Fragrance Friday: Scents of the Ancient World

Nerd alert! I spent MANY years of my youth studying Latin and Ancient Greek, and my studious little soul still thrills to the occasional article about obscure aspects of the classical world. So it is my pleasure to bring you: Recreating the Aroma of the Ancient City: Incense in the Ancient Mediterranean. Last weekend, there was a conference in Rome where “archaeologists, historians and classicists gathered not only to explore the use of incense, perfume and scented oils in antiquity, but also to attempt to recreate the ephemeral smellscapes of the past.” Heaven!

I have visited the Minoan sites mentioned in the article (Crete, and Akrotiri on the island of Santorini — well worth visiting!). I don’t recall the article mentioning another site I have visited, however: Delphi, possibly because the most famous scented emissions there, the vapor that put the Pythia (oracle) into a trance, was not manmade:

It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch—who, we recall, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary—noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell—so ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia.

Professor Bond, author of the article about recreating ancient aromas, ties the use of incense, frankincense and other fragrant substances to Christian traditions too:

When the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh (Gr.σμύρνα) along with the gold to the baby Jesus, they were donating sacred substances to be used to make the newborn’s house and his body more fragrant. Although frankincense was usually placed in an incense burner, myrrh came from an Arabian tree and was often turned into an unguent used on the dead in ancient Egypt.

She goes on to describe things like ancient recipes for incenses, like one from Egypt called kyphi, which the conference scholars apparently tried to re-create. What a lovely goal — to put oneself as completely as possible into the mindset of the ancients, to understand better their history, literature and architecture.

Kyphi was a popular aromatic in Egyptian temples dedicated to Isis, but could also be used in the house before bed to help people get a good night’s sleep.

Imagining the bedrooms of the ancient world is completely different when you can actually smell the pungent sweetness of kyphi as you take in the colorful frescoes and cushioned furniture within the ancient bedrooms of places like Pompeii. Smelling these reconstructed substances in person is then a potent reminder that experiencing the ancient world is not just about modeling ancient buildings or putting on a wool toga.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall for this conference. I may just have to take up my Ancient Greek grammar book again …

Delphi Pythia

Priestess at Delphi, by John Collier (1891)

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