Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Ancient Lure of Pretty Perfumes

Cupid hovers over Psyche like a perfume hawker at a department store.
I love this fresco of Psyche sniffing her wrist as she tests a new perfume cupid has brought her (from Pompeii at the Getty Villa).

How charming is it?  And how still true. After all, what woman hasn't dabbed a pretty scent on her wrist and sniffed?

Perfumes were big business in the ancient world. When I was researching Cleopatra's world, I was amused to learn that one of the reasons King Herod of Judea despised the queen was that Antony handed her territories that had once belonged to him.

Antony needed ships, Egypt had no forests, so BOOM, he took some of Herod's forested lands and gave them to the queen so she could build up his navy for him. That was bad enough, but Antony also gave her territory near the Dead Sea that included a very profitable perfume factory, probably so that she could use the profits to fund the ship-building.

Which is a reminder that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra wasn't necessarily (as the Romans painted it) a hot and dangerous love-affair, but more of a mutually-beneficial business arrangement. She'd help him win a war, if he'd help her maintain power (and even expand) her kingdom.

Bidness (as we say in the South) before pleasure, folks.

The Egyptian god of perfume.
Perfumes and scents were big bidness in the ancient world for many reasons--primarily because the ancient world reeeeeked.  There is no other way of putting it. Check out this post by author Caroline Lawrence on the disgusting aromas with which the ancients had to contend. Apparently, if you had a time machine, you would want to lug several cases of Febreeze with you just so you could make it through the day.

The ancients used perfumes in religious as well as bathing rituals. So important where scents to the Egyptians, they even had a god of beautiful fragrance, Nefertem.  

One prayer of the Book of the Dead intones its hopes that the newly deceased will "Rise like Nefertem from the blue water lily, to the nostrils of Ra, and come forth upon the horizon each day."

In other words, may you come back to life in the Afterworld smelling like a rose (or actually, a blue lotus).

Rose and cinnamon were, according to some experts, the most popular combination for ancient perfumes. Interesting combination, eh?

Perhaps the smell would be akin to eating a Cinnabon while in the center of a rose garden. Maybe the ancients were on to something...

For more, check out this entry on ancient perfume-making from the Getty Museum blog.


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Fascinating! :) e

Amalia Dillin said...

Great post (as usual!)

I hadn't really thought about how much the ancient world would have stank -- I guess I figured since they were bathing regularly, it wouldn't be so bad, but that doesn't take into account all the things that smell BESIDES body odor.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for commenting, Amalia and e!