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Fragrant Traditions

Fragrance has been used, valued and enjoyed by civilized races across the world for thousands of years. It was used in religious ceremonies and rituals; to heal body and mind; to promote and enhance sexual response; to perk up a poor appetite, to scent homes, to keep bugs away, and any number of other uses. The plant world has provided an abundance of fragrance. The flower tends to be the most fragrant part, but fruit, bark, foliage, sap, roots and wood can all have wonderful scents. Aromatic resins, woods, spices and herbs from the East had to be transported by boat and/or caravan. Precious and costly, they were offered as gifts to gods or emperors. In the Bible, the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts for a king or a god.

The earliest records refer to the use of fragrance in religion. Perfumed woods and resins were burned as offerings to the gods in ancient China, Egypt and Palestine. The aroma was believed to purify the body and to bridge the gap between man and god. Later, scented flowers, plants, and resins were mixed into vegetable oils and used by rich and poor in an effort to connect with the gods. Fragrance, they believed, could heal the body and make it more perfect. Some 5,000 years ago Egyptians were using large amounts of myrrh and 2700 years ago the Greeks used spices incense, perfume, and aromatic medicines. In the 1st century AD, Rome spent vast amounts of money on thousands of tons of fragrance every year. Early air fresheners such as potpourri, or incense were used to impress visitors. As the early civilizations sank into decadence, fragrance was used at orgies, as an aphrodisiac. Thus was the sacred was made profane.

At first the plants themselves were used, but soon, men learned to extract the vital essences, called essential oils from certain plants. Around 1,000 AD an Arabian physician, perfected the process of making Rose water by distilling oil from rose petals, and the distillation process was born. The concentrated essences produced by this method were easier to store and transport. They were used for healing and rituals, or to make incense and perfume. The oils, along with spices, gold, and jewels, were considered very valuable and were traded throughout the world.

People noticed that some fragrances affected the mood, alleviated certain conditions, relieved pain, or induced sleep. Gradually, the unique qualities of each plant and fragrance were recognized, and people began to devise ways of using them that have become traditional. For instance, herbs with a restful fragrance such as lavender were used in the rinse water when laundering bed linens and made into sachets to put with the clean bedding. Those that repelled insects, such as camphor and cedar for moths, were hung amongst clothes or left in other strategic places. During the Great Plague of London, grave robbers protected themselves by using a blend called Four Thieves. The reason it worked so well was probably not because it could cure or prevent the plague, but more likely that the lavender it contained repelled the fleas that carried the germs.

Women have worn aphrodisiac scents as perfume for centuries to tempt, or tease the object of their desire. Legend has it that Cleopatra soaked the sails of her boat in jasmine oil, a potent aphrodisiac, when she went to meet Mark Anthony. That’s not the only reason that people applied aromatics to their bodies though. They also used them to keep their skin healthy and beautiful and to protect it from sun damage. They also used benzoin, cedar-wood, juniper and thyme to banish evil spirits, which nowadays, we would call healing emotional or psychological problems.

Knights returning from the Crusades (1100 1300), brought back spices, ointments, and essences from the East and the perfume industry began in Italy and flourished for the next 200 years. Aromatic plants were used during epidemics to disinfect and protect. "Fragrance balls" filled with musk, amber or other resins were carried by the wealthy. Though the Church protested, people indulged in sensual baths with exotic perfumes that hinted of carnal delights. Elizabeth of Hungary used Hungary Water - rosemary extract mixed with alcohol. This was the first alcoholic perfume, the ancestor of today's eau de cologne.


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In the Middle Ages, aromatic plants known as strewing herbs were scattered (strewn) over the floors with reeds, rushes or straw. When walked upon, the herbs released a pleasant aroma. They often had disinfectant or insect repelling properties that would help keep fleas, lice, weevils and other pests away. Some (e.g. lady's bedstraw and lavender) were also used to stuff beds and pillows. Examples of strewing herbs include: chamomile, costmary, camphor, germander, cowslips, daisies, fennel, hops, hyssop, juniper, lady's mantle, lavender, marjoram, meadowsweet, mints, pennyroyal, southernwood, sweet flag, sweet woodruff, rose petals, rosemary, rue, sage, tansy, thyme, violets, basil, melissa and winter savoury. Mints, particularly pennyroyal repels fleas and ticks. Sweet woodruff, chamomile, melissa, lavender, thyme and juniper are all insect repellents while sage, rosemary and basil have insecticidal properties. In the gardens, aromatic lawns and paths composed of a mat of herbs such as chamomile, or thyme, released their scent when walked upon, and the ladies' trailing skirts absorbed the oils and aromas. Similar herbs were planted in the tops of carved stone seats, to release scent when crushed by the sitter.

During the 1500s, the perfume industry flourished in the south of France which had the right climate for growing plants such as tuberose, jasmine, cloves, and lavender, brought from India and Persia. Perfumers worked to satisfy the constant demands for fragrance from the French courts, where secret formulae were closely guarded. As hygiene was poor and bathing considered dangerous, fragrance was a necessity. It wasn't until the late 19th century that regular (weekly) bathing was practised. New fragrances arrived from America and India: cocoa, vanilla, Peru balsam, tobacco, pepper and cardamom. At the court of Louis XV it was mandatory to use a different fragrance every day.

In 1792 the first true cologne was developed - at Cologne, Germany. It was a citrus blend called 4711, and is still worn today. The original recipe for 4711 belonged to a French monk, who had taken refuge with the wealthy Mulhens family in Cologne. He gave his secret recipe for "Miracle Water" (with supposed healing powers) to their son Wilhelm as a wedding gift. Wilhelm saw the potential and promptly started taking orders. The name came from the address of the Mulhens family home! Napoleon and Josephine were both fond of this scent.

Fragrant baths became popular again during the1800s, as did delicate fragrances on linen, clothes and handkerchiefs. By the end of the 19th century, the new Amiddle class: were using original fragrances such as heliotrope and vanilla. The first synthetic scents, the aldehydes were created - coumarin (new mown hay), musk and violet - fresh, energetic fragrances were popular with the flappers of the Roaring Twenties. By 1932 we see an interest in night scented flower gardens, aromatic herbs, wild flower scents, and fragrant grasses and ferns. During the 50s, the first eau de toilette for men emerged and by the 70s men were routinely using fragrance.

Today, there are many fragrances available to enhance every mood or occasion - and they come in various different forms. One can set a party mood by spraying citrus scents around, or light a vanilla candle for a restful evening at home.

Let the traditions of fragrance work for you.

By Sylvia Richards 18th May 2009

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NOTE: The writer is not a medical professional. The information in this article and on the Spiritual Haven web site is NOT medical advice. Consult a trained doctor or aromatherapist before attempting any treatment. We are not responsible for any misuse of information posted on this site.


© 2009 Sylvia Richards All rights reserved