Evidence of the use of fragrance materials goes back at least 6,000 years. The tombs of ancient Egypt, excavations of long lost cities, trade records between kingdoms, and the accounts of contemporary writers provide us with a rich and interesting record of the uses of naturally-occurring fragrance materials, the only perfumes known to the ancients.
Originally, scented products were reserved for religious rituals. The priests were the first perfumers, and concocted incense, aromatic oils, and scented unguents for use in the temples. The Egyptian priests were renowned perfumers and created the first compound fragrance. Enormous quantities of incense were used in their rituals. At Heliopolis, City of the Sun, incense was offered to the sun god in special ceremonies three times a day. Gums were burned at sunrise, myrrh at noon, and a very expensive blend of 16 herbs and resins known as Kyphi was offered at sunset. The effect was intoxicating and brought on religious ecstasy. Plutarch described Kyphi's effects, saying that it "lulled one to sleep, allayed anxieties, and brightened dreams."
The Hebrews learned the use of perfume products from the Egyptians. They also burned incense with their sacrifices, and used anointing oils as part of their rituals. Myrrh was used in purification ceremonies.
The value of scent to alter states of consciousness caused it to be incorporated into the rituals and ceremonies of Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Muslims and Christians. Incense, flowers, and candles were, and still are, the most commonly used forms of fragrance in worship services.
Although the priests of all religions tried to reserve the use of perfumes for the worship of the deities and warned against the vanity of self-adornment, the merchants were willing to sell to anyone who could meet their prices. It was not long before royalty and nobility were indulging themselves. Eventually, anyone who could afford even the cheapest of scents did so, although conspicuous consumption of these extraordinarily expensive items remained limited to the extremely wealthy. Since the ruling class almost always controlled the resources and directed political events, we have many incidental accounts of their use of perfumed products.
The Roman emperors were famous for their extravagance. They had saffron sprayed from fountains and used as a strewing herb. The emperor Nero (1st century, A.D.) was in a class by himself, though. Flowers rained down from the ceiling in his state dining room, and silver pipes hidden in the walls sprayed perfumes upon the guests. He had the palace floors covered with red roses. He burnt the entire annual output of Arabian incense gums at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea.
Cleopatra (in the 1st century, B.C.) also used fragrance in extravagant gestures. She was not particularly attractive, but she was skilled in the cosmetic arts and knowledgeable about the allure of perfume. The purple sails of the royal barge were drenched with an intoxicating, narcotic lily oil for her first meeting with Marc Antony. Shakespeare probably took his description of this scene from Plutarch, saying even "the winds were lovesick . . ." Cleopatra took care that Marc Antony was lovesick, also she had the floors of the palace spread 18 inches deep with rose petals!
The use of fragrant materials eventually spread to Europe and England. Much of this "new knowledge" was brought home by the Crusaders between the 11th and the 14th centuries. Botanical materials were eagerly sought after and traded for in India, China, Japan, Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. Regular trade routes were established; wars were fought to protect or conquer territories containing valuable plants.
The Italians became the best continental perfumers. When Catherine de Medici went to France to marry Henry II (in the 16th century), she brought along her perfumer, Rene, and an alchemist to compound her cosmetics.
Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1558 to 1603, enjoyed the fresh scent of strewn herbs and retained a woman at a fixed salary to provide her with materials in season. She also hired a husband-and-wife team to prepare floral distillations.
By this time, the techniques of distillation and enfleurage were well-known. Any industrious woman could plant a garden from which to dry materials for use in sachet and potpourri, and could distill toilet waters and essences from the fresh materials. The use of pure alcohol to create perfumes was unknown, but essential oils were expressed from plants, and the more delicate flowers were steeped in oil or wine to release their scents.
Such oils were used as part of the bathing ritual. Soap was unknown, and cleansing was accomplished by sitting in a hot bath to open the pores of the skin. Oils were massaged in and then scraped off, carrying the dirt and impurities with them while leaving behind a fragrant scent.
Fragrance was used to honor guests and decorate homes. Scent performed the duty of soap, deodorant, detergent, and insecticides. Sachets were used to scent and to repel bugs from clothing and linens. Patchouli and vetiver were particular favorites of Indian women, while lavender and rosemary were popular on the European continent. Incense was used to fumigate rooms and to scent clothing. The Chinese and Japanese developed special racks to hang their robes upon for scenting. Herbal extracts were used for baths, hair, floor, and furniture-washing. Lemon balm and other plants were rubbed into furniture to polish it. Floors were strewn with plant material to discourage insects and rodents and to provide a soft place for folks without chairs to sit. Herbs chosen for this purpose were lavender, woodruff, hyssop, rue, tansy, basil, sage, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, southernwood, wormwood, rosemary, and sweet flag (calamus) leaves. Pomanders were made of many materials and sniffed to protect one from disease and infection. Since some plant extracts are germicidal, this may have had a positive effect. Favorite materials were cloves, cassia, musk, ambergris, benzoin, and orris.
The ancient peoples of the world have left us a very rich legacy of plant materials and effective ways to use them to create fragrance. Perhaps their innovative and enjoyable uses of fragrance materials will inspire you, so that you too will want to improve your life with these sweet, invisible effects.