The social significance of perfume: Antiquity

Sir William Russell-Flint's 'Song of Solomon' 1909

The Song of Solomon: Chapter 1 (excerpt)

I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver.
While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.

There are few books of the Bible that have had such an effect on secular culture as the Song of Solomon.  Structured as a dialog between a man and a woman, it is one of the most erotic passages of the Bible, moving from courtship to consummation.  In some Jewish traditions, The Song of Solomon is read aloud during weekly Sabbath rituals and during specific holy days because of its interpretation as an expression of love towards God.  It is also among the most sensorily evocative parts of the Bible, as it mentions a plethora of plants and fruits, many of which are still favored in the creation of modern perfumery.  Among these are:

Lily of the valley

Botanists and archaeologists have all confirmed that these were either items obtained in trade from far off lands or were indigenous to the region.  The Song of Solomon is then not only a parable of love, but it is also a document of trade in the ancient world.  All of these goods would have been very expensive and highly valued, fit for a king and his queen.

Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt

Perfumes were used as early as ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, when Queen Hatshepsut built tremendous wealth in Egypt by opening up routes to trade in one of her favorite fragrances, myrrh. (1)  Vials of perfumes have been found in the tombs of pharaohs.   One wildly popular perfume produced in the city of Medes in the Nile delta. called “The Egyptian,” became so famous in the age of antiquity that Romans imported it. (2)  Scented oils were used in religious rituals such as offerings to the gods and even in the practice of embalming bodies for burial.  During the birth of Christ, the Three Magi brought frankincense, myrrh, and gold as gifts while he slept in his manger, at a moment when the two scented plants were as precious as gold.  Harvested the southern part of the Arabian peninsula around modern-day Yemen and Oman, historians found that frankincense and myrrh made the entire region extremely wealthy because of its use in the creation of incense.  However, during the early years of Christianity, burning incense was perceived as a pagan ritual, and afterwards trade of these fragrant substances subsided.

It amazes me, a 21st century person, that a shift in religious affiliation could make or break the demand and supply of frankincense and myrrh.  It is hard to gauge exactly how many of the ancient purveyors of these products lost their livelihood, but I imagine that it was devastating.  Later on, however, the Roman Catholic church embraced the use of incense in its rituals as it does today, but I’m sure a great deal of damage had been done to the trade.

Now incense is used in all of the major world religions; in East Asia, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism; in South Asia, Hinduism; in Europe and the Middle East, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Among all of these disparate cultures and throughout the millennia, the scented smoke that came from churches, temples, and all place of worship were a way of delivering prayer to the Heavens in the most ethereal, immaterial way.  If the gods couldn’t hear our spoken prayers, perhaps they would be able to smell our love and devotion.

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