Making Sense of Scents

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

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…).


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.

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.

My lack of IT knowledge has to date meant that I can’t copy from my book and make images larger which in turn makes some of them hard to read. Equally I guess it’s a kind of safety net for copyright issues. But to respond to one question here’s the Sinbad tale again in readable form

Sinbad’s other tale


The Sperm it feeds on cuttlefish,

By all accounts a tasty dish

But not the bones that stomach cut

And form great scars upon the gut.

Which when the whale has had enough

And promptly sickens of the stuff

Ejects this morass on the sea,

Where “mermaid’s gold” awaits for me.

As Allah’s gift is worked upon,

By wind and waves, by rain and sun,

To give aromas of delight

Which sets the nose of man alight

And this I sell for princely sum

In Basra’s market, where all come.

Alas, I cannot tell this tale,

Of Ambergris which comes from whale.

I need protect my trade you see,

And thus a story tell to thee.

 Of abyss-edge, where fiery pits

Throw out the ambergris in bits,

So only bold will venture forth

And sail to East, West, South and North.

For with such dangers on the sea

Much safer ’tis to buy from me,

And rest assured they all come back

For nature’s aphrodisiac.

I praise my God for this bounty,

So wondrous made upon the sea.

Smells ‘R not us!

A rabbit has 100 million smell receptors

A dog has 220 million

We miserable humans have around 10 million receptorsl

Sharks may be able to track their prey by smell from up to a mile away, following a trail of microscopic particles of protein and blood. Some species can smell one molecule of blood in over one million molecules of water – equal to one drop of blood in a very large size Jacuzzi.

When it comes to smell, we really have taken leave of our senses.

Helen Keller was deaf  and blind. Because of this she appeared to have  a more acute sense of smell. Here’s one quote:

“Touch sensations are permanent and definite. Odors deviate and are fugitive, changing in their shades, degrees, and location. There is something else in odor which gives me a sense of distance. I should call it horizon–the line where odor and fancy meet at the farthest limit of scent. Smell gives me more idea than touch or taste of the manner in which sight and hearing probably discharge their functions. Touch seems to reside in the object touched, because there us a contact of surfaces. In smell there is no notion of relief, and odor seems to reside not in the object smelt, but in the organ. Since I smell a tree at a distance, it is comprehensible to me that a person sees it without touching it.” 

However,  later tests with her demonstrated that she appeared to have no more a sense of smell than others in possession of all five senses,  it may simply be that the loss of two senses- the two dominant ones in humans of vision and hearing, may provide for a different kind of “appreciative mechanism.”

Simply put, she was more aware of her sense of smell as she didn’t have to cope with the blizzard of information hitting all five senses at once.

Use it or lose it. Stop and smell the roses. Close your eyes every now and then and smell the life of the garden.

Other comments she made:

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.

The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard.

Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.

Even as I think of smells my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away”.

Helen Keller