Perfumes of Antiquity

Orientalische Basarszene


By J. Ch. Sawer, F.L.S.

PROBABLY the word "perfume" is derived from 'per fumum, " by the aid of smoke," and originated in that most ancient custom of burning resinous substances and aromatic woods in religious ceremonies, thus creating an odoriferous smoke, which was doubtless of advantage in the early form of worship as a disinfectant or deodorizer in counteracting the offensive odours of the burning flesh of the offerings. In other countries where animals were not slaughtered and burned, the incense no doubt acted on the mystical imagination of the worshipper, its overpowering vapours throwing him into a religious ecstasy conducive to the belief in the acceptance of his prayer as he observed the gradual ascent of the smoke from the altar and its dispersion in space.

The incense ordered for the service of the Tabernacle, to be burned in a censer and on the Altar, consisted of Stacte, Onycha, Galbanum and Frankincense in equal parts.

Stacte (o-ra^T^), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word f)i (nataph), signifies a liquid exudation, or something fluid. Pliny describes it as the natural exudation of the myrrh-tree, flowing without the tree being punctured, and more esteemed than myrrh itself. Theophrastus also mentions two sorts of myrrh, one liquid and one solid.

Onycha is the Hebrew SchecheUth, " odoriferous shell." It is the operculum of a species of Strombut, formerly well known- in Europe under the name of Blatta ISyzantina, found in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea, from which latter the Israelites no doubt procured it. It is occasionally to be seen at the Custom House of Bombay, where it is imported to burn with incense in the temples, not so much on account of any pleasing odour of its own as to bring out the odour of other perfumes. It is a white transparent shell, resembling in shape the human fingernail ; hence its Greek name owt, onyx, a finger-nail. It is generally believed that the fish inhabiting this shell acquires its peculiar odour by feeding on a species of Indian Nard.

Galbanum .-n;Sn (Chelbenah). The word signifies something unctuous, and evidently applies to a balsam. According to some authorities it is a fine sort of galbanum found on Mount Amomus in Syria, differing entirely from the ordinary galbanum now used in medicine, of which the odour is anything but sweet. But the fashions of this world change, and if we, in our day, find no sweetness in galbanum, saffron, and spikenard, it is no reason why the ancients did not, and no reason why Orientals should not, even now. At the present day the Persians call asafoetida "the food of the gods," the Russians delight in caviare, and the Esquimaux in train oil.

As an example of the preservation of ancient Jewish customs, galbanum still forms one of the ingredients of the incense now used in the Irvingite chapels in London.

Frankincense.—This is largely imported into London under the name of Gum Olibanum, and is used principally in the manufacture of incense for the Roman Catholic and Greek Churches. The Greek word Aifavor, the Latin Olibanum, the Arabic huban, and analogous words in other languages are all derived from the Hebrew hebonah, which signifies milk, in allusion to the sap of the trees, which, before becoming dry by exposure to the air, has the appearance of milk. This drug was imported into China from Arabia as far back as the tenth century, and is still imported to an enormous extent at Shanghai to this day, under the name of Ju-siang, meaning perfume of milk, being always in allusion to the meaning of its Hebrew name hebonah.

Olibanum is derived from several species of Boswellia, indigenous to the hot arid regions of Eastern Afriea, the southern coast of Arabia, and some parts of India.!

The trees vary greatly in height, averaging about twenty feet; their form is very graceful, and when springing from a massive rock on the brink of a precipice their appearance is very picturesque.

The harvest of this drug in Southern Arabia is thus described by Carter:—"During the months of May and

t An enumeration and description of these trees is given by Birdwood in the "Transactions of the Liunamn Society," xxvii., p. 8, and in the "Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society," ii., p. 880.

December longitudinal incisions are made in the bark; the cuticle and adjacent parts then become shining and distended. When the gum first begins to run it is white as milk, and according to its degree of fluidity runs down to the ground or concretes on the tree near to the incision. It is then collected by the families owning the land." According to Capt. Miles (" Jnl. E. Geograph. Soc," xlii., 65), the gum is not collected by the inhabitants of the country, but by the Somalis, who come over in large numbers from the opposite coast and pay a tribute to the Arabs for it, gathering it themselves. He considers the Arabian Luban inferior to the African.

As found in commerce, olibanum varies greatly in quality and appearance. It occurs in the form of rounded fragments of a pale yellow and sometimes reddish colour, also in pale yellow or nearly colourless distinctly pearshaped tears, sometimes stalactiform and slightly agglutinated. It is always of a mealy surface covered with a fine white dust, and even where this is wiped off the tears appear translucent and milky. The fracture is splintery; the odour faintly balsamic; the taste bitter.

