Ancient Memories of Perfume

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A Victorian representation by Anthony Frederick Sandys of Mary Magdalen with her alabaster jar of fragrant ointment.
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Whenever I smell lavender, I am once again a child, entering my grandmother’s house just after she has taken a hot bath with Yardley’s Old English Lavender Soap. It’s all there: the china knickknacks, the cast-iron stove in the kitchen with its always-boiling teakettle, the French tamarisk tree and goldfish pond in the garden. Everything that was my grand­mother to me comes flooding back on a whiff of that clean, sharp scent.

Whereas sights and sounds are pro­cessed through the brain’s neo­cortex for comparison with past experience, smells go directly to the limbic system, the seat of emotion, nourishment, sexuality–our most primitive and deep-seated urges. In our remote prehuman ancestors, in fact, the cerebrum–now the part of the brain where our con­scious mental processes occur–was almost exclusively concerned with the sense of smell.

If we each carry our personal library of evocative smells derived from our earliest memories–for me, lavender; for Marcel Proust, a tea-soaked made­leine–might we also have deep within us a genetic memory of the smells that stirred our earliest ancestors? In The Immense Journey, anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley implies that our evolutionary development has constrained our perception of the world. Much of what we interpret as pleasant may arise from our experiences, but how much might actually be genetically determined?

Enjoying Antiquity’s Fragrances

I’ve based the following recipes on historical texts, with some accommodation for modern tastes and circumstances. The original recipes for khyphi, for instance, included quantities of cassia and cinnamon that we would ­associate more with cooking than with perfume. Also, we now know that high concentrations of cassia may cause skin problems. Hence I’ve translated the concept into a simmering potpourri, sometimes substituting readily available ingredients with similar odors for exotic or unobtainable substances.

A major ingredient of chypre is oakmoss, a kind of lichen, and skin contact with this, too, is best avoided, so I’ve form­ulated a chypre potpourri. Because the true civet, castoreum, and ambergris of the original perfume are almost impossible to obtain, I’ve made some reasonable substitutions. Many recipes for chypre exist; use this one as a guide and don’t hesitate to alter the concentrations to suit yourself.


The African connection

If Homo sapiens arose in Africa, as paleontologists and molecular biologists maintain, then our ancestral olfactory apparatus would have been molded upon the odors of that tropical continent. The first fragrance materials that our most ancient ancestors would have been able to gather readily were aromatic gums, balsams, resins, and woods, whose essential oils are most easily released if the materials are molded into incense and ignited to drift to the heavens.

Because these oils volatilize slowly–unlike the fleeting fragrance of floral and citrus oils–perfumers call these heavy, persistent scents “base notes”. They give perfumes a fundamental scent that lingers after top and middle notes have volatilized. Much has been written about the makeup and importance of early perfumes; it is known that the formulations mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts lean heavily on the base notes.

Africa and neighboring Asia Minor provide the first written records of the use of perfumes. We know that the first ones were used as offerings to the gods. Genesis 2:12 tells us that the Garden of Eden was full of bdellium, tentatively identified today as African myrrh, and frankincense is mentioned twenty-two times in the Bible. The Bel Temple of Babylon, the capitol of the realm under Hammurabi in 1700 b.c., used 60,000 pounds of incense per year! The epic poem about Gilgamesh, the Sumerian hero-king, and later Babylonian tablets speak of the use of cedar of Lebanon for personal perfume.

In Egypt, scents for incense, embalming, and personal adornment reached new heights of importance. Embalmers prepared different organs with different scents, perhaps so that they could be recognized in case of mutilation or dispersal. In their quest to satisfy their hunger for aromatics, the Egyptians under Queen Hatshepsut (1480 b.c.) organized an expedition through the Red Sea to Punt (probably Somalia), where myrrh, frankincense, and opopanax grew. Five centuries later, the Queen of Sheba crossed the Red Sea, taking fragrances to King Solomon.

A recipe of sorts is given in Exodus 30:22-25:

Moreover the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, and of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin; and thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.

This oil of holy ointment from the Bible is reminiscent of other incenses, ointments, embalming fluids, and personal scents of the period. One of the most famous whose formulation has come down to us is koupi-t in ancient Egyptian, or khyphi (with various spellings, such as kouphi). It is known in five versions: two papyrus texts of Edfou written in hieroglyphics, dating to the reign of Ptolemy VII (147-105 b.c.) and recopied in part in the Roman era, and three texts in Greek of Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, I, 25), Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride, 80), and Galen (De Antidotis, II, 2). The French Egyptologist Victor Loret published a comprehensive study of khyphi in 1887 with modern approximations of the ingredients and their weights.

