We are surrounded by vibrations at all times. Our ears are tuned to receive sound vibrations, our eyes focus on vibrations of light which allow us to see colour, and our noses detect vibrations of aromatic molecules which allow us to become aware of scents. The most important ingredient in the Aromatherapy treatment is the Essential Oil.
Aromatherapists and perfumeries use musical language to describe scents. We talk of Essential Oils being a top, middle, and base note. About a century ago, a perfumery named Piesse arranged scents on a stave, or musical scale, and this went some way to describing the vibration of scents.
Aromas were also described by colour. Scents can be described as ‘green’ or ‘Blue’ or perhaps ‘vivid red’, and we mix scents as we would, colour on an artist’s palette.
Historically, the sense of smell has always been important to man and to his survival. A Newborn baby recognises his mother mainly by scent until his eyesight improves and he learns to focus.
To early man, his sense of smell was every bit as important as what it is to animals. Humans and animals alike emit pheromones (from the Greek ‘pherein’ to carry and ‘hormon’ to excite) which attract, repel, identify or mark territory.
Human pheromones are chemicals manufactured by the apocrine glands and radiated into the air around us. The scent of these are detected by the people in our immediate vicinity and play a large part in sexual attraction. Although we are all radiate pheromones and react to other people’s pheromones, this function takes place on a subconscious level.
As the pheromones we produce are affected by fluctuations in other hormone levels, they can indicate our emotional state. For instance, the surge of adrenalin produced in times of Anxiety can produce a smell of fear. Animals are highly receptive to scents and can easily detect emotion in humans.
Apocrine glands are also located on the soles of the feet and pheromone molecules can remain on the ground for up to two weeks. Primitive tribes have, until comparatively recently, detected the proximity of other people by sniffing the ground.
It is only the process of ‘civilisation’ that has blunted our sense of smell and with it our innate knowledge that scents produce profound responses within us.
Although early man used his sense of smell for survival and reproduction in much the same way as other animals, our present culture pays little attention to the sense of smell in its natural, emotional, feeling sense. We mainly use the sense of smell in a cosmetic way. Spraying and powdering ourselves to remove or mask our natural scents. We have for so long subdued our senses by the constraints of reason and the rational mind, that we have lost touch with our spiritual nature. We no longer give freedom to the inner, unseen realms of the mind and the subtle communications of the psyche.
The importance of the effects of scents on the human psyche has been gradually eroded. At one time, Incense was burned on temple altars on a daily basis (it is still used today as an important part of some religious services); fragrant Herbs and flowers were strewn on the floor of a dwelling. Odours were often associated with illness and disease. An evil smell was so much a part of the plague that it was believed to be one of the earliest symptoms. It had an odour that was foul and distinctive. The breath of plague victims was described by physicians of the time as that of ‘rotten flesh’ or ‘corrupt cadavers’.
Because breathing in the foul stench was thought to be one of the methods of contracting the disease, those who were still healthy carried nosegays and pomanders of highly perfumed flowers and Spices. By holding these to the nose they believed that they were warding off infection carried in the venomous air. In the Middle Ages, and even later, pleasant smells were considered to be an important part of good health and immunity to disease. During the 1348 plague, French physicians prescribed breathing in cold aromatics like roses, Sandalwood, renuphar, vinegar, Rose-water, camphor and chilled apples for summertime protection. And in the winter, hot aromatics like aloe, amber, sweetgum and Nutmeg.
Another physician prescribed that “The heart must be eased by external bathing and internally with syrups and other medicines. All such preparations must contain some perfume and some aroma, like the fragrance of the Lemon tree, syrup of apples and lemons and the acid of pomegranate”. Another recommended that the house and the body should be kept clean; the rooms of the house should be ventilated, sprinkled with vinegar and filled with scented flowers and plants. It should be “perfumed with good smells. So let vine leaves, sweet rushes, willow and osier, small plants and leaves of the Lemon tree and all other green things like flowers and sweet-smelling pommes be strewn throughout and placed in the corners and on the walls of the chambers”.
Unfortunately, the bodily cleanliness did not include the use of water. In fact, washing and bathing was considered a dangerous practice at times, as it opened the pores and allowed the odorous, plague-ridden air to enter the body more easily. The hands and face were cleansed with aromatic lotions and frequent changes of clothing, with abundant use of perfumes, were considered to be indispensable. Physicians recommended that their bodies be washed in tepid vinegar twice a day.
There was also thought to be an odour of sanctity, saints and mystics were considered to emanate sweet odours of violets, roses, Cinnamon and Cloves. This sweet odour was noted even after death and remains of saints were alleged to have given off sweet floral odours many years after death. Pope Benedict XIV stated “That the human body may by nature not have an overtly unpleasant odour is possible, but that it should actually have a pleasing smell – that is beyond nature. If such an agreeable odour exists, whether there does or does not exist a natural cause capable of producing it, it must be owing to some higher course and thus deemed to be miraculous”. Therefore the pleasant odour of the saint is seen as evidence of sanctity.
hroughout the ages, scents and odours have had a deep and profound effect on the human psyche. Suskind says “For scent was a brother breath. Together with breath it entered human beings who could not 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, the who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”