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Perfume in Antiquity and Middle Ages

An “industry” as old as mankind

The word ‘perfume’ is derived from the Latin per (through) and fumare (to smoke) because, long before the use of modern techniques, the first perfumes were obtained by burning woods, resins and other complex mixtures. Humans have always been exposed to smells. 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. The use of perfume is contemporary, therefore, with the development of the first towns and its purpose was mainly religious, to communicate with the gods and enable the dead to join the hereafter, particularly for the Egyptians.

Egypt: the ancient centre of perfume

Of all the ancient civilisations, Egypt has left the greatest mark on the history of perfume. By the end of the Roman Empire, with Rome’s political and economic powers waning, Alexandria, with its guilds of renowned perfumers and alchemists, still played a key role in the world of perfume. While it is incorrect to state that the ancient Egyptians used perfume solely for religious and funeral rites, perfume was an essential feature of these mystical ceremonies.

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 in many other fields, Egypt and the East passed on their knowledge of perfume to the Greeks via the maritime trade routes of the Cretans and Phoenicians. The Greeks imported the necessary raw materials, from Africa and the East, through their trading posts dotted around the Mediterranean and eventually became experts in preparing perfumed products.

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

In just over one thousand years, Rome grew from a small farming village to the undisputed world capital. As Rome’s power and influence grew, its morals were also radically altered. The Republic managed to maintain a certain austerity for a while but eventually yielded to luxury with the discovery of oriental refinement and perfumes.

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.