These four ingredients would doubtless burn readily if cast on the fire of the altar, and probably burn with a flame, but to develop a smoke the ingredients should burn slowly, or smoulder. If burned in a censer an incense of this composition would very likely go out by melting into a solid lump. In modern incense the difficulty is overcome by adding pulverized charcoal and nitrate of potash, but Moses does not specify any other ingredient.

In the description of the composition of the holy incense given in the Talmud (Book " Cheritoth "), we find the words "borith Carshina," which are usually translated "soap of Carshina," but soap would form a very bad ingredient for incense. Soap was unknown to the Jews, and the word "borith" ("is) is more likely to refer to a natural alkaline production of Judfea, somewhat similar to the Egyptian "natron" or "nitrum," or to the nitrate deposits of Chili. Such an addition to the ingredients would supply the oxygen necessary for combustion.

From Ex. xxx. 2:2-38 we find that the holy anointing oil for the service of the Tabernacle, was composed of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia, and olive oil. The word myrrh is derived from a Hebrew word, signifying in French amer, and in English bitter. It is also said to be derived from the Arabic word mur. The Greek equivalent is o-pvpva. The ancient Egyptian word Bola or Bal, and the Sanskrit Vola, are yet preserved in the Persian and Indian names Bol, Bola, and Heera-Bol, well-known names of myrrh. Myrrh is a gum-resinous exudation from the stem of the Balsamodendron myrrha, collected in Arabia Felix and Abyssinia, a spiny shrub of which there are at least three distinct species. Good commercial myrrh is in irregular-shaped masses of a reddish-brown colour and slightly translucent. It has a dull irregular fracture and an aromatic and characteristic odour. The Bissa-Bol, which is an inferior quality and much adulterated, was formerly called East India myrrh and is of African origin, but the plant furnishing it is unknown, although it is said by the natives to much resemble the tree yielding the Heera-Bol or true myrrh. The variety from which the ancients principally drew their supplies was probably that of Southern Arabia; this has the same odour as ordinary myrrh, and is not distinguished from it in English commerce by any special denomination.

The " sweet cinnamon," called " kinnamon " in the Old Testament and KtvdfictijMv in the New (Rev. xviii. 18), is Ceylon cinnamon.

The "sweet calamus" (Keneh bosem); the "sweet cane" (Keneh hotteb, Jer. vi. 20), and "calamus"

(Kaneh, Song of Sol. Iv. 14, and Ezek. xxvii. 19) is, according to some authorities the Andropoynn Calamus aromatkus of Royle, which is synonymous with the Andropogon Schienanthus of Linmeus, and known in India as Roosa-grass and in London as "Ginger-grass." This grass grows wild in Central India, in the North-West Provinces, and is abundant everywhere in the Deccan. It has recently been found on the Hurnai Railway route in Baluchistan (Lace in " Jnl. Lin. Soc," xxviii., 296, Aug., 1891). At the present day this grass is largely used for the distillation of its oil, which is employed in the adulteration of otto of rose.

It is, however, very probable that the " sweet calamus" was the Androjwyon laniyer (Desfontaines). This plant has a wide distribution, extending from North Africa, through Arabia and North India to Thibet. It is the

\ a-'/oub; apcv[x.arikOi of Dioscorides and the Herba Scbamanthus and Juncus odoratus of Latin writers on Materia Medica. The Arabic name is Izkhir, which signifies stored-up forage. It has also been called Foenum Camelorum, from its use in dry desert tracts as a forage for camels. When cattle eat much of this grass, the milk becomes 3cented. Lemery, commenting on Pomet (" Hist, des Drogues"), says that "this is a kind of fragrant rush or grass growing plentifully in Arabia Felix, at the foot of Mount Libanus. The stalk is about a foot high, divided into several hard stems, of the size, figure and colour of barley straw, being much smaller towards the top. The leaves are about half a foot long, narrow, rough, pointed, of a pale green colour. The flowers growing on the top are arranged in double order; they are small, hairy, and of a carnation colour .... all the plant, and particularly the flower, is of a strong smell and bitter taste."

The other odoriferous ingredient in the holy anointing oil, Kiddah (Exodus xxx. 24), is translated cassia. In Psalm xlv. 8 it is called Ketzinh, and here, undoubtedly, Cassia liynea is meant. This is the bark of the Cinnamomum Cassia, a forest tree of China. Another variety called Malabar cassia, is exported from Bombay; this is thicker and coarser than that from China. These barks resemble cinnamon in many of their qualities; the smell and taste are nearly the same, but loss sweet and more pungent, but the substance is thicker and the appearance coarser and darker than cinnamon. All these barks contain a very aromatic volatile oil and a resin.

