heroes and sovereigns and of princesses and queens – the perfume was an inevitable and specific complement to the female toilette. In particular, in the Greek world it became a weapon, typical of women, used in battle, more powerful than shields and swords.
Closely connected with the conscious erotic seduction, enfolded in an aura of mystery and exoticism due to its distant and mythical provenance, the aromatic effluvium is essential in the form of this armed seductiveness, which in turn is a cornerstone in the transformation from parthenos (virgin) to nymphe (bride). Smell and sight show when a female body and personality become adult and subtly sensual, no longer unconscious, and impetuous.
“The sumptuous and decorated garments, together with necklaces and bracelets, earrings, beautiful sandals, belt and hair transformation, signal the new statute, covering the female body with a new panoplia of weapons of seduction. The perfumes become, in turn, another “dress” of the nymphe, surrounding her body”8.
In this sense we speak of a conscious erotic seduction, because “The euodia indicates the new status of the nymphe»9, aware of her abilities and possibilities.
The power of armed seductiveness corresponds to the charis (grace), a privilege shared only by a certain aristocracy with the world of Olympus.
It appears in some passages of the Iliad, where the description of the stages of the preparation of the languid and sinuous armour is composed along the lines of the “dressing of the warrior”.
“(…)  in both cases the final outcome is the transformation into daidala endowed with the privilege of charis, perceived by an external observer, first of all, as light, glow and changing reflection. The analogy between weapons of seduction and weapons of war also extends to the “victims”, who became so also due to the effects of seduction, in consideration of the characteristics that archaic Greek culture assigned to the manner of Eros and Aphrodite. It reveals itself on the “victim” through the symptoms of illness and madness; the knees of the seduced person melt in the same way as a warrior’s ones, shot down by the blow of the enemy rod”10.

Sometimes, when disconnected from this metamorphosis into bride, feminine fascination becomes extremely dangerous: the meeting of Calypso with Hermes or the representation of Circe are literary and cultural moments in which seductiveness is not functional to marriage, but destructive. Eros and seductiveness are not integrated into the polis rules, through the transformation of the volcanic virginal eroticism into a woman.

The symposium

In particular, from the 7th century BC, the banquet and the symposium became the undisputed realm of perfume.
A specific ritual called the cadence of the succession of alternating aromas, fragrant resins, wreaths of flowers, aromatic oils and spices, being enough that they were well suited to the flavours of food, enhancing them.
The essence was poured on the chest of the guests, the seat of their heart. The servants put wreaths of fragrant flowers on the guests’ heads and offered them perfume in a cup. In the centre of the room, on an altar, incense burned, while food and wine were prepared on a table. Prayers and offerings to the gods were the first due gesture, after which songs and dances accompanied the banquet.

The stories of banquets and memorable “scented” parties are numerous and varied.
It was said that in Roman banquets, during the meal, some slaves would bathe doves in large bowls of water and perfumed oil, and then let them fly over the heads of the guests. The flapping of the wings would spray perfumed water everywhere.
Demetrio Falereo (345-282 BC), remembered for the expenses for banquets, rained huge quantities of perfumed essences from the ceiling.
In 166 BC, in Daphne, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria, organized games where athletes anointed themselves with cinnamon and nard, enantyum, marjoram and iris oil and finally crocus oil drawn from gold vessels. He used to go to public restrooms and distribute expensive perfumed oils to people there.
More generally, in Syria, during court symposia, the servants used to distribute precious Babylonian essences with which they sprinkled the guests’ crowns.
Lucan tells how Cleopatra enchanted Caesar after the news of Pompey’s death: the beautiful sovereign prepared a sumptuous banquet, among “marbles, ebony, precious stones, ivory, richly decorated tortoise shells, purple carpets, a myriad of slaves”, presented guests with crowns of nard leaves and fresh and noble roses with hair bathed in the essence of fresh amomum and cinnamon from Arabia and Ethiopia.
It is said that Caligula (37-41 AD) drank precious pearls dissolved in vinegar and served his guests breads and gold dishes.
Nero (54-68 AD) had dining rooms constructed with ivory movable coffered ceilings, from which flower petals fell and a system of tubes to spray perfumes on the guests, the “perfumed rain”.
Heliogabalus (218 and 222 AD) flavoured the “rosé” wine with powdered pine cones; he scattered roses, lilies, violets, hyacinths, daffodils on triclinium, beds, porches; he rained violets and other flowers in the pool water from the ceilings; for the guests he poured wine, flavoured with rose and wormwood, along with rose petals; he burned odorous resins in the lamps and prepared hot baths with nard oil.
Finally Caio Plozio Planco was found by the soldiers who killed him thanks to the scent trail he had left behind.

Obviously such attention to essences prompted doctors and thinkers to propose which perfumes were suitable, and which not, for a banquet: crowns of laurel, myrtle, roses, quince, enantyum, wild thyme, crocus, myrrh, nard, and fenugreek were perfect, but the crowns of white violets were inappropriate. As for the marjoram, it depended.
As Pliny the Elder tells, it seems that the wreaths of flowers were born with Cato. Between the 3rd and the 2nd centuries BC he encouraged the cultivation of plants in the gardens, whose flowers were suitable for this purpose.
At the beginning they were bare, made of intertwined tree branches for the sacred games. With the painter Pausia and the florist Glicera they became works composed of different colours and scents. Immediately successful, they diversified enormously: Egyptian winter crowns consisting of horn shavings and woven with bronze, gold or silver threads, then roses or petals sewn together, precious spices like nard leaves from India and finally impregnated with precious perfumes.

