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Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

by Jonathan Reinarz
Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell

by Jonathan Reinarz

Paperback(1st Edition)

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In this comprehensive and engaging volume, medical historian Jonathan Reinarz offers a historiography of smell from ancient to modern times. Synthesizing existing scholarship in the field, he shows how people have relied on their olfactory sense to understand and engage with both their immediate environments and wider corporal and spiritual worlds.

This broad survey demonstrates how each community or commodity possesses, or has been thought to possess, its own peculiar scent. Through the meanings associated with smells, osmologies develop--what cultural anthropologists have termed the systems that utilize smells to classify people and objects in ways that define their relations to each other and their relative values within a particular culture. European Christians, for instance, relied on their noses to differentiate Christians from heathens, whites from people of color, women from men, virgins from harlots, artisans from aristocracy, and pollution from perfume.

This reliance on smell was not limited to the global North. Around the world, Reinarz shows, people used scents to signify individual and group identity in a morally constructed universe where the good smelled pleasant and their opposites reeked.

With chapters including "Heavenly Scents," "Fragrant Lucre," and "Odorous Others," Reinarz's timely survey is a useful and entertaining look at the history of one of our most important but least-understood senses.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079795
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 02/21/2014
Series: Studies in Sensory History
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Reinarz is a professor of the history of medicine and Director at the History of Medicine Unit at the School of Medicine, University of Birmingham (U.K.). He is author of A History of the Birmingham Teaching Hospitals, 1779-1939.

Read an Excerpt

Past Scents

Historical Perspectives on Smell



Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09602-0


Heavenly Scents

Religion and Smell

Smells are thought to reveal things about the objects, people, and places from which they emanate. In their sweeping survey of aroma, Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott remind us that smells are drenched with meaning, often viewed as "intrinsic 'essences'" with the potential to reveal inner truths. Throughout history, such ideas have had a profound resonance, especially in the realm of religious practice. The very existence or absence of scent at particular moments significantly shaped the experiences of the devout and the meaning of religious practices, at both the individual and collective levels. In addition, the act of smelling reveals a great deal about the perceiver of an aroma. Fragrance carried power for good and evil and literally "order[ed] life within the cosmos." Pleasant odors might, on a very basic level, have indicated good foods and health, but they were also associated with virtuous people, tied to ideas of immortality, and even announced divine presence. In contrast, bad smells regularly carried negative connotations, signaling illness, disorder, decay, divine disapproval, destruction, and, ultimately, death. As part of ritual and ceremony in diverse religious traditions, odors could cleanse, purify, heal, ward off, or initiate communion with the Almighty; they could also contaminate, pollute, and endanger; at the very least, they could serve as warnings of potential hazards and evil inclinations. Smells have suffused religious practices and are central to decoding their various meanings.

From the ancient period, odors, both fair and foul, were used to order and classify human relations in both the social and political spheres. A particular scent could also provide immediate insight on human-divine interactions. The work of Lise Manniche, for example, has documented the earliest associations between perfume and religious practice in Egyptian culture. In this tradition many fragrant plants were known as "fruits of the eye of Re" (or Ra), said to have sprung from the sun god's eye; others were believed to have originated from deities' bones. In the Buddhist tradition, some of these plants were "described as beloved of a particular god." Although the senses were not embedded in early Christianity, by the fourth century even Christian practices had become deeply sensual and the meanings and uses of smell in particular increased dramatically. Professor of religious studies Susan Harvey has charted the emergence of "a lavishly olfactory piety" by the fifth century in Christian expressions, rituals, and associated devotional experiences. Incense, previously condemned for its association with pagan rituals, rapidly became a part of every private and public Christian ceremony. Scented oils also progressively gained sacramental usage, being applied to individuals in paraliturgical rites as well as baptismal and other rituals, both to set a chosen group apart and to simultaneously link them to a single god. The hagiographical literature of the period also began to emphasize smell. Scents and odors were increasingly mentioned in hymns, homilies, and other texts and manuals. Christianity then spread its aromatic message throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. When the Germanic tribes invaded the empire, its highly perfumed rituals were thoroughly dismantled and, as significantly, corrupted by the foul-smelling hordes.

As noted in a number of studies of religion, "Christianity emerged in a world where smells mattered." Jean-Pierre Albert's Odeurs de Sainteté: La mythologie chrétienne des aromates (1990) has applied the sensual approach of the French Annales historian Alain Corbin, among others, to the Christian imagination of medieval Europe. Unfortunately, much of his work has yet to be translated into English, unlike that of his compatriot Béatrice Caseau. In particular, Caseau has examined religious activity in late antiquity and charted the broad spectrum of odors, their uses and meanings that confronted early Christians, and the ways in which these became appropriated in religious and profane contexts. Her work is rich in material evidence, devoting considerable attention to the spice routes, the production of incense and perfumes, recipes for various fragrant concoctions, and, above all, the medical and hygienic uses of smells. Together the work of French scholars yet again provided an inspiring foundation for subsequent studies of smell in that period.

