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The Garden Gate: Things always rosy for perfumes

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The history of perfume parallels the history of civilization. For almost as long as there have been human beings, people have used many and varied ways to capture the scents of flowers and plants to use when the real ones were not available.

Many primitive people used smoke perfumes. Aromatic plants, tree resins and fragrant herbs were burned, and garments and other textiles were held in the smoke to perfume them. Some American Indian tribes still do this as a ceremonial ritual. This, of course was the beginning of the development of incense.

Perfume substances were a large part of the embalming process used by the ancient Egyptians. The Bible is full of references to scents and perfumes made from flowers, herbs, tree resins and other plant materials.

Most of the perfumes used by the ancient Jews were imported. The Ishmaelites brought balm and myrrh to Egypt. Frankincense was carried by caravans from southern Arabia. Cinnamon, cassia and aloes came from India.

From the Egyptians, the Greeks learned the custom of strewing their rooms with roses, decorating their banquet tables with flowers, scenting their wine with spices and making their persons and homes fragrant with perfumes concocted from flowers. They later taught this to the Romans.

In the beginning, this use of scents and fragrant flowers was connected to religious ceremony. It was also a form of primitive sanitation. Scents and spices were believed to purify the air, help maintain health and keep away evil spirits.

Housewives strewed their rooms with black hellebore, which scented the air and was believed to break the spells of witches and magicians. In his series, “Enquiry Into Plants,” Theophrastus wrote a book about odors in which he explained how rose perfume is made. Before him, Aristotle hinted at the process of distillation which the Arabs, many centuries later, were to discover and perfect.

The use of perfumes and cosmetics is as ancient as human vanity. The Old Testament contains constant references to their use. The Book of Esther mentions “oil of myrrh, sweet odors and other things.” Ahasuerus bestowed these on Hadassah for her purification.

Proverbs tells of the “strange woman” whose bed is perfumed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.

The Song of Solomon has many allusions to perfume. When Solomon traded with Hirman, King of Tyre, perfumes and cosmetics made from flowers, herbs and spices were among the cargoes on his expeditions. We also read that Jezebel, wife of Ahab, “set her eyes in paint.”

The Greek demand for perfumes and spices indicates a thriving industry. The flower and spice industry flourished in Athens, Cos, Corinth, Cyprus and Ephesus. Alexandria became the most famous of all the perfume centers. Greek literature constantly mentions this traffic, even telling us the names of two famous perfumers, Peron and Megalus.

Megalus blended a scent compounded of burnt resin, cassia, cinnamon, myrrh and oil of belanos, called Megaleon. From quince blossoms and sweet marjoram was made a perfume called Melenum, for which Cos became very famous.

Ephesus produced its own popular scent. Rhodes made a perfume called Melenum. Another was made from Iris rhizomes and smelled much like violets. Still another perfume was made from the peel of pomegranates. In many of the blends, rose oil was a prominent ingredient. A perfume made especially for the King of the Parthians, so Pliny writes, required 37 ingredients.

Oil of roses is still a principal ingredient in the compounds of modern perfumes. Many acres of roses are annually grown in Grasse, France, and in Bulgaria for this purpose. Rose water is used as a flavoring for food in many Middle Eastern countries.

In the ancient world, frankincense and myrrh were among the most valuable commodities there were. We would now equate them with gold and diamonds.

Knowing this, it is perhaps not surprising that these substances were among the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child.

Many modern perfumes are based on these ancient formulas. Incidentally, it takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to make 1 pound of virgin attar of rose, or rose oil!

No wonder some perfumes can be so very expensive!

However, you could make a very simple form of rose water by boiling a large quantity of rose petals in water until the water is reduced to about half or less than the amount you started with.

Any variety of rose can be used, or an assortment of varieties. The scent of roses has always been the most popular of any scent throughout history. Roses have been used to produce attar of roses, rose water, rose potpourri, rose sachets and rose-colored dyes.

There is even a popular saying that things are coming up rosy. We don’t even have to wait until summer.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.