The Ancient History of Perfume and Fragrance

August 04, 2016 3 Comments

The Ancient History of Perfume and Fragrance

If someone has never smelled frankincense and myrrh, how would you describe it to them?  It’s a difficult smell to describe: the slight burning of a light wood, smoky, but not rich, instead embodied by a sweetness.  Or, if someone is familiar, you could say the scent of a Roman Catholic Church. Through time and history, cultures have always used different fragrances for ceremony, for ritual, for funerary rites, and for worship.

History

In ancient history, the art of perfuming was a scholarly effort. The purpose was far greater than creating a pleasant fragrance around a person (but with the comparison of hygiene practices from then and now, it certainly helped that area, too), but also medicinal, demonstrative of wealth and power, and beauty. Unlike today’s perfumes, ancient perfumes were based in carrier oils, most often olive and almond, which is why we create our aromatherapy roll ons with carrier oil, as well. The art of mixing oils and oils of fragrance (essential oils) was the reason it was a scholarly feat; there is much study involved to understand the properties of each oil and how they work in tandem to create the desired outcome.

In the story of Jesus’ birth in the New Testatment, the Magi (the three wise men) brought Jesus the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Theologians and biblical scholars believe these three gifts were standard gifts for a king: gold for wealth, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. As see in the famed carol We Three Kings, the three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. But the use of frankincense and myrrh is dated much older, with evidence that it was used in ancient Egypt and Babylonia for the same purposes, clearly a powerful mix of culture.

Frankincense and Myrrh
Frankincense and Myrrh – Photo credit Farmer’s Almanac

Sandalwood oil dates back to ancient Egypt and ancient India. With the difficulty of extraction, the value of sandalwood oil has always been extraordinarily high. As stated in the Aromatherapy Library: “In Ayurvedic medicine, sandalwood was used for respiratory and urinary infections and for the revitalization of skin; in Chinese Medicine, sandalwood was used for skin complaints, stomachache and vomiting.  The Japanese used sandalwood to honor Buddha.  Sandalwood also earns a mention in Discorides’ De Materia Medica, a reference book of many medicinal plants of its time.”

Sandalwood
Sandalwood

Cinnamon (or cassia oil) was one of the most sought-after spices of the Silk Road. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon oil as part of the embalming process, as it is found that cinnamon functions as a preserver. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament that along with myrrh, cinnamon was part of the anointing oil.

Cinnamon
Cinnamon

Jasmine and rose were popular flowers used in ancient perfumery. From the careful expeller-pressing of these flowers, perfumers would gather the oils to mix with base oils. The value of these oils has not changed since the times of ancient Arabia, as it takes a considerable number of flowers to produce the smallest amount of oil. Rose and jasmine were not only popularly used for ancient perfumery, but because of their believed antiseptic and antidepressive features. Only the wealthiest people would be able to enjoy these oils.

Rose

Chamomile, found often in textual references of ancient Rome, was always valued for its uniquely medicinal properties. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The dried flowers of chamomile contain many terpenoids and flavonoids contributing to its medicinal properties. Chamomile preparations are commonly used for many human ailments such as hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids.” While there is currently science to evidence the use of chamomile essential oil, the ancient Romans used chamomile for the same purposes.

Chamomile
Chamomile

Valuation

The valuation presented here is based on modern prices, and depending on resources and crops, these prices always have potential of being increased. Unlike ancient times, modern science has allowed distribution of the masses of these scents with the development of synthetic fragrance oils to match the scent of their essential oil counterpart.

Based on current industry averages of one ounce of oil:
Frankincense Essential Oil – $45.00
Myrrh Essential Oil – $41.00
Sandalwood Essential Oil – $148.00
Cinnamon Essential Oil – $37.00
Rose Absolute Essential Oil – $170.00
Jasmine Absolute Essential Oil – $195.00
Chamomile Essential Oil – $148.00

The prices of these oils are almost as intense as their scent, which explains why aromatherapy products made with pure essential oils are often seemingly expensive.


Are there any oils you would like to learn more about?  Do you find yourself attracted to any of these scents?




3 Responses

angela
angela

August 05, 2016

I’ve taken more natural perfuming classes than I can count, and I learned something in every one of them. There is so much history in perfuming. For me, I love the classes so I can smell all the oils. A rose otto smells different than a rose absolute than a rose de mai than a rose concrete. Even a rose from Turkey is different than a rose from Bulgaria. Thanks for more background info!

Kayla Fioravanti
Kayla Fioravanti

August 04, 2016

Worth every single penny – all of them! These are some of my favorites.

Donna DeRosa
Donna DeRosa

August 04, 2016

I love reading about the history of perfume. I used to experiment with perfume-making. I love rose and jasmine but they are so expensive to work with.

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