Perfume in the ancient world!
The use of perfume and incense in the West goes back as far as 5000BC when the first mentions of burning incense as an offering were made in Egyptian tombs. The first perfumers were priests who compounded sacred offerings from aromatic resins. These blends were used to sweeten the smell of sacrificial offerings and to please the gods. The Egyptians even had a god of perfume named Nefertem.
Blends created by Egyptian priests were potent enough that samples found in tombs during modern excavation have retained their original sweet fragrances. Most powerful Egyptians such as priests and Pharoahs were buried with scented oils to ensure their olfactory needs were met, along with the food, wine and other consumables frequently found in tombs.
Many of the “classic” ingredients in Egyptian perfumes are some of those still commonly used in modern perfumes. Jasmine, Frankincense, Lotus blossom, Myrrh, Lilies and Honey were all frequently used in Egyptian blends. The Greeks and Romans borrowed many cultural habits from the ancient Egyptians and among them was the use of fragrances and these ingredients in particular.
The Greeks had their own traditions with using perfumes and incense in religious rites as well. Perfumes were used in funeral rites by members of all social classes – although the true fragrances were generally too expensive for the lower classes. So important was perfume to the rituals that poor families would resort to painting a perfume bottle on the coffin itself.
An Aryballos - an ancient Greek blown glass perfume bottle.
In keeping with their reputation as the scientists of the ancient world, the Greeks were the first to make the transition from simple incense to fragrant oils meant to be worn on the skin. Aromatic plants and resins were ground and mixed with oils to form suspensions for this purpose. Coupled with the Greek penchant for bathing and hygiene, wearing perfumes became a widespread practice in the Helenic world. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” was an especially big champion of their use, recommending fumigation and wearing fragrances to prevent diseases.
The Greek love of beauty and aesthetics, along with their cultural contacts with the East, brought an expansion not only of the use of perfume as a non-ritual beauty regimen, but new fragrance compounds as well. “Concerning Odours” - a text by Theophratus, considered the father of botany, describes the us of iris, citrus, rose, mint, hyacinth and many other notes that have become traditional perfume components.
The Greek traditions of perfumery were carried forward by the Romans as they rose to cultural dominance in the ancient world. Rome held Grecian culture in high esteem and adopted their penchant for all things fragrant. In fact, the Romans coined the phrase “per fumum”, meaning through smoke, which is the root of the word we use today.
Examples of Roman blown glass perfume bottles.
The Roman love of luxury furthered the development of perfumes, along with their extensive trading networks – by the first century AD, Romans were importing 2,800 tons of Frankincense alone. Rich Romans took perfumery and fragrance to an extreme level – the Imperial palace of Nero featured silver pipes which were used for spritzing dinner guests with rosewater.
With the fall of Rome came the dark ages across Europe and the end of the ancient world's fascination with luxurious fragrances. Fortunately, the Roman Catholic church survived this period of chaos and kept many of the traditions of incense and fragrance alive. We'll cover that in a future post!