Friday, August 9, 2013

Egyptian Perfume History


Today in Perfume History: Ancient Egypt
Perfume was at the center of aesthetics and therapeutics for both men and women in Ancient Egypt. Although the techniques used are mostly unrecorded, historians look to the literature of Greek and Roman writers and relief paintings and artifacts to determine the production, fashions and uses of perfume in this fascinating era.

The act of making perfume was considered an art form in Ancient Egypt. The crafts person was considered to be an artist and the profession was open to women as well as men. The perfume making process of extraction can be determined by reliefs on the walls of tombs in Petosiris. These show that perfume making had an overseer, workers who completed the extraction and a professional tester who completed rigorous testing using the sense of smell.

However, the Egyptians had typically exotic tastes, and in addition to home grown essences, they also imported aromatics such as ladanum from Arabia and East Africa, galbanum from Persia, and the coveted frankincense due to unsuccessful attempts to grow it in Egyptian climes. The fact that ingredients were imported even in ancient times shows the importance of perfume. The imported varieties were expensive and initially reserved for the use of the gods or export only.


Egyptian perfumes were usually named after the town of production or the main ingredient. Storage was in glass or stone vessels, with alabaster being the most coveted. The decoration was ornate and often bejeweled, with packaging reflecting modern day requirements of functionality and attractiveness. Perfume was burnt as incense, as named in documents from the reign of Thutmose III which detail different varieties such as green incense and white incense. Perfume was worn for aesthetic reasons, in the form of oil based liquid infusions, or wax and fat for creams and salves. This suggests there was also a medicinal purpose recognized.

Perfume was mainly for the elite classes until the golden age. It was used by kings who were believed to be of divine descent as it was believed that the gods favored perfume. High officials were anointed with perfume when they were appointed to office to call the favor of the gods.

Incense was used to hide the smell of animal sacrifice during ceremonies. Balms were seen as medicinal as perfume was thought to repel demons and win the favor of the gods. Perfume was also an important part of death and burial rites. Bodies were perfumed during mummification as it was believed the soul would visit the gods and so perfume would repel demons. Interestingly, 3300 years after Tutankhamen death, scent could still be detected in his tomb.
(pictured above is of a frankincense tree)