Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Perfumery from the Underworld: The Secrets of Ancient Egypt Unravelled!

The ancient Egyptians had enjoyed a variety of different types of fragrances.  They had exotic luxurious perfumes, that came in the form of oils, solid perfumes, fragrant unguent cones, incense and sacred unguents which were used in sacred/holy ceremonies.  In fact, ancient Egyptian perfumes were a known luxury throughout the ancient world and it was a centre perfume production, with many ingredients acquired either from the land of Egypt in the form of plants, or imported ingredients – but of course within ancient Egyptian society, access to these luxurious fragrances were confined within the noble elite classes of people.  Fragrance was not used primarily for scent, but people used to also use them on their skin as a shield from the scorching sun or harsh winds.  One very popular women's fragrance, was called ‘The Egyptian’ – no joke!!  In fact, it was common to name fragrances after places and regions, especially when they were produced to be exported.  ‘The Egyptian’ was a highly-concentrated fragrance oil, not much different to the more modern attars, and they were made using highly expensive ingredients, including cinnamon, myrrh and fragrant wine. 

The animal-derived fragrance ingredients, which are held in such high value and esteem by modern perfumers today, such as civet, musk and ambergris, were largely unknown in ancient Egypt and were not used in their perfumes.  In fact, their perfumes comprised mostly of animal fat bases and basis of Balanos oil.  Fragrance essences were taken from lilies, lotus (of various types), herbs and some fruit, including juniper berries and moringa tree seeds which are fruit and were grown for their use in perfumes, since they produced a fragrant oil.  Almond oil was also used.   

Ancient Egyptian Perfume Bottles
Another perfume, which was very popular, was called ‘The Mendesian’, which was named after the city of Mendes, located within the Delta region of Egypt.  There have been some discrepancies about the ingredients of this fragrance, however generally speaking, it consisted of notes of Balanos oil, myrrh and resins and some sources states that it also included cassia – a sweet cinnamon.

Apart from this, another complex ancient Egyptian fragrance oil, called ether ‘Metopion’ or ‘Galbanum’, had a list of notes, which again has a few discrepancies.  The first account of notes, included bitter almonds oil, green olive oil, cardamom, camel grass, Calamus (sweet flag), honey, wine, myrrh, balsamum seed, galbanum and resin.  Another account of the list of notes, which isn’t very different, consists of:  bitter almonds, omphacium (green olive oil) cardamom, rush (camel grass), flag (sweet flag), honey, wine, myrrh, terebinth resin (turpentine resin), galbanum and seed of balsam (balsamum seed).  Lovely! ;)

The Ancient Egyptians referred to perfumes as ‘fragrance of the gods’, and the many gods were actually associated with certain fragrance notes.  The fragrance note of marjoram was said to be sacred to the ancient Egyptian god, Sobek and the layman referred to the herb as ‘the herb of Sobek’.  The blue lotus fragrance note was said to be the fragrance of the sweat of the Egyptian god, Ra – and if you come across a deep and intense floral scent in the air, it meant that a god was present.  Whilst blue lotus perfume was seen as the sweat of Ra, the god Nefertem was regarded as the Lord of the perfumes and the god of the sacred lotus blossom - such was the value of blue lotus. 

In the Temple of Edfu, located in the city of Edfu on the west bank of the river Nile, of upper Egypt, there was a perfume laboratory, and perfume recipes can be seen engraved on the walls, portraying the use of natural resins in perfumery which was then used for anointing the goddess, Hathor.  She was regarded as the mistress of all the goddesses of ancient Egypt.  This laboratory was also where fragrant materials were stored, along with perfumes called the ‘Fragrance of Horus’  and a perfume called ‘The Tears of Horus ’ which consisted of fragrant myrrh.  The god Horus used this fragrance during sacred rituals.  It was the god Shezmu, who was the ‘lord of the perfume’, or the ‘lord of the precious oil’ – which in todays speak is perfumer!  It was within the perfume laboratories of the Temple of Edfu and other temples, where he worked on creating perfume oils for the respective gods of ancient Egypt and he was also charged with the perfuming the dead during the mummification process – imagine!  Ancient Egyptian perfume labs!!   

The ancient Egyptian world of perfumery is a complete maze of discovery!  One that I certainly enjoy going down!

Until next time, happy sniffing! ;)