History of Perfume: the origins

Learn more about the history of perfume and its first origins

To know the history of Perfume it is important to look at its origin. As far as our knowledge of the world goes, perfume has more or less always existed in different forms and for different uses. To begin this series of articles on the history of perfume, let’s open the first chapter on the Antiquity page. Discover the origins of what we know today about modern perfumery.

A history of perfume old as the hills

Before we start our time travel to Antiquity, let’s go back further to Prehistory. With the discovery of fire, the first Men were interested in picking plants, woods, herbs and other materials to burn. By throwing these plants in the flames, they realized that an odorous smoke was emerging from the fire, every material smelling different. This is the first origin of perfume, to which Man has finally always been exposed. The Latin etymology per fumum is even literally translated “by the smoke”. 8500 years B.C, men also used plants to rub their bodies before hunting to attract game.

Egypt: sacred perfume

The divine fragrance

The history of the perfume begins with its trade thanks to the Sumerians, a civilization located in Mesopotamia. They distributed it to all peoples but particularly to Egyptians who were the bigger consumers of perfume. Very quickly, Alexandria and all the Ancient Egypt offer a considerable importance to the scents by developing a cult of perfume. It is most often created from vegetable oil or animal fat to which flowers are added. The marjoram or iris, but also resins such as turpentine and benzoin are already very present at this time. These first perfumes are also available in ointments made by priests in temples. Essentially used for its “mystical” function, the perfume serves as an intermediary between men and divinities.

In the temples, perfume is everywhere! Scented mixtures are burned to produce purifying smokes. During funerary rites the bodies are embalmed to allow them to have access to eternal life, and the statues of the divinities are rubbed with scented pommade to honor them. “Kyphi” is considered as the first eau de toilette. This odorous blend of juniper berries, honey, grapes, old wine, myrrh and saffron is used mainly for fumigations for the gods.

Perfume to seduce

The origin of perfume in Egypt also involves a therapeutic use. Some of them are made to cure headaches or gynecological diseases.

But Egyptians do not only use perfume for divine and medicinal purposes. Already very interested on appearance and cleanliness, symbol of moral purity, they are seasoned consumers of cosmetics and fragrances. The ointment pots, mirrors and other kôhl cases found in the tombstones are the best witness of this trend. Other scented bases are used in the Egyptians daily life as an asset of seduction, by both women and men. Cleopatra, last queen of Egypt, relaxes in scented baths before being perfumed with bitter almond oil, cinnamon and myrrh. The height of refinement is to perfume the ceremony wigs with scented cones soaked of balsamic essence that melted to impregnate the headdresses. Perfume is reserved to the elite, the people simply using castor oil mixed with oregano or mint.

Greece: the beginning of body hygiene

New scents from all over the world

Cretans and Phoenicians are the first to benefit from the know-how of the Egyptians regarding perfume, which they will then pass to the Greeks. With their various trading posts in the Near East, they discover and import new odorous materials such as saffron or incense. Later, thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, scents from India will be added to their olfactory palette. Sandal, nutmeg, nard and many other ingredients favour this new scented revolution. At the same time, animal materials such as musk, civet or ambergris also appear.

Over time, Greeks become true experts in the creation of fragrant products. They invent the technique of enfleurage, still used today, to make the first liquid perfumes. They let flowers macerate in bronze vases filled with oil which they constantly renewed. The fragrances were filled in ceramic, lead or gold bottles, decorated with imaginary myths.

As for the Egyptians, perfume is first used for its sacred virtues. The creation of each perfume is inspired by a mythological tale. It is said that the goddess Venus is madly in love with Adonis. But this one gets fatally hurt during a hunting party. While she tries to save him, Venus is stung by the thorns of a white rose. Her blood flows on the petals, coloring the flower in red. This is how rose becomes the flower of love. Another (yet less romantic) version states that Cupid accidentally spilled his glass of wine on the flower, making it a symbol of love too…

The body cult

But the perfume is also dedicated to new uses: the body care. Scented oils play a key role in the life of the Greeks, especially for their medicinal properties thanks to their aphrodisiac, digestive or antiseptic effects. But it is also a revolution in terms of personal hygiene. The body is coated with oil before being rubbed vigorously to remove dirt. People then rinse themselves with water in public baths. The perfume is finally synonymous of pleasure: it is even recommended to coat the nostrils to delight the brain!

Rome: an era of abundance in the history of perfume

In Ancient Rome, scents are everywhere. Women and men perfumed their skin and clothes, but also animals and food!

Sign of wealth

Related to luxury and wealth, perfume is used excessively. On sumptuous banquets, rare essences are exposed. Asparagus are soaked in scented oils and savoured in odorous wooden platters. Guests are sprayed with scented water and drink rose-flavored wine. They witness the release of doves whose feathers are soaked with perfume that spread an intense atmosphere of scents.

Near one of the main avenues in Rome, a district of perfumers takes place. Called “unguentarii”, which means the work of the incense, they gather and are very active. Romans converge to these new scented shops in search of the new trendy essence. It is also here that rumors are created and propagated! Quickly, perfumers make a fortune through this thriving business. Fragrances are no longer filled in ceramic bottles but in glass. Roman perfumes are very thick and powerful thanks to the aromatics used. It is difficult today to identify the ingredients used because they were crushed before being cooked for a very long time.

Romans coat themselves with these fragrances and can even be wrapped in these essences by masseurs present in the terms. But this scented frenzy is expensive for Roman nobles and the whole Empire. Rome collapses in 476, but perfume will continue to embellish the following centuries with its notes. Until the birth of a Carrément Belle history in 1988, in the alleys of the formerly Roman city of Nîmes… like a symbol!

Did you know the history of Perfume and its use during Antiquity? Come back next month to continue our fragrant journey, this time in the Middle Ages…

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