Spraying perfume is an integral part of our beauty ritual. A few drops to perfect your outfit and feel good and confident, here is our daily use of perfume. But thousands of years ago, the use of fragrant compositions had nothing to do with seduction. Indeed, it was its medicinal virtues that people were more interested in. But how did perfume manage to heal and how was it used to cure? Here is a list of a few scented remedies over the centuries, with sometimes surprising therapeutic powers.
The kyphi of the Egyptians
In the time of the pharaohs, perfumes are already central to medicine. If the Egyptians regularly burned olibanum, cedar or juniper, mixtures of plants were particularly popular. Among these compositions is one of the most famous and mysterious scented remedies known to this day: the kyphi. This fragrant composition was used in the form of incense to be burned and was also mixed into wine. Its almost magical scent had the power, among other things, of brightening dreams, promoting sleep but also calming anxiety. It was also used to cure lung diseases, intestinal problems and liver ailments.
Many kyphi recipes were written, including one in hieroglyphics found on the walls of the temple of Edfu, in what appeared to be the “laboratory” of the perfumer-priests. While there are many ways to make kyphi, some ingredients are common to all of them: olibanum, grapes, coriander, sandalwood, myrrh, juniper, honey and storax. The Greeks added saffron and cardamom, while the Egyptians putted mint or henna in the mixture. This aromatic marriage releases a resinous and spicy scent.
The theriac: from antidote to medicine
Of all the scented remedies, theriac is certainly one of the most famous but also one of the most complex. Originally created as an antidote in the 1st century BC, its recipe was perfected over the centuries to make it a “universal drug”. In its composition we always find 4 essential ingredients: viper flesh, castoreum (a very fragrant secretion from the beaver glands), opium powder and honey to give it its consistency. To this basic mixture is added various vegetable components such as gums, bark, flowers or roots. Used in powder form, the theriac will quickly become the king of scented remedies to treat plague, measles or smallpox.
Medicinal plants in the Middle Ages
From the Middle Ages, the gardens of castles and abbeys were organized to accommodate the plants and herbs needed to make perfumed remedies. From then on, they constituted the main part of the pharmacopoeia, used until the 19th century. At that time, it was the monks who cared for the sick. They cultivated the majority of medicinal plants such as sage, thyme, lemon balm and hyssop. The monastic orders prepared in their laboratories some fragrant compositions called simple, intended to cure various illnesses. The first apothecary shops appeared in the 13th century. In 1258, Saint Louis offers them an official status for the preparation and sale of medicines.
Scented waters from Cologne to Hungary
Imperial Water, Crowned Water, Superb Water… So many scented waters that people use to cleanse themselves and protect from diseases. One of these recipes will become particularly famous: the Queen of Hungary water. Created on the basis of rosemary macerated in the spirit of wine (alcohol obtained by distilling wine), it can be used by friction but also as a drink. These admirable curative virtues were praised by the nobles who used it intensively to overcome tumors, buzzing in the ears or abdominal pain.
A few hundred years later, it would pave the way for the Eau de Cologne. A water rich in therapeutic active ingredients that protected against diseases and had the reputation of providing good health and longevity. This super-powered water was composed of spirit of wine, which was mixed with various plant and citrus essences such as rosemary, orange, bergamot, neroli and citron. As soon as it appeared, people rubbed it into their bodies and drank it mixed with broth or wine.
From the 1700s, perfumed vinegars appear alongside scented waters. Made by master distillers, these compositions were prepared with flowers or spices. Among the most appreciated by the elegant, we find the vinegar of carnation and the one of rose. According to their ingredients, vinegars provided different benefits and were used as aromatic water in the bath or as toilet vinegar for skin care. It is besides for their softening virtues that toilet vinegars became very famous beauty products from the 19th century. With the passing of fashions and discoveries, amber, lavender, nutmeg or cinnamon vinegars became a major part of the medicine cabinets and toiletries of the time.
The vinegar of the 4 thieves
One recipe is still famous today: the vinegar of the 4 thieves, that we were already telling you about here. While France is ravaged by the Black Death, four thieves can approach the plague victims without danger. Under the pretext of treating them, they coldly strip them of their goods. To escape the death penalty, they were forced to reveal the recipe. They mixed in equal parts fresh tops of several aromatic plants including sage, mint, rosemary and absinthe, to which they added lavender flowers. Spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were then added in smaller quantities. Once prepared, the composition was macerated for several weeks in vinegar. After this step, the thieves filtered it to add the final touch: a mixture of camphor and eau de vie.
Scented remedies: surprising accessories
During the Renaissance, the link between medicine and perfumery was even stronger, in an era where water was frightening. In drink or friction, perfumes were everywhere. They were also used thanks to some rather surprising items. Louis XIV court’s physician developed a “royal casserole”, sort of interior diffuser which, according to him, allowed odorous products to penetrate directly into the heart, blood vessels and lungs. We can also mention the “cucuphe”, a kind of medicinal cap to be worn all night long, or during the day under a hat. Filled with herbs, scented gums or musk, it would have helped elder people to fight against dizziness and memory loss.
The fabrics are also impregnated with aromatic products: Venus handkerchiefs, shirt or mask to protect the face. Purely medical accessories that were macerated in fragrant compositions. Thus charged with “good smells”, these various objects were used to protect oneself from the nauseating scents, vectors of disease. They can be considered as the ancestors of overalls and other masks.
Pharmacy and perfumery were officially separated by a decree signed by Napoleon on August 18, 1810. Today, some are reviving the therapeutic tradition of perfume through olfactotherapy or aromatherapy, while others are trying to reproduce these remedies of yesteryear at home.
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