The history of perfume proves that status and glamour will live forever. While it was common around the world, there were no cosmetics stores or online sites. Since the birth of ancient civilization, its heady aromas have become an integral part of religious ceremony that induces a more spiritual connection to the power of the senses. While you may not fully appreciate the power of the scent, perhaps keep in mind that in older societies, the scent of any perfume on the latest catalogue could possibly have bought you a kingdom. This list catalogues some of the more interesting facts of the perfumed world which often valued aromatic qualities even higher than gold and diamonds.
The Egyptians used perfume in their embalming procedures. Initially the domain of the priests because of its links with divinity, it was only later that emperors and queens were allowed to indulge in its luxuries. Only the extremely wealthy and higher placed persons were buried with scented oils and water. They even had a god of perfume and beautification, Nefertem, who, unsurprisingly was often depicted wrapped up as a mummy with his face free from the wrappings. Julius Caesar, perhaps smelling the primitive beginnings of a Versace spray, was said to be tempted by Cleopatra’s perfume when she attempted to raise his military strength to protect her failing power.
The Greeks were hugely committed to incense and aroma. In fact, so great was their love and addiction to the sweet smells and liquid heavens that an Athenian statesman named Solon had to place a ban on perfume in order to prevent an economic crisis. One can only imagine the fall of the great state if there were was an Armani sale. The important practice of xenia, the ritual of accepting guests into your house and offering hospitality, was also linked to perfume. As well as being offered food and shelter, guests’ feet were bathed in scented oils. With soap being absent, they mainly used oils and a strigil, an instrument used to scrape off the oils.
So in love with perfume that they probably would have drunk it if offered, the Romans were enamored with its heady scents. In typically hedonistic fashion, they favoured excess and extravagance over a more subdued lifestyle. They were said to bathe in it, wash their clothes in it and even rub down their animals and household pets with it. It became central to Roman culture and even gladiators were rubbed down with fragrant oils before their fights. In fact, the sweat of the gladiator, ancient Rome’s equivalent to celebrities, was used as a skin beauty product for women.
The European kingdoms
During the Dark Ages, scent and a pleasant aroma became lost on the common people who previously, contrary to popular belief, had bathed regularly and socially. The devastating epidemic of the Black Plague caused medical authorities to wrongfully claim that washing opened up the pores and invited the disease into the body. Indeed, it was the conscious lack of perfume and hygiene that led to the deaths of millions across Europe and Asia. It was only much later in the 18th century that bathing was once again considered healthy and socially acceptable.
Our debt to perfume
All of these societies were innovative and immensely powerful. They all helped shape the world in their own fashion. Yet it is fascinating to note that perfume, the power of fragrance and aroma, was a central part of their culture. Without their addiction, perhaps all the elaborate performance and fascinating cultural practices would not be so awe-inspiring in our modern age. We owe a debt to these giants of the ancient world and their lack of online perfume. Not just for technological and social innovations but for their shared love of the sensual and emotive power of scent.