So what do dead cats and ancient perfumes have to do with each other?
From ancient times, applying perfume has been an important daily ritual for the royals of ancient civilizations.
Perfume is frequently mentioned in the Bible, from the frankincense and myrrh of the Three Kings, to the fragrance of the myrtle tree.
Religious rituals, as well as beautification, required the use of perfumes. The prophet Samuel anointed David, son of Jesse, as king with sweet-smelling oil.
The ancient Romans used perfumes everywhere, even on the soles of their feet!
But Egypt has the distinction of being the first culture to incorporate perfumes.
And Cleopatra used perfumes lavishly. Ancient perfumes, unlike perfumes today, had an oily base. And if you were anybody in medieval Europe you carried a pomander, an idea brought back by the knights of the Crusades.
Pomanders contained aromatic substances made into a ball and carried inside a round container pierced with holes. Often made of gold or silver and decorated with precious stones. Supposedly, it warded off disease, and in the time of plague were indispensable. However, a pomander couldn’t save anyone from yersinia pestis.
Some of the ingredients in perfumes will turn your stomach, to put it nicely.
Musk is a secretion from the “musk pod” of the male musk deer, used for marking territory. It’s a hairy pouch about the size of a golf ball. And you can probably imagine where it’s located on the animal. The anal glands of civet cats provided civet, a yellow paste that darkens with age. And the scent glands of beavers produce castor.
Hyraceum is the hardened excreta of the hyrax, an animal that looks like a large guinea pig. That’s right, it’s poop.
And a gray, waxy lump found in the gastrointestinal system of sperm whales gives us ambergris. However, although nicknamed “whale vomit,” it actually came out the other end of the whale.
Think about that the next time you read a perfume description. What I really want to know is how was this discovery made in the first place!
Actually, the history of ambergris is fascinating. It is the most prized ingredient in expensive, high-end perfume.
Excretions, digestions, and secretions. These substances at full strength are nauseating.
However, when diluted, they develop delicate, pleasing scents. I shudder to think of just how this discovery was made.
In my historical novel, The Fury of Dragons, I feature two precious perfumes. Justina, a Roman British matron, mentions Megalion. The recipe for Megalion came from Discorides, an ancient Greek physician. It contained cassia and cinnamon in a base of sweet flag root and olive oil with a touch of myrrh.
The extremely expensive Susinum, used by Minacea to anoint herself, contained lily, saffron, myrrh, and balsam. A long-handled spatula would scoop out a tiny amount of the precious perfume.
The alabaster perfume bottle in the top left photo is 2400 years old, excavated from an ancient Greek shipwreck in Turkey in 1999. The photo appeared in the March 2007 National Geographic magazine, courtesy of Courtney Platt.
So now you know what the butts of dead cats, the Crusades, scented feet, the Plague and whale vomit have to do with ancient perfumes!