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THE STORY OF PERFUME FROM ANTIQUITY TO CURRENT DAY

 

Le Perfume in Antiquity, a way of communication with the Gods
An "Industry"as old as mankind

OBJECTS DATING BACK TO ANTIQUITY,  MUSEE DU PARFUM, PARIS.


The word "perfume" is derived from the Latin per (through) and fumare (to smoke): long before the use of modern techniques, the first perfumes were obtained by burning woods, resins and other, more complex mixtures..

Humans have always been exposed to smells and, although etymology isn’t proof per se, we can suppose that it was around a fire that our earliest ancestors discovered what smells they could produce by throwing herbs, leaves or twigs of different plant species into the flames. Archaeology confirms that perfume was both produced and used three to four thousand years BC.

The shape of pottery found in Mesopotamia suggests that certain pots were used as rudimentary distillation tools, even though this technique was only fully developed later on. Similar jars found at Tepe Gawra, near Mosul in modern-day Iraq, date back to approximately 3,500 BC..

However, there is far more evidence of the use of perfume products and cosmetics (make-up and pomades) during this era in the shape of the many unguent and perfume jars found in the three great ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, from as early as 4,000 BC.

The use of perfume hence succeeded the development of the first towns and its purpose was solely religious: it was, in particular for the Egyptians, used to communicate with the gods and allow the dead to reach the hereafter.

 

Egypt: the ancient capital of perfume

 

Of all the ancient civilisations, Egypt has left the greatest mark on the history of perfume. At the end of the Roman Empire, when Rome’s political and economic powers were waning, Alexandria, with its guilds of renowned perfumers and alchemists, continued to play a key role in the world of perfume.

Although it would be presumptuous to say that the ancient Egyptians used perfume solely for religious and funeral rites, perfume was an essential feature of these mystical ceremonies.

In Ancient Egypt, most religious festivals were systematically accompanied by offerings of perfume and incense. Egyptian beliefs distinguished the immaterial world of the gods and the material world of humans. Along with music and chanting, perfume vapours were thought to enable these two worlds to unite and allow the gods to hear the prayers of mortals. Inhaling sacred incense and perfume was believed to give priests and their disciples the power to rise to a higher state of consciousness (some of these products were probably hallucinogens, as were certain drinks intended for priests).

Embalming required large quantities of myrrh, balm and perfumed oil. This funeral rite, together with the offering and inhaling of perfume, illustrates the desire of the ancient Egyptians to move closer to the world of the Gods by escaping the inevitable decay of their mortal remains. Similarly, priests also applied some of these balms to the statues of Gods. Most perfume and incense was produced from flowers (particularly blue lotus, marjoram and iris), or gums such as those from the pistachio tree (turpentine), balsam tree (myrrh), benjamin tree (benzoin) and rockrose tree (labdanum).

Although the Egyptians initially used local plant species, evidence shows that they also employed plant species growing outside their empire for their rites. These new plant varieties were discovered during conquests and military expeditions. Some of the campaigns travelled far afield and were intended to procure very precious materials such as gold, ivory, and ebony, together with myrrh and other resins. One such faraway destination was the Land of Punt (probably now part of Somalia), initially accessible along the Red Sea, then by overland caravan.

COSMETIC PALETTE ADORNED WITH TWO BIRD HEADS, EGYPT, NAGADA II PERIOD,
3500 – 3200 BC, FRAGONARD COLLECTION.
ALABASTER COSMETICS VASE, MESOPOTAMIA, DJEMDER-NASR PERIOD,
3700-2600 BC, FRAGONARD COLLECTION.

THE SEDUCTION OF MARK ANTONY

Cleopatra’s elegance, sophistication and the pride she took in her appearance have never been equalled. And of course, her most famous beauty treatment was the she-donkey milk bath scented with rose petals...