Perhaps the most comprehensive work on the subject of religion and smell is Susan Harvey's impressive study Scenting Salvation (2006). Commencing with the period preceding the rule of Constantine, who legalized Christianity in 312, Harvey focuses on the uses of and attitudes toward smells in ancient Christianity, which previously had been characterized by what she describes as "sensory austerity." Rituals and practices were defined by their simplicity and minimal sensory engagement, primarily to distinguish them from heathen ceremonies, particularly those of the Romans. When encountering pagan sacrifice, Christian texts encouraged adherents to "spit upon the fumes, blow and spit upon the evil powers [and] exorcise [themselves]." Eventually, however, throughout the centuries following Constantine's rule, smell became a key component in the formulation of Christian knowledge, primarily because of what it could reveal about God, including his relationship with humans. By the eighth century, prayers, then the liturgy itself and every religious occasion, became "drenched in the fragrance of incense." Aromatics enveloped every Christian home, shrine, tomb, church, pilgrimage site, and monastic cell and transformed these terrestrial spaces into ceremonial places. Archaeological, documentary, and literary evidence support this dramatic increase in incense and holy oils during late antiquity, which all but obliterated any memory of former opposition by the first Christians. Although no more important than the other senses, smell became embedded in the religious life of this period. This is equally true of the aromatic metaphors employed in rabbinic interpretations of biblical stories, which evoke a variety of fragrances and meanings when reflecting on issues such as love, death, and the divine. While an appreciation of the senses in histories of Judaism has "lag[ged] behind that of Christianity," a focus on perfume has come to prove equally useful for those engaging with Jewish religious narratives. Lately, others have followed Harvey's lead and begun to explore other religious traditions, including those of South Asia. This chapter demonstrates how historians of religion have recently redressed the balance of previous works, which have often centered on the roles played by the sights and sounds of salvation, by returning attention to aroma.

Sacrificial Scents

Although inextricably linked with ideas of cruelty and brutality in contemporary discourse, sacrificial practices have been revealed as profound religious events characterized by smell. In the ancient Mediterranean world, religious sacrifice established and maintained the relationships that bound communal order and identity and simultaneously connected communities of believers to a divine presence. There are traces of the practice in the ancient Mesopotamian heroic myth of Gilgamesh, when Utanapishtim describes the scented sacrifices he offered to the gods in return for delivering him from the Great Flood. This tradition reappears in cultures across the globe: archaeological digs have uncovered aromatics in pre-Hispanic South America, where perfumes were also offered to deities for the protection of cities and dynasties. Within the Christian and Judaic traditions, a properly performed sacrifice soothed God's anger, removed collective guilt and sin, and ensured divine deliverance. In all cases, incense was burned along a processional route and at the actual site of sacrifice. Odors, as the historian ethnographer Lucienne Roubin asserts, were "a constant messenger of the festive event." Flowers, wreaths, and perfumes adorned altars, statues, garments, participants, priests, and sacrificial victims. At events involving animal sacrifice, the smell of blood and roasting meat enriched other palpable aromas, including the cooking fire, the smoke, or the sacrificial fumes intended for the gods—or God in a monotheistic religion—which could be seen literally to pass from the mortal realm to heaven. Ideally, these offerings would sooth an angry deity or draw "the Divine downward toward earth to save the human."

Sacrificial smells could be complex. But they could also be very simple, comprising, for example, the scent of a sole ingredient, such as myrrh—a step up from the simplest early offerings, such as stone or grass. According to some commentators, it was not the expense of a sacrifice that mattered to the gods but the sentiment with which it was offered. Accordingly, Porphyry, the third-century Neoplatonist, suggested "the sacrifice which is attended with a small expense is pleasing to the gods." Nevertheless, fragrant offerings usually necessitated a scent worthy of a deity. Given the innate symbolism of perfume, it was only natural that more complex fragrances came to be considered appropriate in such circumstances, with offerings ideally reflecting an accumulation of personal or communal wealth. Those who mocked the Greek custom of burnt sacrifices therefore commented on the negligible value of the inedible or fatty portions of animals while noting that worshippers often feasted upon the edible meat. Only when supplicants denied themselves any immediate gain from the sacrifice did their offering truly become meaningful. As a consequence, the Israelites were accused of irregular sacrifice, or even "bringing and preparing sick and lame animals for God's table." In Buddhist tradition, which is fragrant in the extreme, the opportunist who followed the smell of sacrificial offerings to its source would reap Karma; one satirical attack suggested that such selfish individuals would be reborn "as animals who follow the odor of dung to find their meals." Alternatively, should flowers have been offered, they were to be fragrant but free of thorns.

