Olfactory rituals and traditions around the world

Author: Redazione Date: 7 September '23 Category: Perfume World

Perfume is thousands of years old, and the world is a symphony of scents, a rich tapestry of aromas that evoke emotions, memories and cultural identities. The history of perfume is fascinating because it offers a deep insight into a variety of traditions. It is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to include perfumed rituals in their culture, followed by the Chinese, Hindus, Israelites, Carthaginians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans.

The word ‘perfume’ derives from the Latin “per fumum” meaning ‘through smoke’, as in antiquity it was used as a means of contacting gods and ancestors by burning essential oils and aromas such as incense. In all ancient cultures, perfumes were held in high esteem and were used ceremonially by nobility and royalty. Perfuming one’s own space, in fact, was a sign of lust and, naturally, was associated with the concept of hygiene that only the upper classes of society could afford. Over time, some rituals evolved, others remained unchanged.

Beginning with the ancient civilisations of Egypt and India, and ending with the royal courts of France and Italy, the passion and art of perfume have been woven into the fabric of human history, and bear witness to the power and influence they have on the cultural sphere.

Perfume in ancient Egypt: between the sacred and the profane

Ancient Egypt is renowned for its deep connection with the art and use of perfumes. This civilisation regarded fragrance as a sacred element, a pathway between the earthly and spiritual worlds. The Egyptians created complex perfumes using precious ingredients such as incense, myrrh and lotus oil, and they were so precious that they were often used as offerings to the gods, particularly during religious rituals in temples. Incense, for example, was burned in honour of various divinities, including the sun god Ra, and during mummification as part of the body preservation process. Essential oils of thyme, lavender, peppermint and rose, among many others, were used to embalm the body and then wrap it in linen strips.

Apart from religious uses, perfumes were widely used in daily life in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians firmly believed in the purifying power of fragrances and applied them to perfume their bodies and interiors. Perfumed oils, ointments and balms were carefully and delicately smeared on the body by Egyptian women as a true ritual of seduction. Cleopatra, above all, who had a strong passion for perfume, used sophisticated fragrances to enhance her charm and to create an aura of luxury around her. It is said that it was thanks to perfume that she managed to seduce Mark Antony, and that, on the occasion of their first meeting in Tarsus, she even stuffed the sails of her ships with incense and precious perfumes, so that the wind would carry her scent before she even docked. Cleopatra herself is thought to have helped introduce the art of perfume into Western culture.

Italy and France at the court of Caterina de’ Medici

Italy has a rich tradition of perfumes that finds its roots in the Renaissance. A key figure in this history is the young Caterina de’ Medici, a Florentine noblewoman who became Queen of France in 1547, when she married Henry II. Catherine was an excellent connoisseur of perfumes and her passion was well known to all, so much so that before long all the ladies of the city began to imitate her and become passionate about perfumes. She even had a fragrance created especially for her by the Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella, ‘Acqua della Regina’, with its distinctly citrus notes. The woman loved to follow various olfactory rituals, but is most often associated with the use of perfumed gloves. She is said to have introduced this habit to conceal bad hand odour during receptions, forcing all guests to do the same. This practice quickly became fashionable among European nobility, contributing to the association of scented gloves with elegance and luxury.

Let us not forget, then, that Catherine played a key role in spreading the use of perfumes in France when she married the king in the 16th century. Indeed, as well as taking with her her personal perfumer, Renato Bianco, later renamed René le Florentin, she also brought with her from Florence a vast collection of fragrances and perfumes, small bottles of essential oils, rosewater and other perfumed elixirs. Her great passion profoundly influenced the French court and helped transform Paris into one of the European capitals of perfumery, so that many Italian perfumers decided to continue their art there, removing the primacy that had until then belonged to Italy and Spain.

Despite all this, the art of perfumery continued to be handed down in Florence and throughout Italy, particularly in monasteries where people used to experiment with new essences and spices, even for curative purposes.

Japan: the art of Koh-do

In Japan, perfume appreciation is elevated to an art form known as Koh-do (or Kodo), meaning “way of incense”. It is considered one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, along with ikebana, i.e. flower arranging, and the famous tea ceremony. Kodo involves a special method of inhaling and listening, through the heart and spirit, to fragrances. We know that, given the power of the sense of smell, a scent can instantly transport a person to a place from their childhood; in Japan, it is a common belief that Kodo can even help one reach a different spiritual realm.

The ceremony consists of placing a mica plate, or burner, on hot coals, and then placing scented woods, such as aloe wood, or incense on the plate so that they do not burn, but instead give off their scent gently. Some also practice it by holding a small burner directly in their hands. This practice serves to connect on a deep level with the senses and find inner peace and a sense of well-being. So, a not very distant relative of the more modern – and less spiritual – aromatherapy.

Middle East: the art of Bakhoor

The Middle East also has a rich history of perfumery spanning centuries. The region’s warm and arid climate has inspired the development of refreshing fragrances, and perfumed practices are part of everyday life.

Oud, also known as Agarwood, is a precious resin, one of the most prized ingredients in Middle Eastern perfumery. Its deep, woody aroma is highly sought after and has been used for centuries in the creation of traditional Arabian perfumes. Oud is also associated with spiritual practices and is used in meditation to purify the soul.

Bakhoor, a combination of oud chips and scented oils blended with musk, sandalwood, resins, ambergris and other natural ingredients, is a fragrant ritual in which these chips are burned in censers to perfume the home and clothes with its thick, earthy, energising smoke. At formal gatherings, especially those involving the royal family, it is a traditional gesture to pass the Bakhoor among guests, as it is considered a sign of hospitality. It is also used at traditional weddings and spiritual and religious ceremonies, as the smoke, in addition to its enticing fragrance, is said to ward off evil spirits. Moreover, the captivating scent given off by the Bakhoor is also used in shops to attract customers.

India: the art of Attar

In India, the art of perfumery is deeply rooted in tradition and spirituality. The use of essential oils, known as attar, dates back thousands of years and is an essential part of Indian culture. Attar is obtained from natural sources such as flowers, spices and herbs and is created through the ancient process of steam distillation.

One of the most famous Indian attars is “Mitti Attar”, which captures the essence of the first rain on the parched earth. This fragrance is a nostalgic journey to one’s roots and homeland.

Attars were also given as gifts by Indian rulers to their guests on their departure, or used as deodorants by the royal family.

Perfume as a universal language

There are many other olfactory rituals and practices that still persist around the world, and they are as diverse as the cultures that practise them. Each tradition represents a unique way of understanding and appreciating perfume and its innumerable powers. This teaches us that the art of perfumery transcends borders and time, and that in a world full of different habits and traditions, the language of scent remains universal.

Want to know more about the world of perfumes?