Ph. by Luigi Fieni
The perfume has an invaluable ritual value and is also an age-old aesthetic and social practice, shared by many peoples. (Sensitive nature and the balms of the gods)
In the Greek world, the social value of perfume is expressed clearly, through literature testimonies and various iconographic and archaeological evidence.
Euodia is the good smell of gods and valiant men and the manifestation of a privilege, charis, or the “grace” shared by the heroes with the immortals.
Furthermore, it is the signal of the change occurring in the physicality and management of a woman’s sexuality: from virgin to bride. At that moment the fragrant essence becomes an element of the arsenal that the female uses to wage war with the opposite sex, convince him or distract him from his goals1.
Who can be the patron goddess of such a wonderful and portentous dowry? Obviously the enchantress Aphrodite, who moves in a specific landscape, characterized by well-defined plant species and which punishes blasphemers with bad smell.
Aphrodite, the divinity of perfume
Associated with perfume, she is a goddess with infinite facets. She is the goddess of love, “also understood as an attraction of the various parts of the Universe between them”2, she is the “goddess of vegetation”3 (Ανϑεια), symbol of fertilization and generation. An embodiment of all the nuances of pleasure, she takes her name from the sea foam (ἀϕρός), from which the myth gives birth to her. Brightness, together with the fragrant perfuming, is one of her key characteristics. In fact she is often called “golden” (χρυσέη o χρυσῆ) and “lover of the smile” (φιλομμειδής). “Golden Aphrodite, or adorned with golden attributes, is a goddess at her maximum splendour, she is a model of superlative, radiant, charming and perfect beauty, the pinnacle of sexual pleasure”4 .
The femininity she represents is not unique: for a series of mythological references, Aphrodite embodies many aspects of the unique and ancient pre-Hellenic divinity with enormous powers, the Great Mother, triple and lunar.
According to historian Robert Graves, in the Pelasgian myth of creation, Aphrodite is not only the goddess who, with another name, emerges naked from Chaos, divides the waters from the sky, dances on the waves and joins the snake Ophion giving life to the Universal Egg from which everything is born, but she is also the divinity of death, called Melenide “the black one”, Scotia “the dark one”, Androfone “murderess” and Epitimbria, “of the tombs”5.
Seductive and generative power, erotic charm and … death.
The functions of the perfume
The perfume used by the goddess has a triple value.
It is a salvific element linked to the funeral ritual world: in the Iliad, sprinkling Hector with rose oil, it prevents the body of the dead prince from being fed to the dogs by Achilles.
It has a pharmacological function: between medicine and magic, it heals Aeneas’ leg, allowing him to return to battle. The goddess helps the doctor Iapyx, who is unable to extract the arrow, and goes to Crete, on Mount Ida, to collect dittany, whose essence she pours, combined with ambrosia, in the waters with which the doctor cleanses the wound6.
She is functional to aesthetic attraction, seduction and evil: in the Iliad, to seduce and distract her husband Zeus from helping the Trojans, Aphrodite suggests Hera while washing, anointing and perfuming:
Here she entered and closed the doors behind her.
She cleansed all the dirt from her fair body
with ambrosia, then she anointed herself with olive oil,
ambrosial, very soft, and scented specially for herself
if it were so much as shaken in the bronze-floored house of Jove,
the scent pervaded the universe of heaven and earth.
With this she anointed her delicate skin,
and then she plaited the fair ambrosial locks that flowed
in a stream of golden tresses from her immortal head.
She put on the wondrous robe which Minerva had worked for her
with consummate art, and had embroidered with manifold devices;
she fastened it about her bosom with golden clasps,
and she girded herself with a girdle that had a hundred tassels:
then she fastened her earrings, three brilliant pendants
that glistened most beautifully, through the pierced lobes of her ears,
and threw a lovely new veil over her head.
She bound her sandals on to her feet, and when she had arrayed herself
perfectly to her satisfaction, she left her room and called
Venus to come aside and speak to her.7
The essential touch of Aphrodite is added in the episode in which Athena helps Penelope in cleansing her face, recommending the special immortal oil of the goddess of love, so that she becomes beautiful.
In the Homeric hymn dedicated to her, the goddess uses a bewitching perfumed oil to seduce Priam in Troy, and in the Clouds of Aristophanes she comes to the aid of the young brides on the eve of the wedding night. How? Recommending perfumes.
Vegetation goddess, pink in colour
This link with the fragrance is even more intriguing because she is also a “goddess of vegetation”.
Her arrival or presence awakens nature, in the scented woods and gardens sacred to her, where her epiphany is possible and where initiation rites of sexual maturation most likely take place.
