Saturday, November 16, 2013


In medieval times it was thought that saints emitted a scent of lilies at the time of their death.  If they were martyred, the belief was that the fragrance came from their wounds, and that was linked somehow to the idea that their bodies would not decay.  There have been explanations proposed by scientists, mostly along the lines that the saints had a condition like diabetes or starvation that would cause them to emit ketones.

The Asian cultures valued the scent of tea and wove that into their ceremonies, while later Europeans recognized these gentle smells and made them an ingredient in perfumes rather than liturgies.  Of course, as precious things, tea, frankincense, myrrh and other fragrances have always been valued as the prerogative of the privileged and therefore excellent gifts for even a baby if the idea of king/god was mixed with the idea of riches and the baby was thought to have hereditary entitlement to an exalted family tree of One.

For the more secular, who still yearn for mysticism and mind-shifting, the scents of psychoactive drugs are attractive enough for expensive perfumes to be named for them.  And for those who worship books, we have those bound in Russian leather with its characteristic smell.   Coco Chanel was said to have a book collection that emanated the smell she often wanted in her perfumes.  Ecclesiastical furniture might be made of aromatic woods like cedar or sandalwood, and Holy Oils for anointing are likely to have a scent, either of itself, if simply olive oil, or maybe of some special addition.

Anointing leads us to sex and though most Christian versions are officially ascetic in their prescriptions (one god, one sexual partner, one life, one smell -- and it had better be soap) Jesus is constantly being anointed and surely anointing feet through the use of one’s hair is sexy.

Decidedly NOT sexy is the connection of smell with burnt sacrifice, though the burning bodies of animals (earlier, possibly even humans) were said to reach the gods in their heaven through their nostrils and were said to be pleasing to them.  Still, burnt vegetable matter, like sweetgrass, sage and kinnikinnick smudges, can be quite pleasant and varieties of smoke enhance foods as well as preserving them, like smoked salmon or smoked oysters.

Living things have their smells, sometimes the reek of skunk and civet or ambergris, the secretion of whales, which might not be particularly pleasant alone, but combined with other fragrances can give them a dark and musky appeal.

A fascinating connection advanced by Octavian Coifan, a perfume writer and expert, is that there exists a strong relationship between orris root, which is the rhizome of irises (you can buy it online), and the Egyptian god Osiris, “usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. He was classically depicted as a green-skinned man with a pharaoh's beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive crown with two large ostrich feathers at either side, and holding a symbolic crook and flail.  Osiris was considered not only a merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, but also the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile River.

Some propose that this god of the cut-up-to-be-replanted rhizome/tuber is a primal concept that eventually led to the idea of the crucified Jesus: that He is killed in order to renew life.  This is something like the sacrifices of the Inca, who cut out living hearts to offer the Sun.  I hope I never find out what these deaths smell like.

One of the perfume writers suggested that the perpetual search for a new perfume of greater beauty is “the constant human desire to go beyond the senses.”  Clearly the spiritual enterprise is one that urges transcending our sensorium into other realms that we know are there, because our technical expertise lets us see things beyond the range of our eyes, hear things that our ears can’t record, and enter other worlds -- or so they seem to be.   Attempts to describe these experiences are often paradoxical: hot/cold, floating/falling, dark/light.

In “essence” what happens when smelling is that molecules floating in air enter the nose and penetrate to what amounts to an organic analysis lab that can detect even faint amounts of material.  Much of what we think of as taste is really smell: a solution of coffee, toasted bread, and a burnt fat meat: bacon.  But an accustomed American breakfast could smell repellant to someone from a culture that didn’t eat that way.  The smells of cooking have a moral overtone: you shouldn’t eat that, the smell is low-class, the food may be spoiled, the smell comes into my room uninvited, you'll ruin your health.

Smell must have been the first sense as we think of them today, though the senses that control location in space and movement must have come first, because the purpose of smell for the one-celled animal suspended in space is to find food and avoid danger.  With locomotion but no smell, the creature could only blunder around, depending on chance which is not a strong factor in favor of survival.  

Suspended in liquid as the “firsties/onesies” must have been, without orifices of either ingestion or disposal, the chemical diagnoses of bits of the environment (“the out-skin”) must have happened in the cell (“in-skin”).  It would be a great convenience and a matter of survival safety again, to know what something was made of before taking it through the skin and finding out too late that it’s toxic.  Thus the first nose was a step towards survival that has evolved in many ways, according to its uses, like pigs trained to find truffles.  Or babies who smell good to their mothers.  But fawns in the wild are scentless because all the smelly ones were found and eaten by predators.

Today we have discovered that dogs can smell diabetic overload, maybe even cancer, and some say cats can detect impending death -- how else but by smell?  We use drug dogs, cadaver dogs, and search bloodhounds.  Dogs don’t smell so sweet themselves, but I personally am fond of the smell of horse.

In the late Nineties I was jolted to stop by a church I once attended regularly.  On the door I confronted a sign telling me that if I were wearing perfume, I was not allowed to enter because the secretary and possibly others were allergic to it.  Granted, it was a time of strong perfumes, but this began to approach the need for a bathing ritual before entering the temple.  Should there be showers by the door?  Or should the allergic be sequestered behind glass with a separate air-conditioning system?

Not all lab-created molecules are friendly -- in fact, the likelihood is low, considering they didn’t evolve so were not winnowed out by avoidance/attraction/consequences.  This means there’s a moral difficulty, which is already present in the stigmatizing of smells of sweat, dirt, and excretions.  Smelly people are generally poor people, street people, maybe crazy people and no one wants them in church.  I’ll repeat:  should there be showers at the door?

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