The places and ways of perfume

In the Mediterranean it seems that “perfumed oil was one of the main export products, in exchange for (…) raw materials, such as gold, silver, ivory”.
It was the perfume trade that gave a strong acceleration to commercial exchanges.
The most important areas mentioned by the sources are Cyprus, Arabia, India, Egypt and the land of the Troglodytes, but also Syria, Judea, Ethiopia, Libya and Cyrenaica.

Sacred place to Aphrodite, its protector, the so called “island of the perfumes”. It has the same root as kypros/henna and kyparissos/cypress.
Focus of the trade between East and West, Cyprus was already famous in ancient times for its production of aromatic essences and oils, spices and fragrances. This concern for the fragrant balms was born and developed precisely because of the importance of the cult of Aphrodite, called the lady of Cyprus, Cypris, Idalia and goddess of Paphos, to whom not only victims were sacrificed, but libations of perfumes were dedicated, pure myrrh, incense and honey.

It was the place of production of fragrances par excellence, so much so as to define it “the last of the inhabited lands, which smells of divine sweetness”11.
It exported cassia, cinnamon, ledanum, incense and myrrh, the monopoly of which was held by the “Caravan kingdoms” which moved on dromedaries, the so called “desert ship”12.
Many are the mythological tales about this place: for example, the collection of ledanum seemed to be very difficult due to the presence of winged snakes, guardians of the trees of incense.
Diodoro Siculo tells how, thanks to the enormous quantities, the local people burned precious essences as wood to make bread or beds. In particular, in the reign of Saba, it was said that almost all the objects, the columns of the buildings and the feet of the seats were covered with gold, silver, precious stones or ivory, precisely because of the abnormal quantity of exported aromas.
It was one of the objectives of the military expeditions of Alexander the Great and, together with Syria and India, one of the regions with the greatest production of aromatic essences.

Following the ancient tales, it produced linen, precious pearls, cinnamon, nard, aromatic calamus, cloves, pepper, ebony wood, bdellium, costus root with its magnificent and spicy scent, amomum, myrrh, malabathrum and incense, aromatic calamus and other.
Stories and myths about India were also born: according to Ctesia of Cnidus there was a plant capable of emanating its fragrance up to 5 stadiums away, obviously the prerogative of the local kings. Sovereigns lived in luxury and when they decided to show themselves in public, the servants poured all sorts of aromas from gold and silver cups on their way.

The land of the Troglodytes
Divided from Arabia by the sea, they produced myrrh, incense and pseudocassia, cinnamon, ginger, myrobalan.

Here the production included iris galbanum, galingale and enantyum from whole leaves massaris was produced.

Here myrobalan, incense, perfumed palm called “adipso”, the perfumed moss, the henna tree and tree of the aspalate with its odorous root were produced.
Furthermore a special palm called “balano” was typical and mentioned in the area; from its fruits an oil was obtained and used as a base in the production of fragrances. A species of Acacia with its fruits and resin was also renowned. It was said that the perfume emanating from various species of flowers and plants was extraordinary, among which myrtle, and that roses, carnations and other flowers bloomed two months earlier than in other countries.

Also renowned were its artificial essences, of which the production and processing centre was in Alexandria. The names of the Egyptian perfumes that we still have are Aigyption, Psagdas, Mendesium, Metopium.

There is however a last aspect of great interest that can be summarized in the definition of “seduction landscape”.
We can’t tell you everything now, it would be … not very seductive.

To be continued!


“Le lacrime di Mirra: Miti e luoghi dei profumi nel mondo antico” Giuseppe Squillace (il Mulino, 2015)
“Nel giardino del diavolo: Storia lussuriosa dei cibi proibiti” Stewart Lee Allen (Feltrinelli, 2005)
“Archeologia e analisi chimica dei profumi archeologici: uno status quaestionis” Dominique Frère, Nicolas Garnier;
“Aromi di palazzo: per un’archeologia dei profumi nell’Egeo dell’Età del Bronzo” Massimo Cultraro;
“Da Mārib a Gaza. Profumi d’Arabia e rotte carovaniere: fonti epigrafiche ed evidenze archeologiche dal paese dell’incenso” Romolo Loreto;
“Profumi e fragranze. Armi e paesaggi della seduzione in Grecia” Mauro Menichetti;
in “I profumi nelle società antiche. Produzione, commercio, usi, valori simbolici” a cura di di Alfredo Carannante e Matteo D’Acunto (Pandemos, 2012) da
“Dei e piante nell’Antica Grecia. Riflessioni metodologiche, Efesto, Demetra in Grecia, Magna Grecia e Sicilia, Kore Persefone, Ecate, Apollo, Afrodite, Giampiera Arrigoni (Sestante Edizioni, 2018) from