Philobiblon: Have a good sniff

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Have a good sniff

I'm one who always tends to the nurture side on those endless nurture/nature child-raising arguments, so I like to think I'm pretty well switched on to an awareness of cultural constructs, yet I was pulled up short by the following paragraphs:

"Smell is not simply a biological and psychological phenomenon ... Smell is cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon. Odours are invested with cultural values and employed by societies as a means of a model for definiting and interacting with the world. The intimate, emotionally charged nature of the olfactory experience ensures that such value-coded odours are interiorized by members of society in a deelpy personal way...

"The devaluation of smell in the contemporary West is directly linked to the revaluation of the sense which took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The philosophers and scientists of that period decided that, while sight was the pre-eminent sence of reason and civilization, smell was the sense of madness and savagery." (p. 3-4)

This is from Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott, Routledge, 1994. Good smells and bad smells it seems, are not just a biological fact.

The first half of the book -- all I've managed to read thus far -- is an historical survey, with some great details, e.g.

* The Persian king Darius III had in his retinue 14 perfumers and 46 garland-makers. (p. 16)

* There's nothing new about what we think of as one of our latest extravagances, perfume for dogs. For a favourite dog, a prescription from Athenaeus: "Strew then soft carpets underneath the dog ... and with Megalian oils anoint his feet." (p. 19)
(Megalium, the great creation of the Roman perfumer Megallus, was made of balsam, rush, reed, behen nut oil, cassia and resin.") (p. 15)
For much, much more, see Pliny.

* "Queen Elizabeth I (of England) preferred her apartments to be strewn with meadowsweet ... Rosewater and sugar boiled together made the room of Edward VI smell ' as though it were full of roses', while rosemary and sudar perfumed the chambers of Queen Anne. George III is said to have used a pillow filled with fragrant hops as an aid to his slumber." (p. 65) (Nothing new about all of those microwave wheat pillows then ...)

* When the Great Plague sent the price of herbs and other perfumes soaring, the poor had to make do with what they could, a well-tarred rope, perhaps, or "socks from's sweating feete". (p. 61) Eau de Cologne was too originally a plague preventative. (p. 73)

... to be continued ....


Blogger melinama said...

The whole idea makes me shudder. Scratch-and-sniff gone awry and all the perfumed soaps - they've made my nose a hermit. I like my smells one by one, and related to the things that emit them.

3/15/2005 12:09:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I know what you mean, although I do have an excellent strong shower gel containing real mint and real tea tree oil that makes me think aromatherapy can work - it certainly helps me wake up in the morning.

3/17/2005 04:04:00 pm  

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