The Magical History of Perfume

A few years ago I read the e-book: Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume by Mandy Aftel. What I loved most about this little book was how well-written and descriptive it was. Aftel writes about scent in such beautiful language, that the book itself begins to take on a magical quality.

This is fitting for the subject matter, which includes a catalog of the history of perfume, and describes the magical/spiritual significance scent has held for humans throughout time.

“From earliest times,” Aftel writes, “people have taken pleasure in rubbing fragrant substances into their skin. Timeless and universal, scent has been a force in ritual, medicine, myth and conquest. Perfume has helped people to pray, to heal to make love and war, to prepare for death, to create.” (1)

Aftel makes connections between perfumers and the traditions of alchemy, a magical practice which was both scientific and philosophical. Both processes aimed to transform “physical matter into divine essence.” (1)

My first experiences with perfume as a child were unexceptional, though the idea of perfume attracted me very much.  The curved glass bottles looked like jars of magic potion. Expensive perfumes were also one of the fancier presents my Dad would give mom at Christmas time. In my childhood mind perfume appeared to be a valuable, feminine possession.

Nevertheless, the kiddie perfume, and department store samples I came across as a girl failed to impress. I’d spritz them on imagining the powerful allure they would give me, only find myself coughing, or with a headache several minutes later.

Thus, my foray into the luxurious world of scent did not begin until years later, when I discovered essential oils quite by accident. My experience with the oils since that day, a few years ago when I took my first wiff, has been nothing short of magical. I will detail this experience in another post.

Aftel’s book mirrored my journey from cheep drug store perfumes to essential oils. In her historical analysis of perfume, Aftel describes the commercialization of perfume with the introduction of synthetics. These new chemicals changed the chemistry of the perfume significantly and, I believe, sucked the magic right out of them.

Fortunately, Aftel writes, “The popularity of aromatherapy has introduced a new generation to natural essences of excellent quality and has made these materials widely available for purchase” (2). Thank goodness for that!

All that is needed to unlock the magic of natural scents, Aftel asserts, is “an appreciation of the history and spirit of the essence themselves” (2). In future posts I hope to further explore the magical power of scent, and how it can be used to improve and beautiful daily life.

Have a magical day!