Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ancient Fragrant Lore (part 1)

In what concerns the use of perfumes and fragrant unguents or fumigation rituals the path of choice lands us firmly on the land of the Pharaohs, the Eastern Mediterranean and the progeny that follows these traditions into the more recent Arab and Florentine technological interventions that account for the first glimpses of modern perfumery. To Egypt then, for starters.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae

If we all have Cleopatra and her scented barge popping into our minds, thanks to pop culture and Shakespeare, at the mere hint of Egypt in relation to fragrances, we're not to blame. Such was the identification of Egypt with perfume production from time immemorial, despite other ancient civilizations dabbling in perfume making in an equal degree, that during Julius Caesar's Roman triumphs, alabastra (aromatic essence holding vials, the term being alabastron/αλάβαστρον in Greek due to the material used to make them, i.e. alabaster) were tossed to the crowd to demonstrate his mastery over Egypt.

Please read the rest of my article on ancient fragrant practices in the milieu of the Eastern Mediterranean (including the references from the ancient writers) on this link on Fragrantica. Part 2 to follow.


  1. Ah, Cleopatra was on my mind this morning. I was perusing perfume reviews on Fragrantica, and read that one reviewer sprayed herself "for 30 minutes" and received two compliments. Of course she meant that within 30 minutes after spraying herself she received two compliments, but ha-ha, what brobdingnagian sillage might result from 30 minutes of spraying?! Which brought to mind Cleopatra's barge and those perfumed sails....

  2. Amy,

    hehehe, I get what you're saying and what a lovely train of thought on your part! :-D
    As to the reviewers on Fragrantica, they often present brilliant perspectives on fragrance which are a bit muddled due to them being an international audience with not always a firm mastery on English. It makes however for enlightening reading, reading which makes me think differently, you know? :-)

    Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Anonymous01:33

    I am fascinated by the way you combine history and perfume. I would be interested to know your opinion of what modern day perfumes are most similar to the perfumes women used in ancient Rome.

  4. Anon,

    extremely difficult to give a modern equivalent, they bear no relation.
    Les Larmes by Baccarat however did give a good ancient impression. They're long defunct though. :(


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