La the holy anointing oil the proportions of these aromatics, as indicated by Moses (Ex. xxx. 22-38), are 500 shekels of myrrh, 250 of sweet cinnamon, 250 of sweet .calamus, and 500 of cassia; to these were to be

I added 1 hin of olive oil. Although we here have the formula of this compound, the mode of making it is not described, and it is difficult to conceive how 1 hin of oil, which is about 9| pints, could hold in solution so much

I solid matter, the total weight of which, 1500 shekels, is equal to about 47 lbs. Such an amalgam would onlyproduce a very thick paste, and the oil was evidently intended to be liquid, as it was not only ordered to be used for anointing the altars and utensils of the Tabernacle, but was commanded to be used for consecrating the High

I Priest, by pouring it on to his head in such abundance as

j to run down his beard and impregnate the skirts of his garments (Psalm exxxiii. 2). Probably the odoriferous properties were in some way separated from the ligneous matter before mixing with the olive oil.

Several other aromatic substances used in the early ages have been the theme of modern investigation and dispute. The substances were sometimes made up in the form of ointments, which were lavishly used by the rich,

! not only in their toilet but also as a mark of distinction bestowed on guests. Aromatics were likewise burned during their entertainments, and perfumes in a dry form were used to impart a sweet odour to their garments (perfumes which were probably necessary, as they did not eat with forks, and soap was yet undiscovered). Odoriferous substances were used for preserving the bodies of the dead; myrrh and alo?s wood were in this mixture, which was very likely an unguent. The Spikenard ointment is said to have been of many ingredients; the word nard is derived from the Tamul word nar, which is used in India to designate many odoriferous substances, such as ndrtum pillu, Indian verveine; ndrum panel, jasmine; ndrta manum, wild orange, kc.

The "Nardinum" which was so very fashionable in Rome, both as an oil and as a pommade, was made from the blossoms of the Indian and Arabian nard-grass (according to Briker's opinion and researches). This would seem to refer to the Andropogon lanvjer above mentioned, and not to Nard ,stachi/s Jatamansi, as generally believed. The flowers of this latter are white and odourless, the rank perfume being only developed in the root.

As is the case generally in hot climates, oil was used by the Jews for anointing the body after the bath, and giving to the skin and hair a smooth and comely appearance before an entertainment (Ruth iii. 8, Prov. xxvii. 9, 16, Cant. i. 8, iv. 10). Strabo says the inhabitants of Mesopotamia use oil of sesame, also castor oil. At Egyptian entertainments it was usual for a slave to anoint the head of each guest as he took his place, castor oil being sometimes used; Egyptian paintings represent this custom. The Greek and Roman usage will be found mentioned frequently by Homer, Horace and Pliny. Athena?us speaks of the extravagance of Antiochm Epiphanes in the matter of ointments for guests (Wilkinson, "Ancient Egypt," 78).

Creech, in his annotations on Lucretius (Lib. IV. 1128), says: "Moreover they arrived at length to an excess of curiosity in regard to their ointments that was indeed wonderful; for Athena?us (Lib. XV. cap. II.) reports that 'they grew so nice as to require several sorts of ointments for one single unction, viz., Egyptian for the feet and thighs, Phoenician for the cheeks and breasts, Sisymbrian for the arms, Amaratine for the eye-brows and hair, and Serpylline for the neckband knees.'" But above all the rest, we may observe that the ancients made use of one sort of oil or ointment of great value and singular excellency ; it was called Oleum Susinum, and made of lilies which in the Phrygian tongue were called
Pliny describes the lily that is called yjivov to be of a ruddy colour (Nat. Hist., lib. XXI. cap. 5). Elsewhere, Pliny (Hist. Nat. XIII. 2) says, "Oleum Susinum was made of oil of Ben " (or Behen, a colourless, tasteless and inodorous oil expressed from the seeds of Morini/a ptertisperma, now naturalized in the West Indies—an oil which never becomes rancid and does not corrode steel, for which reason it is used in modern days by watchmakers as a lubricant), "roses, honey, saffron, cinnamon and myrrh." The amount of perfume used in the palmy days of Rome was enormous; the wealthy patricians were most prodigal in this respect. The perfumers were called Unguentarii, as they principally compounded unguents, and must have done an immense business. In Rome they congregated in a quarter called the " Vicus Thuraricut." The most celebrated perfumer in the time of Martial was a certain individual named Cosmus, whom Martial frequently mentions.

