Ancient & Modern: Theophrastos ‘On Smells’ 45.5-7

“Then as now perfumes make good scents”

διὸ καὶ οἱ μυροπῶλαι τοὺς ἐπιδιστάζοντας                               5
καὶ μὴ ὠνουμένους παρ’ αὐτῶν ἐπιμυρίζουσι τούτῳ
<τῳ ῥοδίνῳ> πρὸς τὸ μὴ αἰσθάνεσθαι τὰ παρὰ τῶν ἄλλων.

The reason the perfume vendors smear any reluctant buyers
who may be hanging back with essence of rose is so they
won’t perceive the scents emanating from other perfumes.

Theophrastos On Smells 45.5-7

Remind you of walking into the luxurious foyer of Neiman-Marcus on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile?

There that chokingly beautiful parfumeuse, who stands smiling and eager to drench you in the latest olfactory concoction, will give your proffered wrist a quick squirt.  As Theophrastos already knew some 2,300 years ago, perfumes seem to be sweetest when they rise from the wrist of the hand (ἀπὸ τοῦ καρποῦ τῆς χειρὸς ἥδιστα φαίνεται [53]) and that is why the perfumers smear this part of the body (οἱ μυροπῶλαι τοῦτο μυρίζουσι τὸ μέρος [53]) with the fragrances and fantasies they are trying to sell.

He also recognized what all perfume chemists know, namely that “perfumes activate our sense of smell as soon as they are rubbed on the skin” (ταχεῖα δ’ ἤδη ἡ αἴσθησις τοῖς μύροις ἀναμιγνυμένοις τῷ χρωτί [53]).  In this connection, Theophrastos thought (42) that Egyptian perfume, marjoram and nard (τὸ αἰγύπτιον καὶ τὸ ἀμαράκινον καὶ τὸ νάρδινον) were among the most suitable for women, for what they are all really looking for in a perfume is that it maintain its scent through time (ζητοῦσι [γὰρ] τὰ χρόνια [42]).  Pour les hommes he recommends, among others, colognes based on essence of white lily (τὸ κρίνον  to krinon).

This ancient polymath, born around 370 BCE, pupil and friend of both Plato and Aristotle (what an education that must have been!), wrote, by one ancient count, over 220 books on every imaginable subject under and beyond antiquity’s sun – ethics, physics, metaphysics, botany, meteorology, fire, politics, law, rhetoric, oratory, personality types, religion, medicine, sense perception – and smells.  As successor to Aristotle at the Lycaeum and chief scholar of the Peripatos, he apparently would lecture to some 2,000 students at a single sitting, even outdoing such massively popular courses at our own universities as Western Civ, Elementary Psych, or Judeo-Christian Tradition (of course, Theophrastos – lucky guy! – didn’t have to correct students’ cribbed papers).

But back to perfumes.

My brief here is not to light an incandescent debate with various groups occupying a broad ideological spectrum and incensed at the very notion of perfumes and artificial scents, but merely to illuminate the fact of what seems to me a not unreasonable interest among some ancients in smelling good.  Consider, for example, poor Menelaos in the Odyssey (4.438-46) as he lies overwhelmed by the acridly pungent aroma from the pelts of seals he and his companions are hiding under to surprise and catch that protean Old Man of the Sea, Proteus.  The latter’s daughter, the goddess Eidothea, places an immortal balm (ἀμβροσίην … /ἡδὺ μάλα πνείουσαν ambrosia wafting ever so sweet [445-6]) under the nose of each man and thus kills off the stench (ὀλοώτατος ὀδμή truly devastating odor [442]), thus quite literally, according to the hero, saving their lives (ἐσἁωσε esaōse [444]).  And a fixed ritual after the Homeric bath is the glistening body rub with olive oil (e.g., Odyssey 3.466: ἔχρισεν λἱπ’ ἐλαἱῳ… ekhrisen lip’ elaiōi).

It is clear from other passages in ancient literature that perfume and the perfumer were social fixtures.  Before Aphrodite, for example, tells her brazen lies in order to seduce Anchises (Homeric Hymn 5 [to Aphrodite]), she has the Graces wash her and lotion her with an agreeable immortal oil (61-3:  Χάριτες λοῦσαν καὶ χρῖσαν ἐλαίῳ / ἀμβρότῳ).  And in classical Athens we find a character in one of the speeches of the orator Lysias (24.20) referring, before a jury of his fellow citizens, to a perfume shop (perhaps a functional analogue to our ‘drugstore’) with the same easy familiarity that he uses in speaking of the barbershop, the shoe store and other small retailers.

And not surprisingly, finally, in erotic elegy we find Meleager pheromonally characterizing lovely Demo’s χρῶτα τὸν ὑπναπάτην khrōta ton hupnamatēn ‘skin that cheats away sleep’ as a ‘breath of perfume’ μυρόπνουν muropnoun (A.P. 5.197-2).

A similar interest among at least some moderns in smelling good is, then, not without considerable historical human as well as divine precedent.  I for one confess that a kind of serendipitous pleasure I derive from reading and looking at glossy fashion magazines like Allure or GQ or Vogue and that entire diverting tribe is peeling back those strip inserts or marginal fold-overs on perfume advertisements.  I would like to believe that Theophrastos would have understood me.

Now if you are one of those people who are into smells and perfumes, and you ever find yourself handling an account for a new scent, why not cull Theophrastos On Smells and call your product Aigyption or Amarakinon.  Or, better yet, call it Ambrosia:  You could build an entire marketing campaign around this ancient, ancient perfume of the immortals.

POSTSCRIPTUM
My self-confessed ‘thing’ with scents is covered further in an earlier post that looks rather closely at a kind of ‘proto-scientific’ understanding in classical antiquity of the mechanism of ‘smell’ – Lucretius – the Biochemistry of Olfaction and Scientific Discovery.

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