The journey of perfume began in ancient Mesopotamia, a cradle of civilization, more than 4000 years ago (Classen, Howes, & Synnott, 1994). Our earliest known perfume maker was a woman named Tapputi, a chemist in the court of Babylon. Her perfume creation process was documented on a cuneiform tablet, making her one of the first chemists known to history. Tapputi used a complex process of distillation and extraction, combining various flowers, oils, and calamus (a type of aromatic reed), to craft her perfumes (Stoddart, 1990). This marks the beginning of the transformation of raw aromatic materials into refined perfumes.
While Mesopotamia may have birthed the art of perfume making, it was in ancient Egypt that perfume began to take on significant cultural importance. Perfume was deeply interwoven into Egyptian society, seen not only as a luxury but also as an integral part of religious and social life (Manniche, 1999).
In the realm of spirituality, the Egyptians considered perfumes as gifts from the gods. They played a central role in religious rituals, with different scents associated with different deities. Fragrant oils, incense, and resins were burned in sacred rituals, their aromatic smoke believed to carry prayers to the gods. Kyphi, a blend of 16 ingredients including honey, wine, and raisins, was one such sacred incense used in Egyptian temples (Bruno & Teshima, 1991).
Perfumes held a practical role in the preservation of bodies for the afterlife. The process of mummification required the use of large amounts of aromatic substances. Frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatic resins were used to mask the scent of decay and preserve the mummies. These substances had antimicrobial properties, helping to slow down the decomposition process (Aufderheide, 2003).
Perfumes also served an aesthetic purpose in ancient Egyptian society. The Egyptians, known for their appreciation of beauty, used fragrant oils as personal adornments. They believed that the scent of a person was symbolic of their character and social status. Pharaohs and high-ranking officials often wore distinct fragrances to mark their rank and power. Perfumed cones made of animal fat and aromatic resins were even worn on the heads of guests at feasts, slowly melting to release their fragrance (Dalby, 2000).
From these ancient beginnings in Mesopotamia and Egypt, perfumes have traveled a long way, transforming over the centuries, reflecting the changes in societies and cultures, yet still maintaining their allure and mystique.
Some simple perfume recipes inspired by this period:
Tapputi's Delight - Inspired by the first-known perfume maker
- Ingredients: calamus, myrrh, flower petals (your choice), olive oil.
- Method: Crush the calamus, myrrh, and flower petals together into a fine paste. Mix into olive oil and let it sit for a few days before straining.
- Presentation: Stored in a clay jar, applied by hand to the skin or clothes.
Egyptian Kyphi - An incense perfume used in ancient Egypt
- Ingredients: frankincense, myrrh, pine resin, cinnamon, sweet flag, honey, raisin wine.
- Method: Combine ingredients and heat gently over several days. Roll the mixture into pellets.
- Presentation: Burnt as incense during religious ceremonies or before sleep.
Pharaoh's Embalming Fragrance
- Ingredients: myrrh, cassia, juniper berries, wine.
- Method: Combine ingredients and heat gently over several days until a thick, resinous substance is produced.
- Presentation: Used during the embalming process for a sweet-smelling journey to the afterlife.
Disclaimer: The formulae above are conceptual and simplified, for curiosity’s sake only. Making perfumes involves precise measures, careful handling of potentially harmful substances, and adherence to cosmetic safety regulations.
Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge.
Stoddart, D. M. (1990). The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour. Cambridge University Press.
Manniche, L. (1999). Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. Opus Publishing.
Bruno, M., & Teshima, Y. (1991). Kyphi: The Sacred Scent. KMT Communications.
Aufderheide, A. C. (2003). The Scientific Study of Mummies. Cambridge University Press.
Dalby, A. (2000). Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World. Routledge.