The oldest sense has got to be smell, which is the ability to decipher molecular clues from the environment. A one-celled animal must know what to go towards and what to avoid, which is at the core of smelling the environment. It is a sense most deeply related to worship as incense, oils, and burnt offerings. Two of the three natal gifts to the baby Jesus were sources of scent. And yet smell is the most problematic of senses to use when designing ceremonies.
When we were operating the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, which was attached to the Scriver Taxidermy Studio, we were careful to make sure there were no offensive smells during tourist season. (In hunting season there might be bears to skin -- they smelled like wet dogs unless they’d been traveling in conifers, which made them smell like Christmas trees. In treating skins we used borax, one of the oldest ingredients of Egyptian mummification recipes. People who can smell it at all associate it with laundry soap. Rubber latex, smelling of 1,4-polyisoprene, was one of our usual substances, as was plastilene, clay kneaded into a waxy petroleum base.
We burned “Campfire Memories,” an incense devised by a local biology teacher as a little side business. By some secret process, he ground up pine needles, got them to stick together in a paste and extruded them into “sticks” which did indeed smell like a campfire when burned. The Blackfeet, of course, constantly used smudges, especially sources of coumarin like sweetgrass or sweet pine (balsam pine), cedar and sage. I sometimes experimented with smashed juniper berries on meat.
My time in the ministry was on the prairie in the Eighties when people still related to sweet clover and new-cut alfalfa as good things. But the last time I visited my home Portland church there was a sign on the door forbidding anyone wearing perfume from entering because of allergies. (I haven’t been back. Why would I go to a place that’s allergic to me?) In fact, close to the end of my circuit-riding there was a parent who asked us not to use smudges because her child was allergic. This strange chemical asceticism is quite serious and I didn’t fight it. People die of peanut allergies. But it’s a loss. Now we can only name the smells and hope people will be able to summon them up in memory.
Do not come to my house if you are allergic to anything. It’s not just the cats and the cat box that had to come inside because Crackers stopped going outside. It’s that the earth under the house smells of volcanic clay (I leave the trapdoor open so I can monitor the ancient plumbing) and I smudge sweetgrass. Rather than using commercial deodorizers, I fling all the doors and windows open as long as the temperature allows. I keep oils like sage and hippie mixtures on cotton in dishes. When I left Portland, a co-worker gave me a little blue bottle of mixed essential oils that she wore as perfume so I wouldn’t forget her. She bought it in one of the New Age shops on SE Hawthorne but over the years the label has soaked up oil that obliterated the label so I can’t order more. But it’s easy to find sources by mail. If you like the mystique and have access, you could “wildcraft,” go looking on the land. Check out the damp places, sniff for mint.
When Leland stops by, he says the house smells like his grandmother. He means tobacco, Doublemint gum, cottonwood smoke, and Ben-gay. Maybe some Vicks Vaporub. (I put tobacco in with my Bundle Opening clothes to protect them from bugs.) I save all the perfume samples that come in magazines to tuck them into shirt pockets and underwear drawer, but they’ve become insipid, both in the kind of smells and the intensity of the samples, even though the zines come in plastic envelopes to protect the sensitive. I grow geraniums -- Spanish Geranium was once a fav perfume, but it was discontinued in 1970. You can buy derivatives and imitations.
In France some powerful ingredients of perfume are now illegal on grounds that they are carcinogenic. Claims are that the stuff causes sperm damage, hormone disruption (which is linked to some cancers, thyroid disease, obesity, diabetes, and other serious health problems), reproductive toxicity, and allergy problems. Oak moss is one of the casualties and happens to be in my all-time fav scent (Aliage) as well as Chanel No.5.
Bleach, ammonia, Lifeboy soap, naptha, lemon oil, Old English polish -- all potent smells but none used in religious ceremonies that I know of. Nevertheless, they creep into the big empty spaces that are churches and form a felted background to the damp coats and galoshes of worshippers. Sometimes there is a creeping thread of baby powder, esp. if Asians are near.
The neuron olfactory receptors in the nose are projected extensions of the original nose, which is the bulbs deep under the “new” brain, same as the neuron vision receptors are eyeballs on the ends of the optic nerves while the real sight deciphering organs are at the back of the head, close to the top of the old brain. The above description is meant to evoke your own associations, especially those that are deep in the old brain, the limbic system, where the real meanings are felt.
This is not a pitch for scented candles in the sanctuary. Many off them are toxic offenders -- I’ve known them to make people faint -- which is why beeswax is recommended. It’s a good smell. Nor am I saying one should sprinkle cinnamon or mint leaves around or install one of those scent dispensers they use in stores to make you happy enough to buy things -- though that’s a thought!
Rather this is an invitation to sit in your religious place and see what you smell. Reflect about your own personal smell associations, because they won’t be the same as everyone else’s -- and yet you might share some. Aside from the intriguing poetics of smell, it is good to consider the patterns that develop under different contexts. Right now, disconcertingly, “touch” may be more toxic and allergic and contagious than smell. Due to fears about Ebola and flu, we are encouraged not to shake hands, but so far as I know no one has invited people to “pass the peace” by bumping elbows, the suggested substitute. Kissing and hugging, of course, are out, which does not worry we former Presbyterians who were never into it anyway.
If smell and touch are dangerous, the sight and sound must take up the slack unless we begin to eat in church beyond Communion, which has also worried people who fear germs. But religious institutions have always been good about providing images and music, printed words and spoken words. It is recovering those of spiritual individuality and coordinating them into a welcoming and meaningful communal experience that presents the challenge.
The smell of rain is called petrichor.
It’s caused by oils that are exuded from plant leaves during dry periods, which are then absorbed into soil and rock. When it rains, the oil is released into the air along with certain compounds created by bacteria commonly found in soil.
The term was coined in 1964 by two CSIRO researchers, Isabel Joy Bear (Australian) and Richard G. Thomas (Australian), for an article in the journal Nature. In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain Actinobacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent; ozone may also be present if there is lightning
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.
SPIRITUALITY AND THE SENSES
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. "Huffing" is one of the most destructive ways to get high.
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,” at the time 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.
THE ODOR OF SANCTITY
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 is 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 a 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 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 perceive, and enter other worlds -- or so they seem. 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 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.
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” cells must have been, without orifices of either ingestion or disposal, some of 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. Or babies who seek the smell of the mother’s milk. 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, going to curl up alongside those in nursing homes whose time is limited -- 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 and now find 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 risk 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? It’s all part of our fear of our animal selves: the knowledge of identity, including sex.