Saturday, April 7, 2007

Incense week: 7.Pyrocaustic deep incense for Easter's Eve

 Editor's preface: If you haven't the faintest idea why a series of posts on incense scents mentions religious stuff and cultural associations, please refer to the first post of this Incense Week series to understand my concept. 

Here you can find post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5 and post 6 before final 7th post below.

Holy Saturday is the day between Jesus’ death and His resurrection, so the day is full of watchful expectation, mourning slowly transformed into joy. The day embodies in the fullest possible sense a joyful-sadness. On Great and Holy Saturday morning, the Orthodox Church commemorates Christ’s decent into Hades and the releasing of the souls of all who were held captive by death. An explosion takes place, the Hymns tell us that "Hades lets out a groan", as the doors to Hades (the otherworld of greek mythology) are blown open and the "locks and chains" used to imprison the souls are tossed aside and rendered useless as Jesus raises the dead and resurrects them all.

The hymnographer of the Church has penetrated this profound mystery through the following poetic dialogue that he has devised between Jesus and His Mother:

“Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love.”
"O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail. But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified."
"By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the blood-stained garment of vengeance: for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee."

Christ might also be seen as observing a Sabbath rest in the tomb.

What is even more interesting and justifies the choices of perfumes for this special day is the way Easter is celebrated in Greece in particular. Easter and the promise of resurrection were from ancient times tied to the pagan spring fests that celebrated the god Dionysus. However during the Ottoman occupation for all those long centuries, when religion was a binding force between communities, the meaning of resurrection got another nuance: that of an upcoming revolution against the foreign oppressor. The underground revolutionaries of the 18th century that were preparing the National Revolution that would start in 1821 were using the code words said on Easter’s Eve from one Christian to the other: “Christ is Risen!” (Christos anesti) to which the reply is till now “ Truly He is Risen!” (aleethos anesti). That promise of an up rise kept them going. And when finally they did easter was celebrated with gunsshots and fireworks and crackers and lots of noise, just like the tradition remains today almost 2 centuries after that to still remind us of the joy over the double resurrection: that of Christ and of Greece.

So on Easter’s Eve, there is one of the most characteristic celebrations of the nation: the midnight service marks the beginning of celebration as hundreds of crackers and fireworks burst in the cool night air for the people watching gathered outside the church, waiting to hear the priest utter the magical phrase: “Christ has risen!” and the bells starting to toll happily and loudly alongside the crackers. At that moment everyone kisses each other and wishes them Happy Easter with a smile; they light their long white candles and lanterns with the holy light which is brought out from the church. Hundreds of people in the middle of the night, cradling those tiny flames, the flames they are supposed to bring back home, to illuminate it with holy light, the lux that is so revered and so in the core of greek life, as it also recalls the Olympic flame which was lit with a mirror in ancient Olympia in honour of the life giving god Apollo.
A mystical happy procession of people walking back, ready to sit at the table with family and friends and click their red eggs saying those old code words of the revolution and eating the traditional dish “mayiritsa”, a very yummy soup made of lamb innards/guts (liver, spleen and lung) seasoned with dill, fresh shallots and onion in a juice of lemon and eggs; the official end of Lent.
You can get a glimpse and a recipe here.

On Corfu island in particular there is this popular tradition that is a sight for all foreigners visiting:
The most famous tradition is taking place all over the Island, in the Holy Saturday at 11 a.m. when the first bell of the First Resurrection is heard. At that time local people throw pots out of their windows, smashing them onto the streets below. Those special made ceramic pots, called "botides" can be more than 1 meter tall and they are filled with water to make a louder crash. The noisy custom lasts for 3-5 minutes and is watched by thousands of people, mostly tourists, as Corfu is the most popular destination in Greece for Easter holidays.
There are different theories about the origin and the explanation of this custom. The first explanation for the custom has a religious meaning, as a representation of the Evangelic books that refers to the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the words: "Resurrect o Lord and crush them as ceramic utensils". The second explanation gives to the custom a Venetian origin, as Venetians ruled the Island in 15th and 16th century : it is a variation of an old Venetian custom of new years eve, where they used to through old stuff from the window, so that the new year will bring then new ones. And the third one gives it a pagan provenance, as Easter time is the time when nature starts its new year and re-awakens after winter.
On the island of Spetses, there is a re-enactement of the victorious burning of the turkish fleet by greek revolutionaries, a spectacle of great interest.

