A Story of Senses: Smell


"Here first she bathes; and round her body pours Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial showers: The winds, perfumed, the balmy gale convey Through heaven, through earth, and all the aerial way: Spirit divine! whose exhalation greets The sense of gods with more than mortal sweets. (...) Gazing he spoke, and, kindling at the view, His eager arms around the goddess threw. Glad Earth perceives, and from her bosom pours Unbidden herbs and voluntary flowers: Thick new-born violets a soft carpet spread, And clustering lotos swell'd the rising bed, And sudden hyacinths the turf bestrow, And flamy crocus made the mountain glow There golden clouds conceal the heavenly pair, Steep'd in soft joys and circumfused with air; Celestial dews, descending o'er the ground, Perfume the mount, and breathe ambrosia round: At length, with love and sleep's soft power oppress'd, The panting thunderer nods, and sinks to rest."

- The Illiad of Homer, Book XIV


This morning, like most other mornings, I made coffee - usually I do the traditional East Mediterranean coffee (using this term intentionally so I may not be the one who bears the responsibility of starting a new Balkan War by calling it Greek, Turkish, Bosnian or something else). It takes a little more time but the whole point of the coffee ritual here is that one is not to rush and to pour and drink it at least until noon. Before one even takes the sip, what one feels is the coffee's scent - in my case, as it is dibek coffee (the coffee beans are crushed manually and not with a grinding machine), the slightly acid odour comes first, the coffee's top notes, and if one is to remain with the smell longer, the warm spicy middle notes will begin to show, the sour scent of the ground that remains at the bottom is its base scent.


Describing and identifying scents is a beautiful little exercise . For most people, the little exercise reveals how deeply they doubt themselves. Before they even feel the scent, they decide they will not be able to identify it. A lot admit, consciously or not, that their analytic mind will not help them in identifying the scents. They also admit that they must rely on something else to finish the task successfully yet few know what it is. An easy way to guide the beginner through the experience is to help them to empty their minds, have them trust themselves and paint an image. For example a person may describe a scent as: "A beauty cabinet, a bathroom of an old elegant woman who has a beautiful, airy apartment full of antiques and who frequents art galleries", usually it means the scent is a white floral (jasmine, lily of the valley and similar scents) with some woody, green or earthy notes. I like to use CaCharel's "Anais Anais" in this exercise because I yet have to see one person who smells it and does not say "grandmother's make up bag!". The fresh spice and aromatic notes of the perfume add to the association. Our minds know the connections and associations and they are revealed the very moment we trust ourselves to know. White florals have elegant, fresh and soothing scent, green and earthy are easy, ancient, rooted - gentle earth is grandmother, who else it can be in our minds? As I have pointed out, the image people paint in their minds is often a correct one, and the confidence and pride they gain is sweet to see, the enthusiasm shows up and they want another perfume or soap or scent to identify.

 

The Time

"When, with closed eyes, on a hot afternoon, The scent of thine ardent breast I inhale, Celestial vistas my spirit assail; Caressed by the flames of an endless sun.

A langorous island, where Nature abounds With exotic trees and luscious fruit; And with men whose bodies are slim and astute, And with women whose frankness delights and astounds.

By thy perfume enticed to this region remote, A port I see, laden with mast and with boat, Still wearied and torn by the distant brine;

While the tamarisk-odours that dreamily throng The air, round my slumberous senses intwine, And mix, in my soul, with the mariners' song." - "Exotic Perfume", Charles Baudelaire Smells, scents, perfumes, usually invoke a certain image. For most people, it is much easier to paint an image when identifying a scent than to actually say whether it is musky, leathery, floral, white floral or something else. To identify scent with perfume terminology, one needs at least basic knowledge of perfume, but to paint an image, we only need our minds.


Most images that we paint in our minds are derived from past experiences, expectations of future, a combination of both, or it can be a more complex image created from multiple impressions that events, hopes, books, music, philosophies, ideals, and many other things have left upon us.


It is however, probably, most common for the scent to invoke memory. Within it, the scent carries a little element of time. It takes just a little stimulation and people begin to speak fondly of grandmother's garden, of a Christmas Eve or of a school trip by the sea. An invitation to the past is also an invitation to know ourselves - a scent invokes an image and we may also be inclined to ask: "Why this image? What is it in me that so dearly loves the scent of warm butter baking with pastries? Of the lilac garden? Of the late summer's evening and the dry scent of the cut golden sprouts of wheat?"

 

The Alchemy & Magic

A 1618 Mughal miniature of a courtesan and her two attendants

"Those perfumes whose scent is strongest get the best hold on the skin head and other parts of the body, and last for the longest time: such are megaleion, Egyptian perfume and sweet marjoram-perfume. Those on the other hand which are weak and have not a powerful scent, since they are volatile and evaporate, also quickly come to an end; for instance rose-perfume and kypros. There are some however whose scent is even better on the second day, when any heavy quality that they possessed has evaporated. Some again are altogether more permanent, as spikenard and iris-perfume, and the stronger​ a perfume is, the longer it lasts. Again some perfumes for some reason keep their scent in the bath when the body is relaxed, or at least do not help to produce a disagreeable effect; while others become disagreeable and cause an even more unpleasant odour than the sweat, as though some sort of decomposition or decay took place." - "De Odoribus", Theophrastus


A scent is never alone - it is inherently interactive. The same perfume may feel different on different people simply because their natural skin scents are different. You may not know what is your natural scent but other people feel it, and if you are curious, you can ask them. I am told to have an earthy scent. "Like white flowers that grow on moist rocks of forests", so I was told - in perfume terminology, it is the above mentioned white floral & mossy woods (patchouli, oakmoss, amber and similar scents). I intuitively never liked sweet, overly floral, fruity or "gardeny" perfumes, and generally lean towards amber, vanilla, woody & spicy. I felt that the letter don't interact nicely with my own scent. I have noticed in other people that intuitive tendency too - they seem not to be fond of perfumes that are too far off their natural scent.


No wonder then that perfume is so often seen as akin to magic and even alchemy. Other people leave their scents on us, our daily actions leave a scent too. How common is the scene in film or literature in which a woman can tell a man has an affair just by the fact she begins to feel the new perfume around him? The perfume's interactive nature will also have it create a third, new scent out of combination of the two, or the many that we come in contact with.


Its magical potency is perhaps most visible in the many stories of beautiful women, goddesses who put on a perfume as if it were a magical potion that is to help them acquire their own magical powers and accomplish their goals or reach their targets. No ritual is complete without an incense - and even our most mundane of daily rituals of baths, dinners, or putting on clothes appear incomplete without a beautifully scented soap, a scented candle or a dash of perfume.

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