“Perfumes serve the purpose of the most superfluous of all forms of luxury… ingredients lose their scent at once, and die in the very hour when they are used.” So wrote Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD. Despite his low opinion of perfumery Pliny chose to devote a great deal of his encyclopaedic work “The Natural History” to the history and art of scent making. His claim that perfumes die the moment they are used is one which historical research is refuting. Smells may be ephemeral but they leave their mark all the same.
Pliny records in great detail the fashions which have come and gone in perfume by his day. Once it was the iris scents of Corinth which were in demand at Rome, then the roses of Phaselis, then a heady concoction of quince blossoms from Cos. The Romans it seems were able to bring their desired perfumes from anywhere within the Empire.
It is no wonder that the Ancient Romans were addicted to perfume. The reek of so many thousands of people living together by necessity turned them into perfume geniuses. Indeed they bequeathed us the very word perfume – from ‘per fumus’ meaning ‘through smoke.’ Temples of the ancient world would be filled with the fragrant smoke of incense burning on their holy altars. Yet even to the Romans the perfumer’s art was one lost in the aromatic haze of the distant past. Recent Archaeological searches have discovered perfume workshops on Cyprus dating from 1850 BC, as far in the back to Pliny the Elder as he is for us.
The workshop at Pyrgos, Cyprus, was destroyed when an earthquake rocked the island. This destruction turned out to be an act of preservation. Vessels of oils extracted from fragrant plants, jars of finished perfumes, and even the stills used in the preparation of ingredients survived buried underground. Once they were brought up in the Modern World it was possible to analyse their contents and reconstruct the scents they contained. The ingredients pine, almond, anise, bergamot, and coriander used on Pyrgos were sourced from around the Mediterranean showing a thriving market for perfumes and the sophistication of their creators.
The first perfumer we know by name, and indeed the first chemist, was a Mesopotamian woman named Tapputi. A cuneiform tablet from around 1200 BC talks of how she used flower oils and resins to create scents. Her method of dissolving them, purifying, and filtering ingredients is recorded as well, though nothing further is known about Tapputi.
Many historians trace perfumery back to the Ancient Egyptians to whom scents were thought of as the sweat of the sun god Ra. But they did not keep perfumes for the divine world alone. Everyone with the money for it would buy some form of scent. The trade routes which met in Egypt brought them oils and unguents from across Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the hot climate of Egypt ways to keep the human body smelling clean were highly valued. Egyptians also considered a fine odour a sign of health and vitality, perfumes were medical as well as cosmetic. Burnt incenses of myrrh and frankincense, imported from Somalia, were used to cleanse a home or fragrance clothing.
The most popular Egyptian scent was a mixture of sixteen different ingredients called Kyphi. The recipe for this has been found in ancient texts and engraved on temple walls. Honey, wine, raisins, myrrh, juniper berries, pine resin, rushes, cinnamon, mint, and henna we all brewed with various other ingredients to create perfumed balls which would be placed in hot coals to exude their aroma.
Smells may be ephemeral but they leave their mark all the same.
Many Egyptian artefacts show people at dinner parties with cones balanced on their head. This rather puzzling fashion may depict waxy cones of perfumed oils worn on top of wigs which released their fragrance over the course of an evening. As well as showing how perfumes may have been used Egyptian tombs give pictorial evidence of how they were created in workshops.
How and when the techniques of perfumery were first created remains a mystery. Their wide availability in the Ancient World suggests it was an early discovery. Likely humans have always laboured to capture the beautiful smells of the natural world but the truth is lost to us. Leaving the Ancient World things become clearer. In the West after the fall of Rome perfume became thought of as a wasteful luxury. No doubt it was still used but it was a less celebrated trade. The wafting of incense in a church was probably the closest the average person came to a purposefully created perfume.
Avicenna was one of the great minds of the Islamic Golden Age of the 10th century AD. A philosopher, doctor, and proto-chemist he has left us one of the great innovations of perfume. While those perfumes of the Ancient World used fragrances that had been distilled into oils, Avicenna created a scent which had been distilled into alcohol. Almost all modern perfumes are created this way as it removes the sometimes unpleasant aroma of the oil itself and makes the perfume cleaner to apply. Avicenna’s distillation of roses was used as a medicine but none of later cosmetic perfumery would be possible without it.
It is generally thought that the reintroduction of perfume to the West came via the Arab world. But the Christian world was not completely without perfumes and joyous scents. Saint Hildegard of Bingen used herbs steeped in hot baths to create pleasant smells. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was the (possibly legendary) creator the first European alcohol-based perfume named, creatively enough, Hungary Water. This fragrance was made with strong brandy, rosemary, and thyme and was the most popular European perfume until the 18th century.
The early modern world was not always a pleasant place to live. Poor hygiene and poor waste management gave cities an undesirable miasma. So great was the stench of massed humanity that the smell itself was blamed for diseases. Those seeking to avoid illness would carry with them pomanders – small, heavily perfumed items to hold in front of their noses to drive away the ill odours. With personal fragrance now a matter of public health the time was ripe for the rebirth of the perfume industry.
For most of history perfumes have been beyond the pocket of most people. But as we have seen the origins of chemistry and the origins of perfume are strongly linked. They still are. Modern chemists have replaced most of the exotic ingredients used in perfumes with artificial ones that do not require months of travel to secure. Today perfumes and scents are everywhere and readily available. No doubt future ages will look at ours as the Aromatic Age.