Perfumery is an Ancient and Enduring Art
Long before the invention of the automobile, electricity, or the television, there was perfume. Fragrance was everywhere in the ancient world, from scented oils used to adorn the body to incense burnt in homes and temples. Perfumes were considered magical. Fragrance has entranced humans for over 5,000 years. They were used for worship, healing, aphrodisiacs, hygiene and status symbols. Traveling across deserts and seas, the ancient people searched far and wide for spices, incense, perfumes, and medicinal herbs. Perfume makers sought out fragrant plants and experimented with ways to extract and bottle fragrance from plants. This process contributed to the fields of botany, chemistry, distillation, and glassmaking. There’s evidence of the use of incense going back to 4500 BC in Ancient China, but the art of perfume making most notably begins in Egypt.
Perfume Use in Ancient Egypt
The first perfumers, Egyptian priests, used aromatic resins to sweeten the smell of sacrificial offerings. The Egyptians believed that burning incense connected humans with the Gods – and pleased the deities. They used fragrance for their religious, embalming, & healing ceremonies. The Egyptians would make scents by steeping plants, flowers, and wood in oil.
Incense Was Not Just for Ceremonial Purposes
The Egyptians loved using fragrance in everyday life. They would use incense just like we use candles. They believed that these pleasant scents would help maintain harmony between the body and spirit.
Cleopatra: Seducing with Perfume
Legend has it that the sails of Cleopatra’s boat were coated with fragrance before she set off to sea. The fragrance was diffused through the air, reaching the shore before Cleopatra would. Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra, saying “Purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them.” The idea behind this was to seduce Mark Antony with her arrival before he even caught sight of her.
Many Egyptian Perfume Ingredients Still Popular Today
Many of the scents used by the Egyptians have endured to this day and are still popularly used in fragrance creation. These scents include frankincense, myrrh, jasmine, juniper, cardamom & cinnamon. Each night, Kyphi was burned to please (and appease) the Gods, as they began their journey to the underworld, and to ensure the safe return of the sun God, Ra, next morning.
The Ancient Greeks: Perfume from the Gods
The Greeks and Romans thought that fragrance was so wonderful, it had to be from the Gods. They developed new methods of making perfumes by grinding up plants and suspending them in oil so it could be applied to the skin. The Greeks embraced aromatherapy and sought our new scent ingredients. It was the Greeks who discovered that you could use animal-based scents to add a more sensuous & musky element to fragrance creation. At this time, perfume was not just for the nobility. It was growing in popularly in everyday life and perfume shops began opening up all over Athens.
17th Century Europe: Plague Doctors Wearing Bird Masks
European doctors caring for patients with the plague would wear these eccentric, bird-like masks for the purpose of protecting themselves from the plague. Before doctors understood germs and how they’re spread, plague doctors believed the foul smelling air around plague patients would make them sick so they filled these beaks with scented medicinal herbs and dried flowers.
For more information on the history of fragrance & perfume, check out this excellent BBC documentary on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=annRzLYrRwM&t=177s