Making Sense of Scents

Archive for the ‘Mysteries’ Category

Running rings around competition

Now that the Olympics are upon us I can tell a little story. I have worked for two years at an archelogical dig in Cyprus where the oldest perfumery in the world was “snared” by earthquake.


A dead Ringer!

Working with some of the aromatics ground in nearby pits I was able to put together some unguents which would likely be used by athletes in the ancient Greek Olympics. The pale skinned Greeks did their thing naked, but protected themselves by smearing scented olive oil all over their physiques…hence the expression “bronzed Adonai!”

Two years ago I took the idea to the Olympic Committee in Canary Wharf and even suggested that we could make a small phial of the unisex fragrance to give to each of the 30,000 athletes- a nice little souvenir from Britain.

Guess what? They wanted thousands of pounds from me just to launch the idea.

When I explained that I didn’t need to use the words “Gold”, or “London”, or “rings” or ” 2012″….that it was in fact a historic fragrance of the ancient Olympics…it cut no ice. Money it seems not only talks but it runs, vaults and swims as well.

Result? Nothing happened. Not only did I not have the money to do anything but I simply didn’t have the muscle to take on the battery of lawyers ” protecting our so-called “Olympic legacy”. (which seems to me to have no legs)


Bird Brain

 It is said that during mass migrations birds rely on three senses. Firstly, they hold a mental map of the terrain from a high vantage point, and thus can visually guide themselves on.

 Secondly, a sixth sense seems to use the earth’s magnetic field, or rather the fluctuations in it, to keep a sense of location during flight.

 Thirdly, birds have been proven to associate certain smells with their home region. Aromas drifting for miles high up at the level of bird flight can be detected by these creatures. The identification of the scent- it could be of the sea-coast, or of an industrial landscape, and a judgement of the prevailing wind direction, can help the bird home in on home.


Love the idea…but there are not many incense bearing  trees in China …frankincense and myrrh come from mainly around the Horn of Africa- Somalia, Ethiopia, Dhofar….not a sign of ’em in ancient Beijing:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure- dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea,

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

 And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

 Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree:

 And here were forests ancient as the hills,

 Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Kubla Khan

0r, a vision in a dream

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Xanadu- did a fabulous city need to be walled? Was it to keep dreams in or barbarians out?

I’m incensed!

In Japan they use around two dozen raw materials to make good incense. The key ingredients are:








Star Anise



Aloeswood (also called Eagle wood or Jinko)

Depending on the mix incense can either energise you or relax you (As in transcendental meditation.) It’s a mind- altering drug that just happens to be legal!

Alchemists sought the elixir of youth. The quintessence, the essential vital life force of nature that he could absorb into his very being to assume divine status.

  It was said to be composed of the four elements earth, fire, air and water. Plants and trees have their roots in the Earth, where they draw up Water and nutrients. Their stems seek the Air, and their blooms the Fire of our Sun for photosynthethis. The nature’s factory then sets to work to create marvellous biochemical exotica within the plant – essential oils. It is this soul of the plants that we capture, nurture and use in the appreciation of perfumes.

Mind altering drug

Holy Smoke II

The Holy Bible is full of animal sacrifice. (Indeed some religions still practice the ritual slaughter of animals )

We did this when we became more”civilised,”  replacing human sacrifice with animal life (although in some cases, as with the Wicker Man of the Druids, both species were consigned to the flames!)

When we became even more civilised we replaced animal life with plant life. Good incense (such as that from Baiedo Japan) is made purely from natural flora (roots, saps, balsams, woods…).


Holy Smoke!

The ancients believed that the only thing which could cross the physical barrier between Heaven and Earth was the smoke of incense. Indeed perfume takes its name from the Latin “per fumare” which means “through” or “by” smoke. If you prayed to your God, whatever his or her name, and you wanted your prayers to be answered favourably, it made sense to “sweeten” your request with the magical smokes of burning aromatics.
Here’s my take on that: (Oh! and by the way Onycha is crushed operculum (door) from a certain Mediterranean snail which helped “fix” the mix.  Still used in the Middle East.)


The censer burns with charcoal bright,

As on its aromatic flight,

Incense to the heavens winds,

And with sweet words a promise binds.

Dark, smoky tongue that breezes waft,

A fragrant wisp that mounts the draft,

This messenger with breath divine,

That calls the Gods and makes them mine.

I cannot fail in love or war

As Myrrh on heated coals I pour,

And Frankincense to charge the mix,

With Galbanum the scent to fix.

Onycha crushed will make complete

My Mercury on wingéd feet,

Who stirs the Gods above the cloud

And passes on my prayer endowed.

Hear Ye! A mortal stands below,

My plea is made; it’s time to show

Pray manifest and succour me

Repay my sacrifice to thee.

Fire, fire burning bright

I really do miss the aromas that come from a good wood fire- and indeed the differences depending on the type of wood used and the state its in. Here’s my poetic take on this:


In these days of pristine central heating

You can keep yourself as warm as toast

But there’s nothing to beat

A woodfire’s heat

And of fine smells they really can boast.

Juniper is the firewood of my choice

Mixed with apple and cherry tree too

A clean tang springs from birch

And for holly I’ll search

But old oak makes a shrine of the flue.