At Capua there were such a number of perfumers, that the principal street of the city, named Seplasia, was almost entirely occupied by them. For the most part, these tradesmen were Greeks, and, as at Athens, their shops (taberna) were the rendezvous of the rich idlers of those days. The perfumed oils and ointments were made in great variety. The basis of the oils was generally the oil of Ben above-mentioned", and that of the unguents was a bleached and partly purified tallow. They were used not only for the hair, but to anoint all parts of the body, especially after the bath, which was quite a complicated process. It was also customary at banquets to honour the guests by pouring costly perfumed oils over their feet. Same of these were simple oils, such as Rhodium, made from roses; Melinum, made from quinces; Metopium, from bitter almonds; Narcissimum, from the narcissus. Perhaps the most fashionable oil after the Oltum Susinum abovementioned was that called Crocinum, made from saffron (Crocus), which communicated both a fine colour and odour to the person; Heliogabalus never bathed without it. Butter is noticed by Pliny as used by the negroes and lower classes of Arabs for anointing their bodies. The natives of India prefer strong perfumes for this purpose, and use oil of santal and oil of patchouli. Savages also grease their bodies, but probably with the idea of being enabled to escape more easily from the grip of an enemy.

In the words of a classical writer on the manners and customs of the Romans, " The bath was a most important event in every-day life . . . Bodily health and cleanliness, although its original object, had long ceased being the only one; for the baths, decorated with prodigal magnific;nce and supplied with all the comforts and conveniences that a voluptuary could desire, had become places of amusement, whither people repaired for pastime and enjoyment."

Comparing the ruins of ancient baths with each other, and with the accounts of Vitruvius and Pliny, we find the essential parts of a Roman bath to be:—I. The Spoliatorium, a place where the clothes were left and consigned to caprarii, which were probably pegs, so called from their likeness to horns. II. The Frigidarium or cold bath room. III. The Tepidarium or tepid bath room. IV. The Caldarium or hot bath room, which was probably connected with the Unctorium or anointing room. The Sudatwn or sweating room was connected with the Caldarium. Those who desired to use the bath through all degrees of temperature, sought first to give their bodies the preparation which was considered necessary, by some sort of light gymnastics, ball-play and the like. The baths were always provided with rooms suitable for this purpose. Persons would then probably enter first the Tepidarium, in order not to be exposed suddenly to the heat of the Caldarium, where they were anointed with oil (Celsus I. 8), and it' is probable that this was the place generally assigned to that operation, although we read of special Unetoria. The anointing with oil took place both before and after the bath; and even after they had already stepped into the bath, they sometimes left it again to be anointed a second time, after which they again betook themselves to the bath. The bathers took the oil with them to the bath (or rather the slave carried it) in phials of alabaster, gold and glass, as well as the striyiles or scrapers, and the lintea, linen cloths, to dry themselves. In the early days people were content with a simple pure oil, but at a later period costly salves as above described were the fashion. No doubt people anointed themselves at other times besides the bath, in order to reek of perfume the whole day through. (Geneca. Ephist. 86.)
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Even the clothes were anointed with aromatic oils (Jur. III. and Martial VIII. 8, 10).

The luxury and magnificence of the Romans were manifested in the construction of their public baths more than in any other building; they were embellished with eheft-d'auvre of sculpture and painting, and the floors were paved with slabs of marble and inlaid with mosaics. It is estimated that 870 baths we?e open every day to the public, and rich people possessed private baths of their own, which were even more sumptuous and extravagant in their method of conduction.

The Romans were not acquainted with the use of regular soap, but they employed an alkali, with which the greasy dirt was dissolved out of their clothes. This alkali, called nitrum, is referred to by Pliny XXXI. 10; but the cheapest solvent was urine, which was mostly used; the clothes were put in this, mixed with water, and then stamped upon with the feet; this process was performed by old people, whilst boys lifted the clothes out of the tubs. The white garments, after being washed, were subjected to the vapour of sulphur—being stretched on a frame, and the sulphur burned beneath.

Poor people in Rome cleansed their bodies with meal of lupins, called lomentum, which, with common meal, is still used in some places for that purpose.

Soap, as we understand the old English word sope (from the Greek sapon and the Latin sapo), was first introduced by the Gauls, who found out a way of making it from goats' tallow and the ashes of beech-wood. This was, no doubt, rather caustic, but it was uncontaminated with colouring matters and the deleterious perfumes put into common soaps of the present day. The soap was made into balls called " Pilse Mattiaca," named alter the town wbere it was manufactured—" Mattiacum" (modernized Marpurg). The French appellation of soap, "savon," seems to be due to a seaport town called Savona, near Genoa, where at a later period, most of the soap for the European market was manufactured.

The Romans, not content with swamping themselves with perfumes at their baths, their toilettes, and their banquets, loved to be surrounded in a perpetual atmosphere of scent, and used, as we use a handkerchief, to dry the perspiration from the forehead, a fine linen cloth called a sudarium, saturated with perfume.