Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell"

Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell by Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnot covers several key topics in smell reading. It begins historical data that summarize how smell appeared in ancient times through the Dark Ages up through recently. It includes a survey of anthropological observations, and a summary of some of the commercialization of smell in modern times. First published in 1994, the book is a very useful introduction to topics that have recurred in the small but possibly growing literature exploring a variety of aroma topics.

Classen notes the many uses of perfumes, fragrant unguents, incense and other burned aromatics, spices, beds of rose petals, and many other odor conditioners of the Romans. While modern people see distinctions between perfumes, incense, products rubbed on the body, and spice or flavorings added to food, the Romans often used the same products as incense, food additives, drugs, and perfumes; that is, in a sense, they ate or drank perfume, used incense or perfume as medicine, and otherwise blurred the lines as we see them.

The role of aromatics in Romans' lives contrasted with the many unpleasant smells of their cities and industries -- such as the use of urine in tanneries and even laundries. A fascinating observation: that the shellfish used to dye garments the well-known royal purple color left a fishy odor on the cloth that had to be masked by various fragrant smokes or powders put on clothing.

The early chapters of Aroma particularly stress the role that aromatics like incense and the smoke from animal sacrifices played in ancient religions and early Christianity. Specifically, the Roman gods loved incense -- like many ancient Mediterranean gods they ate nectar and ambrosia, a cross between incense and food. Spicy, exotic aromas were associated with religious experience. The early Christians at first rejected this, wanting to make their new and more reserved faith different from the old religion. The Church, however, eventually added incense back into the sanctuary and added the concept of a holy odor that distinguished saints even after death -- the odor of sanctity. Only the devil stank.

While the Romans loved bathing extended with lots of perfumes, unguents, etc. later people virtually gave up bathing and used perfumes to cover the rather appalling odors of their bodies, feet, breath. The puritans purified things by opposing the use of perfume.

In the chapter on medieval through modern times, I enjoyed her description of a medieval kitchen. Its odors not only included the smoking hearth but also refuse, spoiling food, sweating cooks and servants, dogs turning the spits on the fire, and animals waiting to be slaughtered or actually being killed prior to cooking them. Pungent sauces or vinegar served to mask putrid meat; their odors blended with those of spices, herbs, garlic, onions, wine, meat, cheese -- nothing refrigerated. Such were the smells of the medieval kitchen.

Classen's chapter on anthropological observations inspired me to read about the Andaman islanders, which I wrote up here: The Spirits Can Smell You. Her observations are interesting, and  have been expanded by later writers.

She describes how the Victorians defined the senses -- sight was for men like explorers and scientists while smell was feminine and associated with women, savages, animals. Smell symbolized intuition, irrationality, and sentiment. Her discussion of how modern advertising of beauty aids and personal care products has driven current western attitudes to odors is interesting, but I have read more penetrating analyses of this area.

I am getting ready to return all the books I have from the library, so I hope to make a quick set of brief notes on some of them before they are out of my hands.

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