Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ancient Fragrant Lore: The Scents of the Bible (part 5)

The most intriguing aspect of reading the Bible in search of aromatics is how the spices and sweet unguents are used to denote both sanctity and the pleasure of the bodily senses.

"All your garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made you glad"—Psalm 45:8

Dieric the Elder Bouts, Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, 1440s (wikimedia commons)

The sacrificial woman who comes to the Savior with an alabaster jar with pure spikenard oil which was extremely costly at the time in a pre-figuration of the embalming rites. She is Mary of Bethany (Matthew 26: 6-13) who pours the fragrant oil on Jesus's feet. There is also the unnamed "sinner in the city" who comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee and washes Jesus' feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and pours fragrant oil on him. However for centuries the Catholic Church conflated this penitent sinner (a whore? an adulteress?) and the disciple sister of Martha and Lazarus, with another Mary, Mary Magdalene, who is, not coincidentally, the patron saint of apothecaries and perfume makers. Perhaps the connection is that Magdalene is one of the "myrrhophores" depicted in a Syrian fresco dating from the 3rd century AD, the women who bring myrrh resin to embalm Jesus's body and finding the sepulchre open and devoid of its rightful inhabitant, thus being the first witness to the Anastasis.

Please read my historical research into the Scents of the Bible (biblical fragrances) on this link on Fragrantica. (You're welcome to comment here or there).


  1. This is fascinating! I never saw the previous installments in the series, so I am excited to read the whole thing. Thanks for the link, and of course for the great articles.

  2. Anonymous10:36

    I enjoyed reading this, especially since as an Eastern Catholic, it feels like we only recently celebrated the "myrrh-bearing women", although it must have been longer ago than it feels since it is nearly Great Lent.

    I fell away from the Church after college and remember being at a retreat to consider returning. We had a priest who always carried a small container of balm with which he would anoint us after prayers. It smelled like "welcome home, O Prodigal Daughter". (No sacrilege intended), but I think I've been looking for a perfume that makes me feel like that for years. & this article made me remember him. He was nearly 90 at the time and already growing frail so Blessed Repose to him.

    Do you happen to know if present day royalty are anointed with the same oil, or is it merely an empty ceremony now? It used to be considered an offense against God himself to lay hands upon an anointed king or queen, and the holy oil was a symbol of that. Is this still true, and is the composition of this oil known?


  3. I have a David Austen Rose out right now called "Fair Bianca" and she is all myrrh ... its so beautiful to smell .
    What is a great myrrh scent Helg??

  4. Miss Heliotrope00:05

    A non-scented question first: why, if a woman is a sinner, must it be sex related? Why cant she have been a thief or liar or something? (gets down from soapbox)

    Back to scent: while being aware that until recently, a lot of smells would be ones that we now associate with lack of cleanliness and living with farm animals & so on, and that a pretty scent would be welcome in such circumstances. I do wonder, however, why in a antiseptic-scrubbed modern (western) world, we have merely changed the bad smells (traffic, sealed buildings, nasty cheap cleaners with worse scents) & then lost many of the good ones.

    Fresh air has always been tricky in cities, but there seems less of it now, and the anti-perfume brigades are cutting down on personal scent, and while Lady Jicky above is lucky to have a scented rose, we have two bunches of shop roses in a vase, and can only smell anything from them if your nose is shoved so far in you're in danger of drowning in their water. I know much if this is cultural, but it seems that to have a anything scented (unless it is to demonstrate "clean") is not so much a pleasure of life, but decadent. And increasingly wrong.

    One reads old books (incl Bible) & there are descriptions of scents, and yet from the 20th Century on, smells seem to be used predominately negatively - to highlight a filthy house or a whore.

    This is, as usual, long, rambling, and over simplified, but is my humble offering anyway.

  5. KK,

    you're very welcome. Hope you enjoy the series!

  6. Isabella,

    you will probably find my Holy Myrrho article of interest:

    I think the matter of the oil for anointing the kings/queens probably deserves an article unto itself at some point. ;-)

    Lovely story about the 90year old pious priest, sounds like he was so dedicated. :-)

  7. M,

    your roses (and your garden in general) must be delicious!!

    I very much love the -now discontinued- Murrh Ardente by Goutal and La Myrrhe by Lutens. They're gorgeous, both of them.

  8. MH,

    to your first question, for the longest time I have believed that it is so that confessionals can ring with lustful stories described in lurid detail to the advancement of impure thoughts. :-D

    (I have had the exact same question. Apparently it's all just a conservative sexist issue of having confused a woman's worth with her genitals -in essence not considering worth of anything above it)

    Your other question (humble in the best possible sense, as usual! thanks you!) is indeed something of a modern conundrum: why make everything scentless if the modern environment is so much more antiseptic and the industrial debris can be more or less controlled? It beats me. I suppose it's the same thing like going to a country Zen retreat; everything more than a whisper is considered a despicable intrusion afterwards. We're spoiled, really! (and become paranoid)

    But I do beg to differ that smells are used to describe only negative connotations in the 20th century onwards. Maybe that pertains to Anglo-Saxon literature, but certainly not with other cultures. I think smell always incites strong feelings because it lacks the predetermined logic of some of the other senses; we smell as we breathe.

  9. Oh no .... discontinued - rats!

    I have white and peach/apricot roses in the front and in the back I have my beloved pink roses.
    I do love red but ... Helg- in our heat they burn because they are dark !
    I have one red that my daughter bought me last year but its not looking good :(

  10. Anonymous06:42

    Can I ask a question? MH noted that since about the 20th century, scents are considered something nasty. Is it just coincidence that this is about when the synthetics really took off?

    I dabble in aromatherapy and the scent of genuine, expensive jasmine is a euphoriant rush like a drug. Clary sage too but not as much. Jasmine "notes" - meh. I think this was part of the popularity of scents in ancient times - the effects they had on our minds IMHO.

    I think a good myrrh smelling perfume is to buy good quality myrrh resin, warm it a little, and rub it directly on your body :)

    And I feel very chatty and envious of anyone with roses blooming right now. It is below zero where I am and I am babying a knee injury from the #### ice and still on pain meds.


  11. M,

    red roses do look so lovely, don't they. But I get what you're saying (hadn't thought about it, but it makes sense). Your lightly colored ones are a feast for the eyes, so you're not deprived of the rosy joys!

  12. Isabella,

    so sorry about the knee!! Hope you get better soon!! Ice, such a pain in the butt, Lucky you didn't break anything.

    I believe there is more to it. I don't really consider it a simple matter of Naturals vs Synthetics (many people believe they're wearing a natural perfume and feel the whole euphoric effects of it only to divulge it's from a company that lets it be believed they're using only naturals when in fact they use several synthetics as well).
    I consider it a learned experience where we attribute certain properties to things via our cultural upbringing. The backlash against the industrialization is palpable though and there's a reason for it. But perfume is the least of the concerns, I should wager.

    As to myrrh you're right. One could even tincture it, like we do with mastic in alcohol (one can make a great liqueur that way). The resins in tear form are very pliable to a little rubbing to release scent (I do it with frankincense and mastic).


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