“”In this regard Hesiod told that tender grass sprouted under the feet of the goddess as soon as she arrived in Cyprus”8 .
Sappho, speaking of the initiatory rites, binds her to the smoking altars of incense, to apple trees and roses, so dear to her, to flowers and waters.
The Homeric hymn to Aphrodite recalls the fragrant Paphos gardens sacred to her.
Strabo tells how in Elis there were fences full of flowers in her honour.
According to myths and legends, she is the origin of fragrant flowers and their charm, even if the rose is among the symbols to which her power is connected.
‘Rose colour’ (rhodochrous), is one of her epithets: on the same day when the divine emerges from the sea foam, the rose was born from the point where a shrub was bathed by a drop of nectar of the gods. Roses are wild ones, that is Rosa gallica, damascena and canina. The latter, which arrived in Greece from Persia, is the last to bloom and the first to die: with its transience and strong fragrance, it becomes a symbol of the short and intense explosion of erotic love and Aphrodite herself.
So other stories of divine flowers: the lychnis plant was born from the water of the bath of the goddess after her union with Hephaestus, the anemone from her tears after the death of Adonis, the lily is ‘delight of Aphrodite’ because of the same skin colour of the goddess.
As a “goddess of vegetation”, in her woods and sacred gardens, she appears in a sleepy and languid atmosphere:
“A fresh shadow is cast by the roses, while gentle breezes blow over the place and as the leaves stir, a numbness spreads over all the defendants (v. 8 κῶμα), which is not a simple sleep due to tiredness, but a progressive suspension from the usual sensory perceptions, a sort of ‘hypnotic state’, a sudden silence of nature, triggered by the rustling of the foliage, in response to the imminent theophany of Aphrodite. Ferrari’s most recent reflections on κῶμα, from Homer to the great tragic, as “sleep infused by a spell, by an external will” that “allows the goddess to wander in the place that is consecrated to her”; therefore a psychic condition, unique and extraordinary for those who experience it, which alone allows you to experience firsthand the sudden appearance of Aphrodite”9.
The landscape of seduction
With the definition of “landscape of seduction”, Mauro Menichetti indicates a literary topos linked to Aphrodite or to all those moving in her kingdom, symbol of a precise female metamorphosis or of the consequences of the seductive acts of the goddess. The landscape of Aphrodite, seductive and luxuriant, is the physical and emotional space where the woman transforms herself from a virgin into a bride, with all the erotic awareness that this requires.
In Claudia Labrugo’s analysis the dewy lawn, the herbs and flowers, which perfume the goddess or accompany her in her epiphanies, are always linked to the seductive erotic contexts where she acts.
In some passages of literature, to these essential elements of her natural horizon, others are added such as the cave, the luxuriant and fragrant vegetation and the hanging vine, the birds that nest, the spring and its running water, the meadows of violets and celery.
From the spring dewy and fragrant flowery meadow to her rose, her poppy, her apple, her pomegranate and her myrtle, they create the traditional space of the action of the goddess or anticipation of the rape in which goddesses or women are kidnapped and transformed, through the sexual intercourse, in “brides”.
Other flowers are added, such as the hyacinth, the lily and the narcissus, which appear in famous meadows, the scene of two female abductions: that of Persephone, who collects roses, and that of Europe which, with her companions, is intent on picking violet, wild thyme and crocus flowers by the sea.
Myrtle is the seduction plant par excellence and the first pomegranate was planted by the goddess in Cyprus, her sacred and protected island. Together with the apple, it is among the votive offerings that gardeners make to Priapus, son of Aphrodite and god, who symbolizes the sexual instinct and the generative force, the gardener par excellence, to propitiate the fertility of the garden.
Regarding the wedding rites, Stesichorus remembers that apples, myrtle leaves, wreaths of roses and wreaths of violets were thrown on the chariot of Menelaus and Helen on their wedding day.
The apple is a classic gift of love that the lover offers to the beloved, so that she understands the erotic interest of which she is the object. By accepting it, she responds with a promise to offer her own body, and thus exchanges an apple for her virginity.
When the red apple is donated by Aphrodite, the symbolic significance of the goddess of seduction, life and death is expressed with all its strength. She offers her body, the lover the life:
“the so-called “judgment of Paris”, where a hero is invited to judge the beauty of three rival goddesses and then give an apple to the most beautiful one, reflects an ancient ritual situation, already outdated in the times of Homer and Hesiod: the three goddesses are the triune goddess, that is Athena the maiden, Hera the old one and Aphrodite the nymph, who offers Paris the apple instead of receiving it from his hands. The fruit, which symbolizes the love of the goddess obtained at the cost of life, will be the pass of Paris for the Elysian Fields, the apple garden of the West, where only the souls of the heroes are allowed. Similar episodes are found as much in Irish and Welsh legends as in the legend of Heracles and the Hesperides.
