Ancient Memories of Perfume

Humans have experimented with fragrances for centuries.

| December/January 1994

  • A Victorian representation by Anthony Frederick Sandys of Mary Magdalen with her alabaster jar of fragrant ointment.

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.


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