The Perfume of the Ancient Egyptians

30 Mar 2017

While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the first ever perfume, historians know most about cultures that documented and recorded their lives. That is the reason we know so much about the Ancient Egyptians, even though there is little doubt the use of perfume started thousands of year earlier.

The Egyptians' use of perfumes for personal and religious purposes was prolific, and symbolised one of the most valued aspects of life. In temples all over Egypt there are visual references to Ancient Egyptians preparing and then applying their perfumes.

On top of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (above) there was originally a line of Myrrh trees, specially imported at enormous expense.

In their personal lives, the Ancient Egyptians associated perfume with positive health and well being, using what was known as oil-based salves, and in religion, it was their way of connecting with their Gods.

Nefertum was the God of Perfume (as well as the God of the Lotus Flower, and the God of Aromatherapy!). Incense was also very frequently used, and was produced in small pellets that were then burned to release their fragrance. The word "Perfume" even stems from the Latin "Per Fumum" meaning "Through Smoke".

When Julius Caesar defeated the Egyptian armies to secure the Egyptian throne in 47 BC he allegedly marked his victorious return to Rome by throwing bottles of precious perfume into the jubilant crowd. These had been seized by his armies whilst in Egypt, and point to the fact that at this time, Egypt was a respected leader in the creation of perfume.

So what were the popular fragrance combinations of this period? Probably the most well loved was Susinum which was a perfume based on lily, myrrh and cinnamon. Also favoured was Cyprinum which combined henna, cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh and southernwood, and Mendesian which was a blend of myrrh and cassia, together with a mix of assorted gums and resins. The name Mendesian was derived from the ancient city of Mendes and for a while, the perfume was made exclusively there. Later, it was also blended in other locations, but the original version from its first location was considered the best.

Most ingredients were derived from plants and flowers, but animal fats were sometimes also used to create a perfume. Ingredients were mainly sourced locally by crushing plants and flowers, and grinding rinds and skins to release aroma elements. At this time there were no absolutes available as solvent extraction was not yet possible. Nor were there essential oils as distillation of these did not begin until the 17th century.

Tree extracts were sourced by cutting into the bark and extracting the sap from plants such as Frankincense, Myrrh, Styrax, Opopanax, Tolu Balsam and Peru Balsam. Fresh flowers were used but perfume creators were limited by the constraints of seasonal availability. To release the fragrance, it was burned and in this way, it also helped the fragrance reach the Gods.

The use of specific ingredients was often dictated by their cost as fragrant materials were extremely rare and costly with the best reserved for Kings, Pharaohs and religious ceremonies. It was extremely hard to locate some fragrant materials as most countries produced just one or two materials. The world was a vast place and sourcing ingredients was a mammoth task. Even when ingredients were found, teams then had to be dispatched to gather and transport them back which was not only costly, but time consuming. It’s not an accident that Frankincense and Myrrh were given prominence alongside gold. When Queen Hatshepsut was buried, her temple was decorated with a row of Myrrh trees that had been specifically imported - an immensely expensive and extravagant act.

It’s also important to understand that perfumers in Ancient Egypt worked very differently to perfumers today. Rather than spending time compounding many and varied smells in the hope of creating something unique and appealing, these perfumers were knowledgeable artisans who worked with a clear focus of what they intended to create. Many ingredients were used for a specific reason - perhaps to please the Gods, or to help preserve the soul. Each oil, gum, resinoid and unguent would be added for a particular purpose or function.

The Ancient Egyptians created beautiful and artistic alabaster bottles in which to store their perfumes, and there is also evidence that blue glass bottles may have been used for this purpose with art and carvings of the time depicting beautiful vials.

So we have to wonder, does our love of fragrance hark back to the time of Ancient Egypt? Certainly the idea of creating a scent from blending different oils remains true to this day, as does the desire to package and store them beautifully.

Are you fascinated by scent? We create our own bespoke fragrances here in Bourton-on-the-Water, all made by hand in our workshop. The Cotswold Perfumery is also home to a broad range of gorgeous gifts as well as our full range of bespoke fragrances. To find out more, call us on 01451 820 698.

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