Smell – A Potent Wizard

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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).

Sources:

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

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56 Responses to Smell – A Potent Wizard

  1. I adore this Monika!
    Will return later to comment.

  2. renatembell says:

    Insightful and fun. Thank you for this post! I purchased a bottle of 100% pure frankincense a week ago, and opened it again now with a new perspective and appreciation. I’d love to go on a mission to space, even more so now! Yum.

  3. Marie Taylor says:

    Two thoughts on this post (which I enjoyed). 1: Perhaps the bear’s strong aroma ties in with its status as one of the earliest and most powerful totem animals among primitive man. Men could actually smell the bear near them. 2: They say the seat of intuition lies in the pituitary gland which rest just above the nose. Was it Hamlet who said, “Something’s rotten in Denmark.” or, we say we can smell a rat. The nose brings us information at a subconscious level that we then have to decode.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughts, especially the quote from Hamlet, which I should have included, as I know this play almost by heart. About the bear, I made a mistake: I meant that it had the most potent SENSE of smell.

  4. stephen says:

    Frankincense, dhoop, damp earth, my first girlfriend (who smelled musky, a bit like marijuana), coffee, green tea, gasoline, dust, leather, old books, the sea . . .but my favorite smell is the smell of new fallen snow.

    I once lost my ability to taste sweet for about four months, so I feel for your loss of your sense of smell. I hope it returns soon.

  5. I detect an odor of excellence; quality post with great references!

  6. jupiterbeings says:

    Lyall Watson also wrote a book about the nose/smell I believe.

  7. Tom Tykwer’s film adaptation of Perfume was marvelous! Filled with metaphor regarding the essence of beauty and the descent into soul. Our senses link us to our animal natures and connect us to the earth. What a wonderful reminder of one way we can ‘sense’ our world!

  8. Love the rising snake / incense wafting comparison. Beautiful. Studies of the senses always fascinate me. This one right up there! Thank you, Monika.

  9. Don says:

    The connection between the sense of smell and memory has always fascinated me. On numerous occasions a certain fragrance has taken me back to a past experience. I used to have a book which belonged to my mother and long after her death I could still smell her perfume on it. It eventually dissipated.

    I also found Tom Tykwer’s film profoundly moving. I was absolutely mesmerized by it. An outstanding post Monika. So deeply informative and earthy – primal first Chakra stuff. Thank you.

  10. I have read so little about this subject. Leave it to you to take the sense of smell and elevate it to such a lofty level. I am glad your senses are returning! When I was younger I think my sense of smell was limited. could not smell many of what my family could,like flowers. My sense of taste was fine though. In my 30s I think it returned and in some ways became too pronounced as I have heightened sensitivity. This is a double edged sword. Smell can be intoxicating, but unlike most senses, it cannot be easily removed or ignored. When my ability to smell improved, I began to really enjoy it, incense, candles, spices, coffee, barbeque, did I say coffee? (one of my favorite smells).. I think it is linked with survival because so much of biology and earth is linked to scent. Here’s to another year of magic at Symbolreader!

  11. Soul Fields says:

    What a delightful post giving refreshing and new (to me) perspectives to smell. I too am loving it!

    Speaking about the ethereal smells: My mother has sometimes asked me, if I have sent her energy (having a free power attorney for that for her :D, well, and of course energy transmissions always respect the free will in all the cases), because she had suddenly received a smell of roses. And I had…

    I hope you receive your sense of smell back soon.

  12. Fantastic post! I hope the malady is, indeed, temporary. Have you answered the question: What does space smell like? Hmmmm

  13. herongrace says:

    I don’t have a good sense of smell, but I have found something interesting, is that to me different races of people have different smells. Not strong odours, but subtle as in pheromones detecting these differences. I think it’s long term D.N.A. factors of their skin, long term dietary differences, but to me Italians smell very different from Japanese, who will smell very different from Celtic peoples. I can see a photo of someone and have some idea of how their skin will smell. I don’t want to sound strange here! I think it helps explain why we get attracted to some types. For me it’s certainly not just a visual attraction, but a pheromone thing.

    • Thank you for an interesting comment. I also think that there is something like an olfactory signature, both for individuals and for groups, as you suggest. The idea of pheromones is so interesting – I totally buy it.

  14. Pingback: January Challenge… My Awakening Experience and Moving On: Divine Gifts | Through the Peacock's Eyes

  15. One of my most favorites senses! Thank you for a beautiful article, and all of the lovely quotes, images and references! Have you read “A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman? If you haven’t, I recommend it. She’s a brilliantly sensual and richly evocative writer.

  16. ptero9 says:

    A great topic Monika! I am immediately struck by how personal and intimate smells can be. We make jokes and comment about the smell of great cooking, but not much more than that.

