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Posted by Lauren at 16:22 on 12 Apr 2018

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The Perfumes of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has left a legacy of art and beauty which is startling to visitors today. The women who have been immortalised in art and sculptures capture the imagination. Whether it is the serene timeless beauty of Nefertiti (the Beautiful one who comes) or the striking sculpture of Nefertiti, wife of Rameses II, both have an impact which reflects the high state of cosmetic art. Even the tomb guardians of Tutankhamen show this quality and it is repeated time and time again in tombs or temples.

Egypt was an agrarian land so that plants were understood as they provided food, medicines, incense and cosmetics. Perfumes were in the form of creams and oils rather than the perfume creations of this century. Temples had a special room set aside for the study and processing of plants. In Karnak this room has sculptured plants on its walls, though it is often difficult to identify them today. Resins such as Frankincense and Myrrh were used regularly in the temples as offerings to the Gods in much the same way as churches today who follow the tradition.

Even the common people used oils and unguents. In a country which had such high temperatures in the summer, skin could dry out very quickly and oil would not only allow the skin to become more elastic - it could become suppler and fresh looking. It would soon become a cosmetic art for wealthy women.

The Perfumes of Cleopatra

Cleopatra. The very name conjures up visions fed by a myriad of images throughout history of a strong, desirable, clever and scheming ruler of Egypt at a time when the Roman Empire was rapidly snuffing out independent states around the Mediterranean. Egypt was the bread basket of Rome, supplying her with corn regularly and when the corn dried up during serious droughts there were food riots in Rome. The city relied upon Egypt. It was also a fabulously wealthy country and was always sought out by Romans wanting money.

Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, was the sophisticated cultural centre of the ancient world. It was a centre for knowledge and learning boasting a library which was a remarkable library of some 600,000 scrolls. The city was a teeming mass of many peoples, each with their own particular trade, as was noted by the famous Greek Historian Herodotus- ' there are no idle hands in Alexandra'.

Though the Ptolemaic Dynasty was essentially Greek, Cleopatra learnt the local language and contributed to the development of Egypt in her short reign. Visitors to the Temple of Endear, one of her special projects, soon become aware of the 'vibrations' of the place. During the 1991 study tour by aromatherapists three people had 'experiences' and several had nightmares when they had a meditation session on the site of the old infirmary. This was the spot that thousands of patients would have waited for treatment. She is sculptured on the side of the temple with her son Caesarion, her child by Julius Caesar.

The ancient perfumes of Egypt were invariably composed of naturally occurring materials such as Myrrh and Frankincense. They also produced Lotus oil which was an infusion in fat and a 'Lotus Oil' which was a similar oil except that it was squeezed out after being infused. The perfumes of Greece at the time were in use in the area and their compositions have been documented by both Theophrastus and Dioscorides. The materials which made the perfumes included Myrrh, Galbanum, Frankincense, Juniper and many others. A mound of Myrrh was painted on the wall of the beautiful and spectacular Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank at Luxor. It can be seen today and is a beautiful red colour. She was famous for the expedition to the land of Punt where they collected Frankincense and Myrrh trees which were planted in the forecourt of her mortuary temple.

The perfumes according to the various sources came in two main forms - perfume oils and perfume creams. The oils were usually stored in small glass containers some of which can be seen in the British Museum. The cream perfumes were normally stored in alabaster containers, which was the ideal container for hot climates as it kept the contents cool. Many of these containers have been found Egyptian tombs and they still retained the smell of the fragrant materials after thousands of years.

It was known that Cleopatra experimented in perfumes and was recorded as having written three books on cosmetics but only fragments remain. As she was virtually Greek and the culture of Alexandria at the time was predominantly Greek, most of the perfume formulas remain to this day and enthusiasts can try and copy them. Certainly, a land for exploration today.

The Perfumes of Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth, daughter of Henry V111 by his second wife Anne Boleyn (who was beheaded) ascended the Throne of England at the age of 25 as Queen Elizabeth the First in 1558. As Queen, she brought about a period which became known as the Elizabethan Age. It became known as an Age of Exploration and England witness a most momentous period in her history. This was also the age which was characterised by the voluminous dresses worn by Elizabeth and also the masses of jewels which she wore. It was always her wish that 'presents' to her should be jewels.

Perfumes became fashionable in Tudor England. They came from France and Italy and perfumes like 'Chypre' and 'Rondeletia' were favourites. Italy was particularly advanced in perfumery - Frangipani was named after its inventor - originally a powder but eventually a liquid. A laboratory was founded in 1508 by monks in Santa Maria Novello in Florence where they grew aromatic plants and had their own distilling equipment. Benedictine, Carmelite and Carthusian monks produced both liquers and perfumes, a tradition which continues to the present day. The Pope gave a 'Golden Rose' to personages of the time which was anointed with perfume.

Houses and Royal Residences used masses of pleasant-smelling herbs and flowers as 'strewing herbes' which would be scattered on the floor to produce a pleasant perfume to the air. England produced many aromatic plants in both gardens, fields and hedgerows. In the days when sanitation was virtually unknown, they also assisted in keeping hygienic standards. As every visitor to the Tower of London will know, the Royal Apartments contained small grilles in the wall for 'bodily functions’. Every castle or country house had its still room where perfumes and aromatics were made. These were vital places in the country as they produced herbals wines, mead and many other drinks. Housewives prided themselves on producing a whole range of 'household recipes' which included candied flowers, anti-moth powders and herbal bath additives of mint and lovage. Herb gardens proliferated and many can be seen today with their intricate herb knot gardens.