Incense altars, not surprisingly, were often described as intensely fragrant. Made of acacia wood, for example, these objects themselves would have scented sacred spaces beyond the moment of sacrifice and created environments suitable to the liberation of consciousness. Holy oils also comprised carefully chosen bouquets; those of the early Christians included liquid myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil. Holy incense was composed of sweet spices in equal parts, including stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, and salt, while in the Jewish literature the scents of balsam and myrrh were deemed "chief of all spices." In Roman tradition, fragrant offerings were accompanied by garlands and floral crowns, which were distinctly suited to the gods and goddesses of love, who not only were sweetly scented but also took particular delight in floral essences. Equally, human stenches, such as the reek of wounds or illness, promptly invalidated such religious offerings. For this reason, there are ancient references to religious grooming, including washing, shaving, and even circumcision, to accompany such moments. The adherence of Egyptians to such purification rituals impressed witnesses of such personal cleanliness that only intensified in rigor with proximity to the gods—namely, when undertaken by a priest or in preparation for the afterlife. Given that olfactory sensitivity is subjective, however, the reception of smells in the religious context was not always straightforward. To the believer, sacred smells ranked among the most desirable and divine; alternatively, to those of different faiths, the "aroma of Christ" could be interpreted as foul and was avoided. Either way, these distinct scent codes varied with culture and time and must therefore be interpreted carefully when engaging with the relevant religious literature.

So entwined were sacrifice and incense that the two were often synonymous. Leaving no usable product, as with communally shared animal sacrifices, incense became the quintessential whole burnt offering and eventually gained exalted status. It even transformed the place of sacrifice; for example, a home fragranced with incense became "a holy temple." Fragrant plant resins and gums could also be burned more regularly than other objects and therefore enabled the ritual of sacrifice to be gradually incorporated into the routine of daily life; Plutarch spoke admiringly of the Egyptian practice of offering incense three times a day to the sun. In the morning, resin was burned; at noon, myrrh; and in the evening, a compound of sixteen spices was offered. The composition of the latter was carefully prepared by unguent makers who had sacred recipes read to them, such recipes often adorning the engraved walls of Egyptian temples. Incense was similarly proffered by Aztec priests but was as frequently burned as part of nonreligious rites, including trials, to honor the gods and seek their protection.

The burning of incense, though destructive, was understood to be a metamorphic process. Such scents were "facilitating agents" that transformed spaces "from the ordinary to the ceremonial." Altered by burning, substances traveled heavenward with worshippers' prayers. The sacrifice also had the capacity to commute the devout into a pious figure and prolonged the divine moment. Lingering aromas attuned the mind to devotion and adoration both before and after the performance of a religious rite. Even when departing the place of sacrifice, the perfume of devotion did not depart, but was retained by the person's hair and clothes and was then carried into other contexts, reminding other believers and individuals they encountered of a recently completed religious act, for better or for worse.

In the Jewish tradition, sacrifices filled air that was already pungent with scent. The paradigm formulated during the Second Temple restricted burnt offerings, including incense, to the Jerusalem site. This was the "holy space par excellence," located on the "navel of the Earth," and thus regarded as closer to God than any other place. The vapors would ascend upward from this strategically located temple directly into heaven through an open portal. An improper sacrifice in this space, marked by its "ritual purity," was to offer no sacrifice at all and "risk[ed] divine wrath." The Jerusalem Temple could not operate without aromatics; incense was used to demarcate the space as clean and sacred, belonging to God through a distinct scent, and to protect its priests. A variety of offerings were mandated in the Torah, including incense, libations, grains, birds, and animals, in order to expiate sins, propitiate blessings, and offer thanks as well as praise. Overall, animal sacrifice held a certain primacy and centered on the shedding of blood. The most potent form of sacrifice was the holocaust, or whole burnt offering, through which the entire object was offered to God rather than being partially shared and consumed by the priests and their community.

Early Christians did not initially participate in sacrifice. The order to participate in such rituals was therefore the usual test to "smoke out" Christians from the wider population. The refusal to offer incense to the Roman gods thereby became a criterion for condemnation in that society. Accordingly, apostates who succumbed to threats and torture became known as "incense-burners." Only after the legalization of such practices in the fourth century did Christians begin to burn incense at their liturgical gatherings and private devotional practices. Even though the language used by Christians had always employed the rhetoric of sacrifice, its aroma would only increase as the centuries passed.


Excerpted from Past Scents by JONATHAN REINARZ. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Picking up the Scent 1

1 Heavenly Scents: Religion and Smell 25

2 Fragrant Lucre: The Perfume Trade 53

3 Odorous Others: Race and Smell 85

4 Seduction and Subversion: Gender and Smell 113

5 Uncommon Scents: Class and Smell 145

6 Mapping the Smellscape: Smell and the City 177

Conclusion: Beyond the Foul and Fragrant 209

Notes 219

Index 267

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