    Love the whole post but am struck too by the association of smell with memories and with certain people. Smell in a memory seems like a really strange phenomena to me. How can the smells be so precise even in one’s mind, and yet, there they are.

    The nose knows…and I guess the bear does too. The bear was one of several animals that I wanted to be when I was quite young. Something about the closeness to the ground, which seemed natural to my four-year-old self.
    xxx
    Debra

    • I love this: “The nose knows.” Sounds so poetic. About smells and memory, I experience this connection really very often. I catch myself thinking about the past and then I realize the whole thought process was provoked by a smell. That is always quite mystifying. I somehow feel the bear totem suits you.

      • ptero9 says:

        Isn’t it strange to be drawn in by a smell, especially in a memory?

        The Jungian analyst I worked with had polar bear totems in his office and that is how I knew I could work with him. There was a level of comfort there.

        I’ve never done a past life regression, seems somehow too scary to me, but it does make me wonder 🙂

      • I would love to do a past life regression but I have not met the right person for me yet.

      • ptero9 says:

        That would be important. I would want to do a little more reading first too…

  17. Gneiss Moon says:

    This is so lovely, thank you.
    I drifted into reverie for a moment… I have a keen sense of smell (via Venus aspects) and remember as a small child my aunt would ask me how things tasted or smelled. She was born without either sense and was curious about how her carefully crafted meals tasted (she followed recipes to the letter), if her cut flowers in the vase were too strong.
    I remember her surprise when I told her Dove soap was all I could smell, (she had a small house, two bars fairly close) and opening a window would help the ‘stuffiness’ (it was summer and she was locked up tighter than a jug) and bring more variety to the sensual experience.
    Up to that point I had no reason to dwell on the thought of senses, I found the whole discussion fascinating. Wonderful post, thank you

  18. I find that whenever I meditate, incense always helps me get into a heightened state. Over the past year, I have attended several Jewish havdalah rituals, where a spice box is passed around and everyone takes turns breathing in the aroma. It definitely has an effect on you that is difficult to describe. Thanks for another great post!!

  19. shreejacob says:

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful knowledge on smell. I’m not too sure how my sense of smell is…I guess I haven’t really paid attention to it…and so now I feel I must!
    I liked the second quote from the book Perfume…about how smell and breath are brothers!
    In Indian cultures, women got their nose pierced because it is supposed to help heighten the sense of smell which in turn make them better cooks!

  20. I read that book Perfume, intense.

  21. Karin Van den Bergh says:

    Reblogged this on Ruby Slippers & the Yellow Brick Road and commented:
    “Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived” ~ Helen Keller.

    Our sense of smell helps us to enjoy life. We delight in the aromas of our favourite foods or the fragrance of flowers and although it may seem that smell and taste rank as second-tier senses behind seeing, hearing, and touching, any loss can have both depressing and dangerous consequences on the quality of life.
    Imagine, if you can, a world without scent. Of not being able to wake up and smell that familiar warm bitter aroma of coffee and freshly baked croissants, the sweet smell of dewy lilac blossoms on an early spring morning, the oriental blend of herbs and spices of a savory Indian dish…or the burning pizza in the oven.

    Until recent years, I never really took that much interest into the term of olfacception and the profound impact it takes (on so many levels) in our lives, probably because my sense of smell at that time seemed to have been diminished due to environmental pollution… or maybe because it was/is so ‘evidently’ present every single moment of the day, whether we are aware of it or not. Today, with my practicing as a wellness & wellbeing advocate and working with the aromatically therapeutic compounds of pure essential oils, my nose is growing more refined than it ever was, definitely reinstating its respectful place within the perceptive faculties.

    I came across a wonderful post of Symbolreader, a blog I love and appreciate reading as it covers themes in mythology and archetypal symbolism.

    “Smell – a potent wizard” is a guestpost I’m happy to reblog here because it’s such an insightful share with great resourceful references. Read about why our sense of smell is such a vital part of our lives, how it has influenced science, art, culture and history and … find out what the universe would smell and taste like.. (hmm my favourites!)

  22. Karin Van den Bergh says:

    Wonderful post Monika! Absolutely love this! I’ve grown more and more interested in the mystical powers of scents and smells once I began to work with essential oils. I never thought I would be doing this because I was always more drawn to the healing qualities of sound (audioception) but it’s very intriguing how little we, and science, know about this most elusive of the senses. Coincidentally, I’ve just watched “Perfume” again a couple of days ago..;)
    I’ve reblogged this on my site http://karinvandenbergh.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/smell-a-potent-wizard/
    Thank you so much for sharing this in a most poetic and artistic essay.

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