For such a special night I have chosen incense perfumes that bear a relation with the night, with bonfires, with fireworks, with the joy of celebration and the awe instilled by the sense of remembrance.

Essence of John Galliano by Diptyque: Exactly the pyrocaustic smell of bonfires and fireworks, burned wood and light processions of people on the night’s breeze. Created by Olivia Giacobetti with the collaboration of John Galliano himself (who would have thought it of him?) and a great success in my opinion. Although technically a room spray, accompanied in the line’s catalogue by a matching candle, I have used this as a personal fragrance on the back of my hands with no ill results. At least I am still alive to tell the tale….
Deep, dark, smoky embers still illuminated from an inner spark, a little musty and with lots of backbone, it reminds me of the celebrations of midnight. The invocation of church is there, incense taking a turn for the bittersweet, lots of woody ambience, like standing with a candle close to freshly waxed wooden pegs (don’t tentatively burn them to see how they smell though if you’re to be thought of as a good Christian!). Dried bitter orange leaves like the ones scattered on the church floor for the congregation to pick up and get back home to put tucked at the backside of Byzantine icons with austere and spiritual faces. Completely unisex and individual for brave souls who want to venture the extra mile and raise a few eyebrows in the process. A favourite!

Messe de Minuit by Etro: Although this is traditionally thought of as cold and detached, I have noticed that it blooms best in warmer weather in which it reveals a herbal and spicy character that is not present in colder climes.
It starts very damp and musty and even citrus , with a scent that reminds me of raw pleurotus mushrooms left in the fridge for a while It becomes quite spicy and deeper with myrrh (or is it amber?) and sweetens considerably. And it also becomes earthy and “dirty” The incense note is not very evident as such to me. At least it’s not like any incense I am used to which I have described in Avignon. It doesn’t have that rich and resiny, sweet but smoky quality that I usually associate incense with. It is as if the remnants of incense smoke have settled down and been dampened in a old paleochristianic temple. No holy smell, no passage of angels, no spiritual elevation. On the contrary, this is an abandoned abode, a lonely place deserted by man and God that has been festering demons and evil spirits , unhealthy and perverse, vampiric even like a character from an Anne Rice novel . I can definitely see the face of the Antichrist in the background….
Which begs the question why pick such an evil association for such a day…Well, but it is the day of entering Hades after all. And the name which means Midnight service in French is exactly when I wear it, which makes it all the more poignant and introspective full of devoutness despite its intentions. Supposedly loved by Sophia Loren and I can understand how an Italian lady would also like this for those occasions.

Parfum Sacre by Caron: The modern take on what Or et Noir was in the classic line-up of Caron, as discussed yesterday and a bit more festive than the former, hence my inclusion of it here today. The bracing top of evident pepper and lemony tones give way to spices such as mace and cardamom with their middle-eastern ambience, while discreet garlands of rose, jasmine and orange blossom make a swift appearance, then surrender to the plush embrace of dominant myrrh and frankincense with lashings of civet, rosewood, cedar and a little vanilla.
In short one of the few Carons that like me because I do not get the musty rose accord that becomes insufferable on my skin. The whole smells mystical, sophisticated and quite elegant with a touch of the festive, a slight powdery feel like that encountered in classic Guerlains or Chanel fragrances. Really vintage in feel, because who would have thought this came out in the 1990’s? Terrifically long lasting in eau de parfum as well and with a sillage that remains good-mannered but will get you elegantly noticed. Recommended.

Top pic courtesy of, bottom pic by


  1. Well, a chance to remember the Greek friends I have lost. George, from Corfu, who made the best Italian food in the front, and the Holy Food for the priest in the kitchen. That priest, now gone. Although not Greek, I felt held in their embrace of all humanity on special days. And Greco, a refugee from the civil war, a hard worker, and always a friend to anyone in need. A keen observer of everyone around him. A naval officer. I learned a lot about sailors being in his presence. He always took us out for Greek food. So memory is its own insense. Oh, and another George, who passed young last year, rare liver cancer, and his mother and brother who visited often, who made me feel like I was part of a family. They are missed by everyone who knew them, I am sure.

  2. That's so very touching to hear!
    I suppose like Isocrates said "Greek is the one who partakes in Greek culture". Indeed :-)


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