The Ancient World
Much of the ancient history of fragrance is shrouded in mystery. Anthropologists speculate that primitive perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense. Eventually, richly scented plants were incorporated into animal and vegetable oils to anoint the body for ceremony and pleasure. From 7000 to 4000 bc, the fatty oils of olive and sesame are thought to have been combined with fragrant plants to create the original Neolithic ointments. In 3000 bc, when the Egyptians were learning to write and make bricks, they were already importing large quantities of myrrh. The earliest items of commerce were most likely spices, gums and other fragrant plants, mostly reserved for religious purposes.
While on a modern archeological expedition in 1975 to the Indus Valley (which runs the length of modern Pakistan), Dr. Paolo Rovesti found an unusual terra-cotta apparatus, displayed along with terra-cotta perfume containers, in a Taxila museum. It looked like a primitive still, although the 3000 bc dating would place it 4,000 years earlier than most sources date the invention of distillation. Then a vessel of similar design, from around 2000 bc and unquestionably a still, was discovered in Afghanistan. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from the 13th century to the 12th century bc describe elaborate egg-shaped vessels containing coils; again, their function is unknown, but they are quite similar to Arab itriz used much later in the history of the region for distillation.
Even if essential oils were available at such an early date, most man-made fragrance was still in the form of incense and ointments. During the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid (c. 2700 bc), papyrus manuscripts recorded the use of fragrant herbs, choice oils, perfumes and temple incense, and told of healing salves made of fragrant resins. Throughout the African continent people coated their skin with fragrant oils to protect themselves from the hot, dry sun. This practice extended to the Mediterranean, where athletes were anointed with scented unguents before competing.
From this same era, the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the legendary king of Ur in Mesopotamia (modem Iraq) burning ntyw, incense of cedarwood and myrrh to put the gods and goddesses into a pleasant mood. A tablet from neighboring Babylonia contains an import order for cedar, myrrh and cypress; another gives a recipe for scented ointments; a third suggests medicinal uses for cypress. Still farther east, the Chinese Yellow Emperor Book of Internal Medicine, written in 2697 bc, explains various uses of aromatic herbs.
Trade routes to obtain fragrant goods were established throughout the Middle East well before 1700 bc and would be well-traveled for the next 30 centuries-until the Portuguese discovered a way around the Cape of Good Hope. The Old Testament describes one group of early traders: "a company of Ishmaelites [Arabs] from Gilead, bearing spicery, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt." Perhaps as early as 1500 bc, monsoon winds began carrying double-outrigger canoes along the "cinnamon route."
Egypt's penchant for producing unguents and incense was to become legendary. A figure of King Thothraes IV, carved into the base of the Sphinx at Giza, has been offering devotional incense and oil libations since 1425 bc, and there is little doubt that Egyptian aromas were potent: calcite pots filled with spices such as frankincense preserved in fat still gave off a faint odor when opened in King Tutankhamen's tomb 3,000 years later. As depicted on wall paintings, solid ointments of spikenard and other aromatics, called "bitcones," were placed on the heads of dancers and musicians, where they were allowed to gradually-and dramatically-melt down over hair and body.
The most famous Egyptian fragrance, kyphi (the name means "welcome to the gods"), was said to induce hypnotic states. The City of the Sun, Heliopolis, burned resins in the morning, myrrh at noon and kyphi at sunset to the sun god Ra. Kyphi had more than religious uses, however. It could lull one to sleep, alleviate anxieties, increase dreaming, eliminate sorrow, treat asthma and act as a general antidote for toxins. Several recipes are recorded, one of the oldest being a heady blend of calamus, henna, spikenard, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cypress and terebinth (pistachio resin), among other ingredients. Cubes of incense were prepared by mixing ground gums and plants with honey, similar to a technique used by the Babylonians and later adapted by both Romans and Greeks.
The ancient Hebrews employed fragrance to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests. The book of Exodus (c. 1200 bc) provides the recipe for the holy anointing oil given to Moses for the initiation of priests: myrrh, cinnamon and calamus, mixed with olive oil. Although Moses decreed severe punishment for anyone who obtained holy oils and incense for secular use, not all aromatics were restricted to religious use. We learn in the book of Proverbs that "ointment and perfume rejoice the heart" (27:9), while in the Song of Solomon we read:
A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me;
He shall lie all night between my breasts
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire [henna]
In the vineyards of En-gedi. (1:13-14)
By the late 5th century, Babylon was the principal market for the perfume trade. The Babylonians used cedar of Lebanon, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, calamus and juniper extensively. When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they brought back a heightened appreciation of fragrance, especially in the form of incense.
The ancient Greek world was also rich in fragrance. Just one Greek word, arómata, describes incense, perfume, spices and aromatic medicines. One such concoction, manufactured by a perfumer named Megallus, was the legendary megaleion, which contained burnt resin, cassia, cinnamon and myrrh, and was used in the treatment of wounds and inflammation. At Delphi, the oracle priestesses sat over smoldering fumes of bay leaves to inspire an intoxicating trance; holes in the floor allowed the smoke to "magically" surround them.
By the 7th century bc, Athens had developed into a mercantile center in which hundreds of perfumers set up shop. Trade was heavy in fragrant herbs such as marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris, infused into olive, almond, castor and linseed oils to make thick unguents. These were sold in small, elaborately decorated ceramic pots, similar to the smaller jars still sold in Athens today.
