There is a certain man who comes into the souk at dusk. He has the face of a hawk and the gait of a cat and he wraps himself tightly from turban to sandals. When he passes, the people fall back -- not because of the way he looks, but because of the smell. It is the smell of precious substances -- frankincense and myrrh and drying agents -- and under those is the smell of . . . human flesh. His dark cloak often has white shadows, powder marks, from the natron -- we know it as soda, a drying agent, a cleansing powder recovered from the white beds of dried up seas and alkaline lakes. This man is a mummifier. He works on the line between death and immortality. His icons are hawks and cats and kings. Oh, yes, and the servants and lovers of the king. Mummification was the transition of them all to eternity.
In some cultures natron was thought to enhance spiritual safety for both the living and the dead. Natron was added to castor oil to make a smokeless fuel, for lamps inside the tombs. Natron is an ingredient for making cerulean blue, the color of scarabs. A white drift of natron covered the whole body for forty days, drawing out the fluids of life, preventing visitations from insects.
The mummy maker in the souk was going to visit the potter to commission canopic jars, each with a lid shaped like a head to indicate the contents that once dwelt in the body. The four canopic jars -- marked jackal, baboon, hawk and human -- were designated for human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver, all of which, it was believed, would be needed in the afterlife. There was no jar for the heart: the Egyptians believed it to be the seat of the soul, and so it was left inside the body. Nor was there a jar for the brains which were hooked out of the nose and discarded as meaningless mush.
But this was all theology. What the people remembered was the smell.
If we accept the idea that spirituality precedes any theories because the only way that a creature can know the world is through the senses -- which in humans can then be woven into ideas and rituals -- and if we accept the idea that the whole point of “religion,” whether formally institutionalized or merely recorded in the memes of a culture, is to guide actions that preserve survival (homeostasis: the conditions that allow life), then the most basic sense is that of smell.
Even the first one-celled animals, the eukaryotes, were somehow able to detect molecules suspended in the fluid where they traveled so that they could approach those elements that would help them and retreat from those elements that would harm them. The whole cell wall must have been a “nose,” analyzing in some way the smell of molecules directly through its wall. Throughout the millennia of evolution the nose was preserved as a specialization of the brain and it persists in the middle of the face, so directly connected to the brain that inhaled solvents will dissolve brain tissue.
Smell is part of the food-sorting categories of the mind, indicating ripe or rotten, bitter or sweet, and marking toxins. With the discovery of spices, chilies, pepper and cinnamon, salt and sugar, food acquired variety and it was possible to tolerate some foods otherwise unpleasant. Minerals, bark derivatives, pods and seeds, alcohol, resins and oils were variously popular and expensive through the centuries. Some would repel insects or act as preservatives, as dessicants or ingredients of fatty mixes or in mild acids as vinegar or lemon juice. Sandalwood, lavender, patchouli, cedar, and blue juniper berries.
When settled communities began to treat their foods by soaking them in lye, leaching, fermenting, grinding, boiling, leavening, roasting, baking -- all these smells acquired the associations of a household, shared family meals as opposed to the wandering nomad foods eaten as found, taken along in a pouch. Burnt offerings, showing that there enough abundance to spare meat and fat for the gods, filled the air with sharp smoke. Soaps and bleaching agents accompanied the maintenance of clothing and bedding. Dairies meant sour milk, cheese, churned butter.
Then came the tinctures, decoctions, infusions of tea, coffee, chocolate, chamomile and a host of other herbal tisanes, some medicinal and some merely pleasant mild stimulants, appropriate for sharing. And the vegetable smudges of tobacco, marijuana, sage, pine, concocted incense.
Buildings have smells of their own, depending on their construction and use. Imagine the scriptorium of a monastery where the sacred books are written: the smell of ink, animal-skin parchment, candle wax, the quills of large birds, and the monks themselves in heavy robes, smelling funky-human in the midst of the small elegant work of reproducing God’s words, sweating to get every jot and tittle in the right place along the lines of gospel and psalm.
They say that saints had a unique smell, “the odour of sanctity,” reported to be like lilies or roses, a force of grace converting tragedy. Scientists have speculated about what could have caused it. Of course we know that devils smell of sulphur and brimstone. At one time doctors diagnosed patients by smelling them, dreading the smell of gangrene, catching the characteristic taints of certain maladies, recognizing substances in the exuding sweat of the patient.
Medicine, food, ceremonies, and books wax and wane through the history of religions, carriers and participants of the sacred, weaving themselves into memory complexes of the lives of people so as to guide them to survival either as individuals or as groups. Sometimes demonic, sometimes excremental instead of elemental, not every sensory trace was from what would sustain survival. Some destroyed, but could be used with caution in a ritual context, a chalice to hold the intoxicant, a pipe bowl for the tobacco. Some gradually became meaningless, like the preservation of mummies.
In a small Russian orthodox church on "Rusalii,” known in the west as Pentecost -- the eighth Sunday after Easter when the Holy Spirit traditionally returned to the world and came into the apostles, making them ecstatically speak in tongues, chanting strange magic words -- a group of young women come with armloads of sweetgrass and artemisia, a form of sage. They will strew the aromatic herbs on the floor so that when the congregation arrives for the service, their treading feet will fill the air with tangy sweetness.
The sun is finally warm again and plants are swelling and twining everywhere. This pleasant task of preparing for holy services fills the young women with joy so that they mix dance steps into their walking and some even run. Their sweat is scented with mating pheromones and joy makes them welcoming of love. They are roses and violets made round arms and warm clefts. It will be nine months until the birth of the Christ child. When the ceremonies of love end, so will human life.