An excerpt from Annick Le Guérer’s excellent book Scent: the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, co-authored with Philip Turner and Richard Miller. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the link between scents and sensuality.
“Throughout history there has been a link between perfumes and desire. When Circe sets out to seduce Ulysses, she employs powerful aromatic philtres. When the Queen of Sheba travels to Jerusalem, she seeks help in her campaign to win Solomon’s heart from the precious gums and spices of Araby she brings with her in her great caravan: “And she gave the king… of spices very great store… there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.” In this linkage of perfumes to sexuality and seduction we can discern two functions, both of which lead to a single result: the encouragement of sexual union.
First, pleasant odors can neutralize body odors (or attenuate them if they are too strong) while accentuating certain components. Here, for example, is how sarghine [an aromatic Strapwort root] is used by Tunisian Bedouins:
Sarghine is burned for its sweet and evanescent odor; an intimate perfume used by cottage and nomadic Bedouins. The bridal couple incense themselves with it by carrying the burner under their clothing, the shift or the melhafa, before they first bed together. The smoke of the sarghine has the property of neutralizing those odors that tend to repulse or to hinder the full expression of desire. Thus, the warmth of the bed causes the nostrils to be afflicted by only the lightest of emanations and, among the vapors distilled by the flesh, only those that are both the least harsh and the most provocative.
The unique attributes of aromas can be used as more than aids; they can actually become the basic agents for amorous conquest. In the Old Testament story, before going to Ahasuerus, Esther had been massaged for “six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with sweet odours, and with other things for the purifying of the women.” In another Old Testament story, Judith anointed her body with precious ointment to seduce Holophernes. Shakespeare tells us that, setting forth to meet Mark Anthony, Cleopatra did not spare the perfume:
The Barge she sat in, like a burnisht Throne
Burnt on the water: the Poope was beaten Gold,
Purple the Sailes: and so perfumed that
The windes were Love-Sicke.
In some traditional societies the process of seduction assumes ritual form through the intensive and refined use of perfumes. The women of the tiny Micronesian island of Nauru perfume themselves both internally and externally. They take perfumed steam baths and rub their bodies and hair with coconut milk and various floral oils. The also use mixtures of odorous leaves and aromatic potions to “perfume themselves within.” The latter preparations are reputed to have a devastating effect: ” ‘All men will come to you,’ the Nauran women say, ‘all men will be attracted to you, so many will come that you will be exhausted.’ ” Several of these rites, like the dakare-bark steam bath, also entail alimentary taboos and are performed outside the village, in secret–another indication of the connection between perfume and magic. In Nauru, perfumes are love philters as well” (p. 14-16).
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Image: Mughal miniature “Beloveds,” from craftsofindia.com