Sunday, September 25, 2011


The aspect of liturgy/ritual/ceremony that I am exploring is the use of the senses to shift consciousness over the limen to a deeper level of conceptualizing.  Of course we already use scent cues, whether it is the “nice” smell generated by machines in a luxury department store while the piano player tinkles out tunes, or the heavy mock-rose of a mortuary, perhaps meant to cover the reek of formaldehyde from the prep room.  We are advised that to sell our house, prospective buyers should get a whiff of apple pie baking (even if you bought the whiff in a spray can).  At a Catholic mass the priest will wield a pierced ball of burning incense, a censer.  I’m giving you examples of smell, because in spite of the above, smell is often a neglected sense in worship.
Octavian Coifan calls the formulation of perfume the “Eighth Art,” still very close to alchemy.  Books on the subject sell for hundreds of dollars, like the formularies for patining bronze sculptures before one could just buy predictable solutions from a sculptor's supply house.  On Coifan’s blog  he explores commercial perfumes but also historical scents.  He does not neglect those that come from the edge of human life: smoke, embalming, tanning leather, shipping shawls packed in the infamous patchouli smell that became so popular in the defiant and cannibis-scented Sixties.
Specifics.  The original patchouli perfume was said to include ground up Egyptian mummies, which had been preserved with spices.  for Coifan’s eloquent description.  The famous cashmere shawls absorbed the odors of the other cargo: often exotic wood, spices, pepper, and musk.  The spices were partly commodities for sale and partly to guard against insects, the way Blackfeet used sage, sweetgrass and tobacco.  Among the bug repellants were the leaves of the patchouli plant.  In the nineteenth century enterprising commercialists traced the plant to its origins in India and began to grow it in France, where it was associated with tobacco rather in the way that it later chimed with cannabis.  But even more intensely, it was associated with sex, evoking the elegant shawl over the gauze empire dress that sometimes exposed the bosom.
When the “wise men” came to Bethlehem with gifts of frankincense and myrrh, they were bringing scents used in religious ritual.  Coifan looks at such matters, combining the traditions of Middle Eastern incense with the ritual tea ceremonies of Asia which were made bourgeois, restorative and friendly in English petite rituals, sipping Earl Grey black tea scented with bergamot, now forbidden in its original formulation.  First olfactory secularity and now extirpation.
Coifan says, “If myrrh is a ritual of smoke and scent performed inside the coldness and darkness of stone temples in a "social" space accessible to very few, the tea is about taste and the hot vapors, a ritual of intimacy accessible to everyone. Outside (communion with the others and with the Gods) and Inside (the enclosed space of intimate thoughts in silence).

“Perfume is not about abstract concepts, even less about landscapes. It's above all about the relevant notes for us as humans in the myriad of scents of this planet.”  What is relevant is what is associated with the ultimate thresholds of death and sex.  
Vegetal sources are everywhere but those of the rhizomous orris, iris and violet plants have long “roots” in history.  See  These are again Egyptian preservatives.  Smoke, or as the Native Americans would have it, smudging, is connected to the household,  but also to the Middle Eastern burnt offering. (Sacrifices were “sent up” to the heavens by burning them on the altar.  The practical -- or stingy -- burned the parts no one would eat, but the generously beseeching would burn the whole animal, a “holocaust.”)  
There is a class element to odor.  The smells of households that burned wood or coal, that fried meat, that simmered roots (onions, turnips, cabbage) for long periods of time, had a particular reek that smack of low-class kitchens where cheap foods were prepared, maybe on kerosene stoves.  That tenement smell mixed with fungus, rot and urine.  No wonder the people smoked.  Remember Susan Sarandon in the movie role where she was a fishmonger, rubbing her bosom with lemon at the end of the day?
Dry vegetal matter, aromatic, can be kept in sachets, like lavendar or in pot pourri.  Balsam fir, or sweet pine, is popular as a Blackfeet offering, tied into a little calico bag.  Cedar, even when it’s not burning, is the sweet smell of a new pencil.  Resins, gums oozing from bark or at a cut.
Aldehydic smells stand in relation to natural odors the same way that anniline dyes relate to organic dye.  Laboratory created, they are more intense, more sharp, and perhaps more likely to trigger allergies.   The chemistry of smell is the molecular story of alcohol, fat, sugar and rot.
However specifically based on culture and ecology many perfumes are, everyone has their own private iconography of evocation.  For me, burnt metal as produced in a foundry or torch welding carries a strong emotion.  The mixture of beebalm and wild mint found along the creeks of the prairie -- because of lying in it nude with no blanket -- is more sexy to me than musk.  That’s a young smell.  Even younger were the medicines of menthol and iodine.  The smell of newly cut alfalfa is one thing; the smell of a broken-open bale of hay in the middle of winter is another.   The skillful liturgist knows the congregation well enough to balance the likely individual associations against the more broadly cultural or historic. 
Even the smell of the sacred space in use must be perceived and considered.  Because so much wood is used, there may be smells of wax and lemon oil.  Beeswax candles. The combined smell of the worshippers.  I grieve that so many people are now allergic to perfume that some church buildings are posted with notices excluding those wearing it.  And yet our children stink of fruit, baby powder, detergent additives, and oxymoronic musk-scented deodorant.  Olfactory cacophony.
In a purist worship group, perhaps a small sandalwood or cedar paneled room might invite newly washed persons wearing long loose cotton shirts laundered, well-rinsed and dried in sunlit outdoors.  Then a smoke smudge or scented oil or aromatic wine could regain its full meaning as the door latch to the sacred. 


Anonymous said...

That omnipresent introduced tree of the northern prairies, the Russian Olive, has a strong aroma when flowering in early June that I find very pleasant, even sexual. That reaction is not shared by family members! Anyone else up there in the north react the same way? j

prairie mary said...

Wolf Willow also has a strong typical smell, which to me is like green apples. I don't know of any ceremonial uses for Russian Olive or caraghana (Siberian Pea) at least not on the northern American plains. There might be something for Wolf Willow. It is the title of Wallace Stegner's memoir of his youth.

Prairie Mary

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