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Monday, August 25, 2014

Ancient Fragrant Lore (part 3): Classicism

Classical civilization thrives on this dichotomy of "the Dionysian and the Apollonian," of Bacchanal chaos and Sun God rational forms, as Nietzsche would have said. Indeed the German philosopher, originally a philologist and only 28 at the time he penned the superb The Birth of Tragedy; Or: Hellenism and Pessimism, explains that it is these two clashing forces that merge to give birth to the classic world, but also those that eternally battle for control over the existence of humanity. And thus this dichotomy, as expressed by fragrant essences used, manifests itself clearly throughout Hellenic thought. […]

The Latin origin of the word perfume, fumare, i.e., to smoke, brings us to rituals involving fumigation and votive offerings. Hesiod in his Theogony stresses "May the purest incense burn on the altars, so as to obtain the favors of our gods."

Alfonso Savini, the incense burner

Indeed the very word incense in Greek (θυμίαμα) comes from the verb thuo (θύω), meaning to sacrifice, originally denoting both the fragrant smoke of the roast of sacrificed animals on the pyre rising to please the gods (the flesh was served to the congregation) and the ritual burning of precious locally harvested—such as cistus labdanum—or imported resins like myrrh and frankincense, their smoke also rising to the enjoyment of the Eternal ones. But scents had a markedly prophylactic use beside their Olympians' appeasing one. […]

In Euripides's famous Helen play, the prophylactic use of fragrant smoke is stressed. The heroine is assumed to have never sailed to Troy but to have been whisked away by the goddess Aphrodite to Egypt and to its ruler Theoclymenus, sworn to her safekeeping. News from the exiled Greek soldier Teucer, washed upon the shores of Egypt, that Menelaus never returned to Greece from Troy and is presumed dead, puts Helen in the perilous position of being available for Theoclymenus to marry. She consults the prophetess Theonoe, sister to Theoclymenus, to find out Menelaus' fate. Theonoe purifies the air of the altar by having the servants burn sulfur and resins, conjuring shadows and images to tell her of her husband's impending return.

On the other hand the philosophical treatment of olfactory excess as a sign of decadence and deviation from the path of a free civilian is palpable through the texts of the classical authors. The Athenian statesman Solon, adored by his fellow citizens for alleviating the accumulated debts of formerly free land owners that had lost their land and freedom to the greedy lending gentry (the famous seisachtheia regulation) tried to ban perfume use altogether. He considered it represented the corrupt—and ethnically dangerous—lifestyle of Persia, Greece's (and for that matter Europe's, since Greece was the critical gateway to gain passage to the continent) prominent enemy.

The article in its entirety can be read on Fragrantica.

1 comment:

  1. Miss Heliotrope07:32

    I know this is old - I am having a catch up read (sorry), but enjoyed it. I like, whether with scent or food or homewares or whatever, to find something mentioned in a book I enjoy & try it myself - or have an item, even if noone else has ever heard of the book. I made Boef au daube (sorry for spelling) merely bc I'd read To the Lighthouse, that sort of thing. Playing with scents from books - well, only the Bluebell in I Capture the Castle, but you're giving me ideas...

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