Perfume and the wearing of perfume is all to do with the working of magic or the casting of a spell; an enchantment that works both on yourself and on others.
Don’t forget that the origins of perfume, thousands of years ago, lie wholly in the world of sorcery: in the practice of keeping on the right side of Unseen Beings. The very first perfumes were used in the worship of the gods through incense: per fumum/ ‘through the smoke’.
A brief history
Incense is the fragrance released by the burning of scented woods and plant-derived gums and resins: myrrh, opoponax, frankincense, copal, benzoin, styrax, labdanum, cistus and others. Incense is a wonderfully thrilling theme in scent because this is how all perfume began. Thousands of years ago, incense was the only perfume: fragrance in the form of smoke. It was the food of the old gods; and of Buddha, Allah and Jehovah. Incense is the beginning and the culmination of perfume: the alpha and omega of fragrance. It has been known and used in most parts of the world for millennia. A magical experience: literally!
As the centuries passed, the incense offered to the Heavens was little by little used to scent the bodies and clothing of the priest-kings who led the sacred ceremonies. The custom of fragrancing the person passed slowly down the chain of command: a ritual adopted by the nobility, the clergy and the intellectual elite until finally, in our own democratic times, we regard perfume for all as a daily secular luxury.
Linking the past to present
Today incense is the link to our remote collective past, a connection with the Divine and a pathway of dreams. Incense gives innumerable benefits to fragrance: colour, drama, escapism, enchantment, wonder, sexual magnetism and spirituality. The smell of incense leads you out of yourself. It is calming and reflective; it can drug, sedate, exhilarate and stupefy.
For many folk, bred and reared in the church, the smell of incense evokes the profound nostalgia for the order of an old fashioned childhood. As we know, perfume owes so much of its emotional power to its effect on the memory.
Consequently, when incense is incorporated into a scent, you have a product that is a veritable time-bomb and a time machine.
Heaven, Earth & Deity
The very word perfume comes from the Latin "per fumum" - “through the smoke” - a neat encapsulation of the origins of it all. Burning incense is the visible fragile pathway linking Earth to Heaven. We are told by St John the Divine that the Christian Heaven is fragrant with the prayers of the saints. In the Islamic Paradise, the lovely houris preside - their flesh made all of camphor, musk, amber and myrrh.
Those interested in the history of perfumery should have a browse through the Song of Solomon - one of the shortest books of the Hebrew Old Testament. This lyrical poem is redolent with incense, spices and perfumes - and the concomitant entwining of the sublime and the erotic.
"Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?" (Ch. 3 v 3.).
In Egypt, kyphi was the all-purpose Egyptian incense, mentioned in all the old temple inscriptions and burned continuously in the sacred places. Wine was mixed into a paste with honey, raisins, juniper, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, spices, cassia and fragrant woods. This would be dried, powdered and then either burned or applied to the body in an oil emulsion.
Isis, Hathor, Osiris and thousands of their fellow gods fed on kyphi and used its fumes as a bridge between Heaven and Earth. Those of us fortunate enough to have visited Luxor will remember those desiccated remains of myrrh trees on the temple terraces of Queen Hatshepsut's funerary temple - “The Splendour of Splendours” - at Deir el Bahri. The Queen claimed to be the daughter of the god Amun: her mother recognised the god when he visited her in the darkness by his divine and overpowering smell of incense.
The fragrance was recognised as not only the odour of the deity, but the actual bodily incarnation of Amun. The myrrh trees were brought by ship up the Red Sea from a far and unidentified country known only as the Land of Punt. Punt has never been identified: how aptly mysterious! It may have been Somalia from where so incense originates today. A happy thought that would indeed be: the appeal of incense is eternal.
There really is a supernatural quality to fragrance that defies all reason - and which leads perfume-lovers to do quixotic things which they cannot account for, even to themselves...
Are you ready for a little magic?
We’ve picked out 8 incense-inspired perfumes for you; fragrances to promote rapture and romance.
Let’s kindle the flame!
This smells like the billows of incense in an Alma Tadema painting. An idealised pictorial fragrance with a wonderful accord of luscious honeyed dates. The Phoenicians were said to have been regular visitors to ancient Britain: the Tin Isles, they called us. We sold them metal, they brought us incense and purple dyes.
This is such an authentic, startling evocation of the tombs of Old Egypt. Anubis was the jackal-headed god of the Western Cemetery, dwelling in a shadow world of embalming perfumes, resins, sacred lotus and incense.
A warm and airy outdoor incense using all the traditional fragrant oils and resins harvested fresh from the tree, bush and plant. A golden-green sweetness and a lush fruity accord reminiscent of plums and apples.
“Myrrh is mine/ Its bitter perfume..” is also purifying and healing. It may lead you down to the gardens of the dead - but like the Elysian Fields they are bathed in air and light. A clean rarefied youthful incense accord.
Another recreation of a lost civilisation: this time the rose-red city of Petra “ half as old as Time”. With easy access to the Red Sea, and a natural fortress accessed only through a narrow ravine, Petra became fabulously rich through trade. This is a bewitching scent of sun, rocks, spices and perfumed dust.
An Andy Tauer extravaganza. A vast ever-expanding cloud of incense with frankincense at the base. Modern, voluptuous, overwhelming! A wonderful dry green herbal note chimes magically with the incense accords. A perfume you could spend a lifetime exploring. A drop is all you need.
The austere beauty of Japan and its distinctive cult of incense: listening to the voice of the Infinite through the dry, leathery, papery delicacy of the smoke. An incense like autumn leaves in the colours of fading chrysanthemums.
Somali frankincense in all its cool sheer icy sheen. This intoxicating fragrance will keep everyone guessing - including the wearer! Pure, clean, slightly minty: as brilliant as a diamond.