While Socrates heartily disapproved of perfume, worrying that it might blur distinctions between slaves (who smelled of sweat) and free men (who apparently did not), Alexander the Great-who, when he entered the tent of the defeated King Darius after the battle of Issos, contemptuously threw out the king's box of priceless ointments and perfumes-learned to love aromatics after a few years traveling in Asia. He sent deputies to Yemen and Oman to find the source of the Arabian incense with which he anointed his body and which burned constantly by his throne. To his Athenian classmate Theophrastus he sent plant cuttings obtained during his extensive travels, thus establishing a botanical garden in Athens. Theo-phrastus' treatise On Odors covered all the basics: blending perfumes, shelf life, using wine with aromatics, properties that carry scent, and the effect of odor on the mind and body.
As trade routes expanded, Africa, South Arabia and India began to supply spikenard, cymbopogons and ginger to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization; Phoenician merchants traded in Chinese camphor and Indian cinnamon, pepper and sandalwood; Syrians brought fragrant goods to Arabia. True myrrh and frankincense from distant Yemen finally reached the Mediterranean by 300 bc, by way of Persian traders. Traffic on the trade routes continued to swell as demand increased for roses, sweet flag, orris root, narcissus, saffron, mastic, oak moss, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, costus, spikenard, aloewood, grasses and gum resins.
By the 1st century ad, Rome was going through about 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. Nero, Roman emperor in 54 ad, spent the equivalent of $100,000 to scent just one party he was giving. Carved ivory ceilings in his dining rooms were fitted with concealed pipes that sprayed down mists of fragrant waters on guests below, while panels slid aside to shower guests with fresh rose petals. (All this fragrant excess wasn't without its casualties; one unfortunate guest is said to have been asphyxiated by a dense cloud of those petals.) Both men and women literally bathed in perfume while attended by slaves called cosmetae. Three types of perfume were applied to the body: solid unguents, scented oil and perfumed powders, all purchased from the shops of unguentarii, who were regarded every bit as highly as doctors. The Romans even referred to their sweethearts as "my myrrh" and "my cinnamon," much as we use the gustatory endearments "honey" and "sweetie pie."
The Roman historian Pliny, author of the impressive lst-century ad Natural History, mentions 32 remedies prepared from rose, 21 from lily, 17 from violet and 25 from pennyroyal. Famous Roman blends of the era included susinon, which served not only as a perfume but was a diuretic and women's anti-inflammatory tonic, and amarakinon, used to treat indigestion and hemorrhoids, and to encourage menstruation. A similar spikenard ointment was suggested for coughs and laryngitis.
Fragrance occurs, at least symbolically, throughout the New Testament records. The frankincense and myrrh brought to the Christ child were more valuable than the gift of gold (if indeed it was gold; some New Testament scholars speculate that the three wise men may have been carrying gold-colored, fragrant ambergris). One of the most famous gospel scenes involves Judas Iscariot complaining about Mary Magdalene's anointing of Christ's feet with costly spikenard. Even the Greek word for Christ, Christos, means "anointed," from the Greek chriein, to anoint.
Indeed, the 1st century ad was a time of accelerated development of aromatherapy's source sciences. Aromatics was one of five sections covered in Dioscorides' famous Herbal. The first written description of a still in the Western world is of one invented by Maria Prophetissima and described in The Gold-Making of Cleopatra, an Alexandrian text from around the first century. (Her design was used initially to distill essential oils, but also proved useful for alcoholic beverages.) Gnostic Christians from the 1st to the 4th century ad, whose beliefs were deeply rooted in Egyptian philosophy, held fragrance in high regard. Seeking release from the limitations of the material world, they embraced the symbology of essential oils, which represented the soul of the plant.
Distillation of essential oils and use of aromatics also progressed in the Far East. Like the Christian Gnostics, Chinese Taoists believed that extraction of a plant's fragrance represented the liberation of its soul. Like the Greeks, the Chinese had just one word, heang, for perfume, incense and fragrance. Moreover, heang was classified into six basic types, according to the mood induced: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble.
The Chinese upper classes made lavish use of fragrance during the T'ang dynasties, which began in the 7th century ad, and continued to do so until the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Their bodies, baths, clothing, homes and temples were all richly scented, as were ink, paper, sachets tucked into their garments, and cosmetics. The ribs of fans were carved from fragrant sandalwood. Huge, fragrant statues of the Buddha were carved from camphor wood. Spectators at dances and other ceremonies could expect to be pelted with perfumed sachets. China imported jasmine-scented sesame oil from India, Persian rosewater via the silk route and, eventually, Indonesian aromatics-cloves, gum benzoin, ginger, nutmeg and patchouli-through India.
Numerous texts related to aromatherapy were published in China. The Hsian Pu treatise by Hung Chu (1100 ad) describes incense-making. The 16th century saw publication of the famous Chinese Materia Medica Pen Ts'ao, which discusses almost 2,000 herbs, including a separate section on 20 essential oils. Jasmine was used as a general tonic; rose improved digestion, liver and blood; chamomile reduced headaches, dizziness and colds; ginger treated coughs and malaria.