When The World First Started Smelling Good

Aroma can draw you in or send you away. Its enormous power to evoke memories, good or hard, is immediate. It can heal, warn, soothe and seduce, and that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

Sometimes I try to veer off to another ‘signature scent’ but keep coming back to the one I’ve used for nearly two decades (l’Eau d’Issey). In fact, as I write this, you’re thinking about your own favorite aroma too, right? I'm hard-wired for some combinations; you?

The use of oils and perfumes is recorded in the earliest written documents. We can thank the Chinese for introducing some five thousand herbs, spices and aromatherapy oils into our daily use. That includes the distilled orange blossom oil, which was first collected in the 12th century (cue childhood memory of buying orange blossom perfume during spring breaks in Florida….). Even at one time, the Chinese printed their currency on silk and perfumed it. We could use a little of that civility just now.

The initial thrust of aromas in ancient Egypt was to please the gods by burning incense. Of course, we know from historical accounts in the Bible, that perfumes and essential oils were utilized in close friendships and courtship. And look at us today; we still shower and clean up for a date. Usually.

It was Pliny the Elder, in the first century AD who wrote that scents could induce sleep, allay anxiety and brighten dreams. Even an exclusive section in his Rome was home to perfuming craftspeople, called aromatarii.

France’s cave drawings show Neanderthal figures extracting botanicals. Of course we know the French court was the ‘sweetest smelling’ but their aroma, ‘plague water’, was thought to have had some pretty practical uses. We can only speculate as to how many Frenchmen died from disease but smelled awfully good when they were found.

This is all leading up to some exciting adventures in southern Asia this summer. So I’ll be approaching the use of aryuvedic aromatherapy and its origins in India in a follow up post. Keep smelling and keep smelling good.

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