Eve, the mother of all living beings, gives an apple to Adam. Nemesis, goddess of the sacred forest, and later a symbol of divine revenge on too bold kings, holds a branch full of apples, a gift for heroes. All the Bronze Age paradises are garden islands. In fact, Paradise means garden”10
Poppy is another of the flowers connected to her. Even if it is present only in Sicyon’s Aphrodite, ‘lady of the thalami’, the poppy capsule, held in her hand, indicates the sacred psychotropic properties that, for some, would help the virgin to transform into a bride, for others, to alleviate all the physical effects in the chest that love would cause in its victim, called eros lysimelés (λυσιμελής), “which loosens the limbs”:
“Eros, on which Aphrodite dominates unchallenged, presents itself as an invincible external force grabbing the one who feels desire, acting on the organ that for the Greeks is the seat of emotions, namely the chest, and flooding the heart to subdue it. The spell of Eros, a concept in which sexual desire and affective feeling form a whole without moral prejudices whatsoever, attacks, envelops, burns, exhales, slaps, finally loosens the limbs of the one affected by it, causing a sense of numbness, contentment and well-being, vaguely similar to sleep and death, both of which, not by chance, are united in Eros by the same ability to loosen the limbs”11.
The punishments of the stench
So much the good smell is sacred and linked to Aphrodite, so much the bad smell, as well as wrapping specific environments or wicked creatures (> Sensitive nature and the balms of the gods) becomes punishment of the goddess herself against the violators of her prescriptions, making them recognizable through a stench, as for the women of Lemnos who, forgetting to dedicate her sacrifices, acquired a nauseating smell. Betrayed by their husbands because of their stench, one day they slaughtered all the men on the island.
Bad smells, however, outside the Greek world, can become allies as protection against supernatural entities and demons from beyond.
“In a Sanskrit manuscript, garlic is called “the exterminator of monsters”12, the mummy of Tutankhamun was immersed in myrrh, so that the good perfume could preserve the goodness of the pharaoh, but it was put in the sarcophagus together with heads of garlic, in case there were evil spirits to deal with.
The Persians held a garlic festival every year: for demons a dish made of garlic, rue and vinegar was prepared to make them flee in front of the nauseating smell.
“The Babylonians used garlic to exorcise the spirits of the possessed; the calusari, Romanian cathartic dancers, wore garlic braids as necklaces during the rituals. Not to mention all the legends of Central Europe related to vampire stories”13.
“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”
1 reference “Profumi e fragranze. Armi e paesaggi della seduzione in Grecia”
2 e 3 from Treccani
4 from “Fiori e piante di Afrodite in Grecia”, page 329
5 from “I miti greci”, position 833 kindle edition
6 from “Le lacrime di Mirra: Miti e luoghi dei profumi nel mondo antico”
7 from “Traduzione dell’Iliade” Vincenzo Monti (Simplicissimus Book Farm Srl, 2011) ; page 6885
8 from “Le lacrime di Mirra: Miti e luoghi dei profumi nel mondo antico”; page 342
9 from “Fiori e piante di Afrodite in Grecia”; page 342
10 from “I miti greci” ; posizione 339 kindle edition
11 from “Fiori e piante di Afrodite in Grecia”; page 368
12 from “Nel giardino del diavolo: Storia lussuriosa dei cibi proibiti”, position 3180 kindle edition
13 from “Nel giardino del diavolo: Storia lussuriosa dei cibi proibiti”, position 3186 kindle edition
“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)
“I miti greci” Robert Graves (Longanesi, digital edition 2014)
“Odissea” Omero, traduzione Maria Grazia Ciani (Marsilio, 1994)
“Traduzione dell’Iliade” Vincenzo Monti (Simplicissimus Book Farm Srl, 2011)
“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” by Alfredo Carannante and Matteo D’Acunto (Pandemos, 2012) from academia.edu
“Fiori e piante di Afrodite in Grecia” Claudia Lambrugo
in “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 academia.edu
“La simbologia della flora nei giardini di Fileta e Dionisofane nel Dafni e Cloe di Longo Sofista” Cristiano Minuto from academia.edu
“«Tu apparirai d’oro, tu brillerai come l’elettro». Gioielli e lusso nei santuari greci tra culto, devozione e assimilazione” Luigi Caliò from academia.edu