Khyphi and its variations were so popular with the ancient Greeks and Romans that the fragrance was often known simply as “Egyptian”. However, the Greeks and Romans had other perfumes. From Theophrastus’s Inquiry into Plants (circa 350 b.c.), we have a record of kypros (containing bergamot mint, tufted thyme, and cardamom), koston (spikenard and sweet marjoram), and megaleion (cinnamon and myrrh), among others. Pliny’s Natural History (circa a.d. 77) lists a number of perfumes, including metopium (oil of bitter almonds and green olives with cardamom, rush, flag, honey, wine, myrrh, seed of balsam, galbanum, and terebinth resin) and susinum (lily flowers, oil of ben, calamus, honey, cinnamon, saffron, and myrrh).

Ancient perfumes today

Most ancient fragrances would not be appreciated today because of their formulation in animal and vegetable fats–and their manner of application. In Egypt, guests, upon entering a home, were given a cone of fatty fragrance to place upon their head and allow to melt down into their scalp and shoulders. Given the dry air of deserts and frequent infections of the skin, these scented fats had medicinal as well as cosmetic attributes. They undoubtedly also repelled insects.

The heavy, sweet spiciness of these fragrances has a lingering appeal, though, and has given rise to a class of modern perfumes commonly referred to as “Oriental” which emphasize the base notes and smell like incense. The earliest of these was Guerlain’s Jicky, introduced in 1899. Today we have Shocking (Schiaparelli, 1935), Youth Dew (Lauder, 1952), and Opium (St. Laurent, 1977), to mention a few classic women’s fragrances. For men, Old Spice (Shulton, 1937), Royal Copenhagen (Swank, 1970), and Lagerfeld (Lagerfeld, 1978) are classic Orientals.

Another class of perfume with ancient origins, chypre, is based on gum resins from the island of Cyprus, known as “osselets of Cyprus”, which were burned as incense. Some say that chypre was invented to remind one of these osselets and the island itself; others believe that the odor was created to mimic that of the aromatic rhizome of a species of sedge (probably Cyperus rotundus). Rumors circulate in the literature that chypre was first popularized by Richard I of England when he assumed the title of King of Cyprus in 1191, but the first record of its manufacture places it in France during the Victorian era. Essential to a chypre are labdanum, oakmoss, castoreum (or civet or ambergris), patchouli, and clary sage. Coty introduced a chypre called by that name in 1917, and Millot created a successor in 1925 called Crêpe de Chine.

The perennial appeal of such scents as these may depend on our “odor memories” as a species, modified by the travels and dispersals of our ­ancestors. Euro­pean odors are reasonably well documented, especially by the French and Italians, but little has been written about the odor memories and preferences of Asiatic, Pacific, and Native American peoples. It’s a subject ripe for research and speculation.


The Ginger Tree, 245 Lee Rd., Opelika, AL 36801. Catalog $1.

Lucia’s Garden, 2942 Virginia St., Houston, TX 77098. Price list free.

Milda Jean Fragrances, 1170 S. Wells Ave., #4, Reno, NV 89502. Catalog $1.

Nature’s Finest, PO Box 10311, Burke, VA 22009-0311. Catalog $2.50.

Penn Herb Company, 603 Second St., Philadelphia, PA 19123-3098. Catalog $1.

Rasland Farm, Rt. 1, Box 65C, Godwin, NC 28344. Catalog $2.50.

St. John’s Herb Garden, Inc., 7711 Hillmeade Rd., Bowie, MD 20720. Catalog $5.

Tom Thumb Workshops, Rt. 13, Box 357, Mappsville, VA 23407-0357. Catalog $1.

Walk in Beauty, PO Box 1331, Colfax, CA 95713. Catalog $1.

Wolf Hill Farm, 30 Jericho Hill Rd., Southborough, MA 01772. Catalog $2.

Further Reading

Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990.

Dorland, Gabrielle. Scents Appeal. Mendham, New Jersey: Wayne Dorland Co., 1993.

Faure, Paul. Parfums et Aromates de l’Anti­quité. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1987.

Hayton, Beata. “The Perfumed World of Caesar and Cleopatra”. The Herbarist 56 (1990): 110-117.

Hepper, F. Nigel. Pharoah’s Flowers. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1990.

Manniche, Lise. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Rovesti, Paolo. In Search of Perfumes Lost. Venice, Italy: Blow-Up, 1980.

Tucker, Arthur O. “The Perfumed Victorian”. The Herbarist 49 (1983): 28-36.

Arthur O. Tucker is a professor of botany at Delaware State University. He’s well known for his work on the taxonomy of herbs as well as his research in essential oils.

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