Cleopatra used all her powers to seduce Mark Antony and perfume was key to her success, Plutarch describes Cleopatra using perfume not only for herself but for an entire vessel. Fifteen centuries later, William Shakespeare asserted that, to achieve such a result, the Egyptian queen abundantly scented the sails to announce her arrival to Mark Antony with sweet smells of perfume, even before he saw her:

"The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them (…)
(…) From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense (…)"

The Egyptians never restricted their use of perfume to purely religious purposes. Although some perfumes were reserved for sacred rituals, others were used in daily life for healing, seducing and improving home life by living – like the gods – in a perfumed atmosphere. The various forms of perfume were considered as luxury items due to the high cost of procuring raw materials. Nonetheless, Egyptian society was so well organised that the use of perfume spread well beyond the closed circle of priests and the Pharaoh’s kin. For example, soldiers were issued with perfumed oils to protect their skin against the sun and heat.

Although aromatherapy is extremely popular today, the Egyptians were the first people to use perfume and incense for pharmaceutical purposes. Details of Egyptian medicine have been deciphered from scrolls such as the Ebers Papyrus, a sort of catalogue of remedies dating back over 3,500 years. Some of the treatments took the form of perfumed balms or fumigations and their ingredients included resins (benzoin and myrrh), together with flowers and aromatic plants (rose, camomile, bay, lotus and mint).

Perfumes were not only essential to religious ceremonies and medicine. Egyptian men and women also used them extensively as a means of seduction and, in this sense, it would be more accurate to refer to the ancient Egyptian perfumes as cosmetics.

As the distillation process had yet to be invented, perfumes were generally associated with oils, pomades and unguents. The many toiletries found by archaeologists - perfume flasks, unguent jars and make-up spoons -, along with depictions of women at their dressing tables, demonstrate the importance of cosmetics in the daily life of the Ancient Egyptians. In Egypt, for the first time in history, the use of perfumes was associated with famous figures. Nefertiti and Cleopatra were genuine beauty queens, aided and abetted by Egyptian cosmetics.

Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful one has come", is still considered a paragon of beauty thanks, in particular, to the world-famed stone busts representing her with her graceful neck. There are few precise indications of how she used beauty products: legend tells that she bathed in jasmine-scented water before anointing her skin with sandalwood and amber, and spent hours perfecting her appearance. Nefertiti’s stunning reputation has survived history and her name is still a reference in the beauty industry.

Cleopatra’s powers of seduction have fascinated people through the ages. Although her natural charms successively helped her seduce two Roman emperors, they would probably not have sufficed without the consummate art of make-up and perfume inherited from 2,000 years of Egyptian refinement.

FRESCO DEPICTING WOMEN PERFUMING THEMSELVES,
18TH DYNASTY (1421-1413 BC), TOMB N° 52, THEBES.

THE EMBALMING RITUAL

Although the Greeks did not embalm bodies, surviving documents do describe the mummification process.

Herodotus, the "father of history", who lived in 5 BC and travelled widely, mainly to Egypt, described the ritual as follows:

"First with a crooked iron tool they draw out the brain through the nostrils, extracting it partly thus and partly by pouring in drugs; and after this with a sharp stone from Ethiopia they make a cut along the side and take out the whole contents of the belly, and when they have cleared out the cavity and cleansed it with palm wine they cleanse it again with spices pounded up: then they fill the belly with pure myrrh pounded up and with cassia and other spices except frankincense, and sew it together again. Having so done, they salt the body and cover it in natron for seventy days… They wash the corpse and wrap the entire body in fine linen cut into bands, smearing those beneath with gum, which the Egyptians generally use instead of glue..." Although not mentioned by Herodotus, the internal organs (stomach, liver, intestine and lungs) were washed in myrrh and palm wine and kept in canopic jars that were placed in the tomb with the mummy.

TERRACOTTA COSMETIC MORTAR GLAZED WITH TURQUOISE, OF EGYPTIAN ORIGIN, 5 BC,
 DAR ES SAFI NECROPOLIS (KERKOUANE), FRAGONARD COLLECTION.

BRONZE RAZOR, ARG EL GHAZOUANI NECROPOLIS (KERKOUANE),
LATE 4 BC, FRAGONARD COLLECTION.

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