Monday, June 2, 2014

Decadent Perfume Rituals: The Earrings of Salammbo

In Gustave Flaubert's antiquity-woven novel Salammbô (1862), lesser known than his enduring classic Madame Bovary but equally masterful, set in Carthage after the First Punic War with Rome, the eponymous heroine indulges in a ritual which is sure to have the antennae of every perfume lover out there twitching with delight.

Salammbo by Gaston Bussiere via pinterest

Salammbô wore earrings made from two little sapphire scales supporting two perforated pearls filled with scented oils, which slowly dripped their perfume over her body throughout the day, entrancing Mathô, the Libyan leader of the mercenaries, in the scene when she wants into his tent: "A little drop would fall every moment through the holes in the pearl and moisten her naked shoulder. Mathô watched it fall. […] He opened his nostrils the better to breathe in the perfume which exhaled from her person". What did these scented oils consist of? How did they smell exactly? "It was a fresh, indefinable emanation, which nevertheless made him dizzy, like the smoke from a perfuming-pan. She smelt of honey, pepper, incense, roses, with another odour still." The writer leaves something to our fertile imagination…

Salammbo by Jules Toulot via pinterest

But contrary to the Salome-imbued images of western perception of the oriental femme fatale, Salammbô's garments are modest and concealing, leaving the thrill of the seduction to her ingenious earrings; Flaubert outlines the mystical thrill of the exotic women of the east in unconventional terms. Of course Flaubert has also delineated the demure exoticism of Madame Amoux in L'Education Sentimentale and was known for his sniffing (almost) fetish ~keeping his mistress's mittens in a drawer to smell when the mood stroke~ which he reproduced into his writing in such phrases as "Her comb, her gloves, her rings were to him things of great interest".

The scent of the desired woman becomes a detail which catches the fantasy quota of the reader like nothing else.


  1. Laurels01:20

    I think the title of your post may contain a typo

    I've never heard of this work, but am now intrigued.

  2. Miss Heliotrope02:54

    Besides fitting the usual problem of why those who illustrate novels never feel the need to actually READ the blessed things, this also seems to come under the list of how often someone/people/we/society/that fool over there assumes not just exoticism, but even "just" sexual allurement (for once, in men as well as women) to mean as much nudity as possible. Which so often seems dull, and a touch chilly...

  3. L,

    ha, indeed it has! I have just fixed it, thanks for pointing it out; typing so quickly I often make typos and need to proofread more.

    The work is very worthy, as most of Flaubert's writings from what I have read. He really was a first rare novelist and he did a lot of research for this one, as there was no heap of info on that particular period all neat in one place.

  4. C,

    very true! I think there is a nice discrepancy between the illustrations and the relative modesty of the heroine's comportment, though the snake is a good addition of the peril of knowledge and temptation.

    It's also funny how very often the second pic is attributed to Salome. I suppose the biblical reference is much more popular, thus conflating the eastern exotic femmes fatales, but the snake gives it away in the end. ;-)


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