Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens, “Smell”
“A sigh isn’t just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can.”
Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh
Having temporarily lost my sense of smell (and consequently taste) I started wondering how acutely I have been affected by this condition. Not being able to rely on my olfactory map has made me feel quite helpless. I started researching the topic a little bit and came across a quote by Helen Keller, who compared the sense of smell to a “potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” I have always had a special reverence for the sense of smell and I decided to investigate a bit where its potency comes from. Perhaps smell has a subtle sort of power that consciously we are inclined to underestimate. We much more readily sympathize with a person who has lost any other senses than the sense of smell.
Here come a few scientific facts that I have collected. The sense of smell is the most primal sense and the first one to develop. We acquire it while still in the mother’s womb. It seems to be crucial for our survival and as such it is related to the base chakra. Furthermore, the smell receptors are to be found at the base of the brain. All olfactory experiences pass through the limbic system, which is the unconscious, emotional area of the brain, also responsible for the formation of memories. One of my favourite writers, Marcel Proust knew that smell could be the royal road to the unconscious memories etched in the dark recesses of our minds:
“…when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.”
There is something primal and animalistic about the sense of smell, something moist, dark and unconscious. To this day it remains the most elusive of the senses, the hardest to be completely scrutinized by science. In the animal kingdom, the record for the most potent sense of smell belongs to the bear. Symbolically, this is very interesting, as bears are primal and, I would say, the least ‘civilized’ of all creatures. To me, they are synonymous with the power of the wildest heart of nature. Their periodic hibernation may be compared to the need of the human soul to periodically be reclusive and to go deep within oneself to find insight.
Ted Andrews says that the keynote for the symbolic meaning of the bear is “awakening the power of the unconscious.” Snakes are also said to possess a potent sense of smell. They do not have noses, but a smelling organ inside their mouths. When the snake is flickering its tongue it is actually collecting data (scent particles) for this organ.
When the unconscious awakens, when the coiled snake at the base of the spine starts to rise, its movement resembles the rise of incense smoke towards the higher realms of the spirit. Incense has been used in rituals in all cultures and religions.
The power of incense is rooted in the earth and it climbs to heaven, putting those present at the ritual in a state of mystical participation and carrying their prayers across to the gods and goddesses. Incense can transcend the worlds and travel to the great beyond. Incense is not unlike the ancient ambrosia, the food of the gods, which was said to exude a divine fragrance and was brought to Olympus by doves, and was thought of by the Greeks as a divine exhalation of the Earth. Titius Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet and philosopher wrote that the soul is part of the body just as scent is part of frankincense. Indeed, smell does seem to have a direct connection to the soul. In Hebrew, the words “smell” and “spirit” are directly related as cognates, while smell is considered the most spiritual of the senses in the Kaballah.
The ancients realized the power of smell. Their gods were described as fragrant, especially Aphrodite, whose “ambrosial locks” were “fragrant with heavenly odour,” as poet Virgil put it. Gods brought inspiration with their divine scent (in spirare – breathe, inhale). Europa was seduced by Zeus (disguised as a white bull) chiefly because of his sweet smell that overpowered the fragrance of the whole meadow. Smell and seduction have always gone hand in hand. According to science, smell is the number one factor for women influencing their choice of a partner. I can believe that. The seductive power of smell is the theme of the most famous and sensually delightful novel about scents: The Perfume by Patrick Süskind.
The protagonist creates a scent that will give him tremendous power over all human kind:
“He had used only a drop of his perfume for his performance in Grasse. There was enough left to enslave the whole world. If he wanted, he could be feted in Paris, not by tens of thousands, but by hundreds of thousands of people; or could walk out to Versailles and have the King kiss his feet; write the Pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah; be anointed in Notre-Dame as Supreme Emperor before kings, or even as God come to earth.”
Further on he says something very significant:
“For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they couldn’t escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who couldn’t defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”
Symbolically, the smell in the novel can be likened to Tolkien’s ring of power: both are associated with potency and black magic used for evil purposes.
For this and other reasons, in antiquity, scent was a valuable commodity. Frankincense was one of the three precious gifts brought by the Magi for baby Jesus. The tree that is harvested for frankincense is called Boswellia Sacra.
As we can read in Wikipedia, these trees “are considered unusual for their ability to grow in environments so unforgiving that they sometimes grow out of solid rock.” The sweet aroma of frankincense is a product of harsh and unforgiving conditions. This gives us hope that the soul can flourish in any circumstances and beauty is born in most unusual places.
Cities, like people, have their own unique smells, which is exuded by their souls. I have argued with some of my friends about the smell of Venice, which I found immensely pleasing, while some of them could not stand it.
Venice, fish market, image credit: http://www.old-picture.com/europe/Chioggia-market-Venice-Italy-001.htm
In a TV series “Game of Thrones,” Shea, a female character says she gets aroused by the odour of the city, which smells of “dead bodies and shit; of cum and garlic and rum.”
The cities in the Middle Ages were not particularly fragrant, as described in a book Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Gone were the aromatic days of ancient Romans, daily anointed with excessive amounts of perfume by slaves in public baths:
“European cities were often filthy places in earlier times. Streets served as conduits for refuse of all sorts – food remains, human and animal waste, blood and entrails of slaughtered animals, and dead cats and dogs to name some. … Most streets were made of dirt, which would mingle with waste products to produce a sticky and malodorous muck.”
I am under the impression that most Western cities are slowly losing their souls, which is getting replaced with synthetic, commercialized fragrances. I feel that in order not to lose our attachment to Life we need to actively pursue natural smells. Finally, have you ever wondered what space smells like? According to astronomers, the building blocks of life that they are researching at the heart of the Milky Way taste like raspberries (my favourite fruit) and smell like rum (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/apr/21/space-raspberries-amino-acids-astrobiology).
Ted Andrews, Animal Speak
Titius Lucretius Carus, Of the Nature of Things
Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synnott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell
Scott Cunningham, The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews
Marcel Proust, The Swann’s Way