The churchmen knew their business when they brought scent into the worship of God. Elemental stuff, you see. Like Proust’s madeleine. The origin of the word perfume relates to it. Per fumen – through smoke. Some words are so ingrained in the vocabulary that one forgets that they have origins, and the origins of scented smoke are old indeed.
Early on, flavored smoke was a specific for ridding a place of other-worldy undesirables. Case in point:
The Book of Tobit book tells of a demon who attached himself to a highly desirable young woman. She must have been quite the dish, as seven volunteers tried their luck “this maid hath been given to seven men” (insert joke about every one of them named ‘Ennery) “who all died in the marriage chamber.”
Details are unclear, but our hero Tobit, aiming at being number eight and making it past the wedding night, made a study of the problem and got a little supernatural advice.
“And [the angel] said unto him, ‘Touching the heart and the liver, if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any, we must make a smoke thereof before the man or the woman, and the party shall be no more vexed.
Thou shalt take the ashes of perfume, and shalt lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish, and shalt make a smoke with it: And the devil shall smell it, and flee away, and never come again any more.”
It seems to have done the job, which must have been provoking to the families of the seven suitors who failed. I mean to say, where are angels bearing useful advice when you need them?
This kind of anti-demonical fumigation carried on through the ages and became a stock in trade for the witch smeller pursuivant.. Possessed women of old England were forced to endure various profumigatio horribilis, involving burning fish liver oil, rue, sulpher and asafetida. Native Americans engage in the practice of smudging, that is, burning of sweetgrass, sage or cedar as a sort of spiritual pest extermination. You can buy the ingredients on line, different mixtures for different needs.
Islam appears to have divided opinion on the fumigating uses of incense, some considering it both ineffective and a distraction from sacred and more effective recitations, others considering the right incense as attractive to angels and repellent to djinns. Others say certain incense actually attracts djinns, and still others that it has no effect at all, but that cleanliness and pleasant smells are a general good for the individual user and for society in general.
Fast forward to the Age of Reason and we read that one of Casanova’s earliest memories is of a smoke cure he was subjected to in order to cure him of chronic nosebleed:
“The wonderful old witch, lavishing caresses upon me, takes off my clothes, lays me on the bed, burns some drugs, gathers the smoke in a sheet which she wraps about me, pronounce incantations, takes the sheet off, and gives me five sugar-plums of a very agreeable taste. Then she immediately rubs my temples and the nape of my neck with an ointment exhaling a delightful perfume, and puts my clothes on me again.”
For the record, it didn’t work.
So much for ridding of demons. To bring the gods into one’s life, something nicer than fish gall is called for. Barbecue, say. Homer and others write about the communal roasting of the sacrificial ox. Olympian gods, it seems, had a particular taste for fat. Filet mignon – not so much. Well, waste not, want not, and the ancient Greeks and Romans certainly did not. Attendance at religious ceremonies was admirably high.
(One wonders if the fact of the god’s liking roast ox was the excuse for pouring all that money into what was, to be blunt about it, a declining asset. For a lot of people, it’s much easier to spend stupid money on others than on oneself. Thus the market for fireworks, or a personal appearances of Elton John for a plutocrat’s birthday party.)
Incense was a requirement for burning the dead, presumably to cover the smell of burning human flesh. Which gets us to the nexus of the world as we know it and the next world.
Smoke, or at least mist, was a key ingredient in communing that other world. The prophetic babbling of the priestess of Delphi and elsewhere came only after the inhalation of gases coming from deep within the earth. Plutarch claims it carried a floral scent. He also noted that it had lost its potency over time, possibly blocked by shifting earth after the quake of 373 BC. Science has looked into the matter and the active ingredient, it claims, was the naturally occurring ethylene, sweet smelling and hallucinatory.
The Christian church is said to have picked up incense from Judaism. Our household contains a modest 19th century Russian icon long since removed from its far away Orthodox church and the even now the faint whiff of incense can be detected. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the ancient chants, see the censor waiving priests in black, the Byzantine inspired interiors - heady stuff, even for the non-Orthodox such as myself.
Which gets us back to Proust’s madeleine. What is more evocative of a time, a place, or an emotion than is scent? Music, maybe (another intangible, notice), but smell is what goes straight to whatever brainial receptors bring us back to past, whether the incense of church, or the joss sticks of sixty’s Carnaby Street.
What will our children and grandchildren remember? Regrettably, in too many cases it will be scented candles and electric spritzers. Twenty First Century Homo Americanus has too much stuff and too little time to clean, and so house deodorant becomes the exhausted man’s out. Madison Avenue, getting back to the hardball tactics of old, now expects the public to acknowledge how some people have failed on the matter of basic household hygiene. How many millions, billions of dollars this pulls in every year is anyone’s guess, but why anyone would willingly subject themselves to aspirated chemicals of unknown origin is quite beyond me.
Then again, I married a perfumista, and we live in a spotlessly clean house.