The use of perfumes and cosmetics expanded enormously during her reign. There were perfumed necklaces, perfumed lockets, perfumed clothes, perfume rooms, perfumed candles, perfumed hangings and when one of her 'suitors' - the Duke of Anjou called - she even fired perfumed cannons. Something which may raise a smile today was the use of perfumed candles.

Perfumes were in demand to sprinkle on the floor and fumigate apartments. Perfumes were not used for putting on the skin but on clothes and linen. As Venetians had a long history of using spices and resins from their trade with the 'spice islands', these found their way into England during this period and it helped to develop many perfumes. Most of them came from Italy and France and 'Chypre' was a favourite which was in powder form. 'Peau d'Espagne' was a type of fine leather which was impregnated with aromatics and used for perfumed gloves and cloaks. The recipe is still available:

PEAU D'ESPAGNE This formula is recorded by John Snively of Nashville, Tennessee in 1877 in his book 'A Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumes.

Mix: Sandal Otto, Rose Geranium Otto, Benzoin Tincture, saturated, equal parts. In this liquid steep, for some time pieces of sofy, pliable chamois leather, or white kid or sheep skin, of moderate thickness, (as dressed for druggist's use), lightly press out any superfluous fluid and expopse the skin to the air to dry until it gives no greasy stain when touched. This will require from two to four weeks time or more. Then prepare a paste of musk, as follows: Take Grain Musk, two parts; Orris Root, powdered. One part; Tragacanth Mucilage, sufficient. Triturate well together. With this paste evenly coat one half the surface of the skin, fold the other half on it, press together and keep it so until dry. The musk paste will then be firmly held between its coverings of leather, and the work is completed by dividing the skin into pieces of suitable size and enclosing in such envelopes as fancy may dictate.

Spanish Leather, prepared as above, smells predominantly of musk, and almost deserves the title of inexhaustible sachet. It is costly yet economical in the end. The flat shape of these sachets renders them very convenient for scenting writing papers.

In the Queen's time, perfumes were costly and presented in expensive containers. These Casolettes or Printaniers were small boxes usually made of ivory, silver or gold with a perforated lid which allowed the aromatics to be smelled as required. Rose perfumes were particular favourites. Many of these creations were carried on the person in 'pomanders' which were often made of silver and elaborately designed to be worn on the waist on a long chain. The pomander could be adapted as a 'musk ball' of gold or silver which could be attached to the tops of walking sticks. Doctors often used a walking stick which contained a perforated lid at the top which could hold aromatics which would be used to ward off foul smells. Musk was a particular favourite of Elizabeth and a typical recipe which included musk was Damask Rose Powder. The ingredients were Damask Roses dried and powdered, benzoin, musk, labdanum, galangal and calamus. The whole mass was dried and ground to a fine powder and used as a face powder.

There were many books of the period which were printed on perfumes, cosmetics and other recipes which covered everything from dying the hair to medicine for aromatics for avoiding the plague. A well known book was 'The Secrets of Alexis' which circulated in1555 and used by ladies of note. It was virtually a 'still room' recipe book, though many of the ingredients and methods would raise eyebrows in a more enlightened age.

Sachet powders were popular to place amongst clothes to keep the moths away. Violet scented orris root was in demand which were often mixed with dried mint, thyme, rose petals, rosemary and lavender. It was dried completely, ground to a powder with cloves, storax and calamus. This would keep its odour for over a year. Orris Root powder is still used today to act as a fixative for holding the perfume of flowers, but is very expensive as it is made from the powdered roots of the Florentine Iris - Iris pallida. To dry the roots before powdering can take up to 3 years.

Fair girdle of pomanders - the perfume necklace for ladies: Take 1 ounce of Benjamin (Benzoin), 1 ounce of Storax and 1 ounce of Labdanum. Heat in a mortar till very hot, and beat all the gums to a perfect paste. In beating add 6 grains of Musk and 4 grains of Civet. When it is beaten to a fine paste, wash your hands with Rose Water and take a portion and roll between the hands till it is round. Make holes in the beads and string them while they are hot.

If Queen Elizabeth the First had a special favourite it was the Rose and numerous creations were made which included Rose Petals, Rose Water and precious gums and resins and of course Musk, Civet and Ambergris. As there was no refrigeration, floral waters had to be made up for immediate use.

Coronation Oil has been used for over 1200 years to annoint the Kings and Queens of England. When Queen Elizabeth the First was crowned she complained of the smell of the oil, saying that 'it was grease and smelled ill’. The formula was changed after the Reformation to include oils of Rose, Jasmin, and Cinnamon together with Musk, Civet and Ambergris. The anointing oil for Queen Elizabeth the Second was made with oils of orange flowers, roses, cinnamon, jasmine and sesame with benzoin, musk, civet and ambergris. It has a rich and unique fragrance when made and colours with age.

Henry VIII Indulgence

This old recipe was produced at the time of Henry VIII and continued to be used at the time of Elizabeth I. The recipe went as follows:

ROSE OTTO 6 gm.
CLOVE BUD OIL 3 gm
AMBERGRIS 1.5 gm.
MUSK 1 gm.
LABDANUM 0.5 gm.
STORAX 0.4 gm.
CIVET 0.1 gm.

The cost of a perfume like this today would be very expensive and some of the ingredients are no longer easily available. These are Ambergris from the whale, Musk from the Musk Deer and Civet from the Civet cat. These are now replaced with compounds which are virtually an exact copy of the original.