Perfume in Antiquity and Middle Ages
An “industry” as old as mankind
Egypt: the ancient centre of perfume
The funeral rite of embalming required large quantities of myrrh, balm and perfumed oil. These funeral practices, together with the offering and inhaling of perfume, illustrate the ancient Egyptians desire to move closer to the world of the Gods by escaping the inevitable decay of 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 water lily, marjoram and iris, resins from the terebinth tree (turpentine), balsam tree (myrrh), benjamin tree (benzoin) and rockrose tree (labdanum).
The Egyptians never restricted their use of perfume to purely religious purposes. Although some perfumes were reserved for ritual use, others were used in daily life for healing, adornment and the improvement of home life. Not only were perfumes essential for rituals and medicine, Egyptian men and women also used them extensively for adornment.
Greece: the beginnings of hygiene and the cult of the body
As with the Ancient Egyptians, perfume remained sacred to the Ancient Greeks and Greek mythology even explains the origins of particular fragrances as disputes among the Gods.
However, the Greek’s interest in perfume also included the realm of medicine and personal hygiene. The cult of the body, both male and female, which developed in Ancient Greece, is inextricably intertwined with the world of perfume.
The Middle Ages and barbarian influences
Rome: from austerity to an orgy of the senses
Public baths attracted a large number of Romans and body care was practiced throughout the rich classes of Ancient Rome. Scents, room perfumes, oils and balms for skin and hair, and spicy aromas from refined dishes were all important parts of Roman life. This profusion in fragrance use caused the moralists of the period to condemn the excessive use of perfume.