Perfume is thousands of years old. One of the oldest uses of perfumes comes from the burning of incense and aromatic herbs, often the aromatic gums, frankincense, peppermint, henna, cinnamon, juniper, ginger, rose, myrrh, and others, all gathered from nature, thus the word perfume – per fumum, Latin for through smoke. Africans were the first to incorporate perfume into their culture followed by the ancient Chinese, Hindus, Israelites, Carthaginians, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans. They soaked aromatic wood, gum, and resins in water and oil and used the liquid as a fragrant body lotion. In the history of Perfumes most will say that the next development in perfumery were the introduction of unguents. Here again, it is well recorded that the San people of Southern Africa also made unguents by using dried and powered leaves of Buchu mixed with sheep fat to anoint bodies. The use of ochre to anoint the body also goes back in history to the earliest of times. When exactly we can only speculate, but it is known that at the site of Blombos Cave in the Eastern Cape, archaeologists have discovered two pieces of ochre with engravings on them. These engravings consist of geometrical crosshatch designs and both have been dated to approximately 75000 years ago, making them the oldest known art on Earth. The fact that they were collecting and processing ochre for ritualistic purposes, can lead one to speculate that perhaps unguents were also made 75 000 years ago in South Africa as it was such an integral part of the culture. Other fragrances used in Southern Africa included; kukumakranka-flowers, and the seedpods, wild geranium, evening flower of the Sandveld, wild freesia, wild jasmine, to name but a few. To this day there are ancient tortoise shell bags, of yesteryears, filled with fragrant solid perfume. The use and artistry in perfumery, of years yonder, extends to many other parts of the African Continent. Literally from Cape to Cairo.
The earliest recorded use of perfume bottles dates back to around 1000 BC in Africa. Africans invented glass and perfume bottles were one of the first common uses for glass. They also used gold, hard stones, alabaster, ebony, porcelain and other materials to make their perfume containers. Africans took pride in the beautiful containers that held their perfumes. These perfume bottles were also things of great beauty.
Alexander the Great (so the west proclaims) brought perfume to Greece after invading Egypt in the 3rd century BC, and the Romans took on the Greek’s perfume culture when they invaded Greece. In the meantime, Islamic, Chinese and Indian cultures had been using perfume as part of their religious and social rituals as well. Perfume was held in high esteem in Biblical times and there is frequent mention of fragrance in the Bible. Moses was commanded in Biblical times to “take unto thee sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum…with pure frankincense…And thou shalt make it a perfume.” In the New Testament, the three wise men carried gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. It is said that the Muslim prophet Mohammed wrote, “Perfumes are foods that reawaken the spirit.”
In Egypt Africans, fastidious in their personal habits, took elaborate baths, which were the forerunners of the luxurious bathing establishments of the Greeks and Romans. They soaked their skin in oils because it gave them pleasure, and helped protect their bodies from the drying effects of the torrid sun. Egyptians created many scented creams and emollients. They would shape them into cones and would melt them to cover their hair and bodies. Bathing was an enjoyable, social pleasure. Many Egyptians put perfumes in their tombs to keep their skin silky smooth in the afterlife. Since many believed that the soul ascended into heaven, relatives saw to it that perfume accompanied the spirit. Urns encrusted with gold, jars of delicate pottery, and chalcedonies filled with aromatics were placed in the tombs. So potent were some of the oils used, that 3,300 years after Tutankhamen’s death, a trace of fragrance in the tightly sealed pots of unguents could be detected when the tomb was opened.
Today’s natural ingredients—flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves, gums, and animal material—as well as resources like alcohol, petrochemicals, coal, and coal tars are used in the manufacture of perfumes. Some plants do not produce oils naturally. In fact, only less than 1 percent of known flowering plant species contain these essential oils. Therefore, synthetic chemicals must be used to re-create the smells of non-oily substances. Synthetics also create original scents not found in nature.
Animal substances are often used as fixatives that enable perfume to evaporate slowly and emit odours longer. Other fixatives include coal tar, mosses, resins, or synthetic chemicals. Alcohol and sometimes water are used to dilute ingredients in perfumes. It is the ratio of alcohol to scent that determines whether the perfume is “eau de toilette” (toilet water) or cologne. Cologne is a weak formulation, typically containing anywhere from 2 to 5 percent essential oils in a base of mostly alcohol but also water, whereas eau de toilette contains approximately 5 to 10 percent fragrance oils.
The ancient Greeks and Romans learned about perfumes from Africans. Trade between Crete and Egypt was healthy and symbiotic. After being taught by Africans the Greek Theophrastus of Athens would then be able to discuss the various carriers of scents, the essential oils and their plant origins, and even the effect of various scents on our moods and thinking processes to other Europeans. He was also taught how we perceive scent, and the connection between the perception of odours and taste. The sense of smell is considered a right brain activity, which rules emotions, memory, and creativity. Today aromatherapy—smelling oils and fragrances to cure physical and emotional problems—is being revived to help balance hormonal and body energy. The theory behind aromatherapy states that using essential oils helps bolster the immune system when inhaled or applied topically. Smelling sweet smells also affects one’s mood and can be used as a form of psychotherapy.
By Themba Ka Mhlanga