Wednesday 27 July 2011

A HEADY MIX – Perfume and Poetry by Dianne Hofmeyr

I’m not a historian but the minutiae of lives gone by fascinate me. What perfume someone applied before they went to bed. The list of ingredients in a recipe. The dowry list of young girl being sent as a gift to a king. Tiny details – clues that help unlock the character and the story.

I want to know what Kiya (presumed mother of Tutankhamen) took with her when her father sent her with a thousand horsemen and three hundred serving girls from his kingdom of Mitanni at the age of eleven to join the Royal harem of the aging Amenhotep III, in exchange for gold. What father would put his young daughter through this arduous journey from the very upper reaches of the Khabur River, all the way down to Tyre and across the Mediterranean and up the Nile to Thebes and why? According to clay tablets found in Amarna, Egyptian gold is the answer. Horses, copper, lapis lazuli and the sisters and daughters of the kings of Mitanni were all exchanged for Egyptian gold. And since lapis lazuli wasn’t mined in Egypt and if the abundance of it in Egyptian jewelry is anything to go by, one can only imagine how much lapis lazuli accompanied this girl. It was a political exchange of convenience.

When I see the deep indent on the forehead of the mummy of Queen Tiy and look at the size of the gold Vulture Crown, I slip into the head of Nefertiti and understand why she eschewed this crown. Does research tell me? No – but I imagine a girl of fourteen, newly appointed to the throne of Egypt, not wanting to follow in the footsteps of her mother-in-law and wanting something modern and startling – a green leather crown to accentuate the colour of her eyes and match the grey-green galena or ground turquoise paste on her eyelids, tall with upswept lines and worn wigless to show off her long neck, with gold cobras twining down the side of her face to show off her sculpted cheekbones.
And what lists were up on the walls of her Royal Unguent rooms? In Daunts Bookshop I found answers in a fascinating book called Sacred Luxuries. Most temples in ancient Egypt would have had their own ‘magic’ book of unguent recipes and the practice of anointing a deity was as common as the practice of anointing someone you loved. In 1300 BC in Egypt oils of acacia, basil, celery, camomile, cinnamon, cumin, dill, fenugreek, fir, henna, iris, juniper, lily, lotus, mandrake, marjoram, myrtle, rose, rue, and sage were all being used to make perfume. And because roots, barks, grasses, spices and resins held their fragrance, they travelled easily from Syria, Phoenicia, India and the land of Punt (debatable whether this was present day northern Somalia or the Arabic peninsula).

In 1300 BC perfume bottles and cosmetic spoons drew on an imagery of sensuousness. Delicately carved cosmetic spoons depicted girls swimming naked holding on to ducks. The symbolic use of ducks and vervet monkeys in perfume bottles was synonymous with an erotic iconography. The best material for storing perfume was a creamy white calcite known as alabaster and a special blue marble, as in the perfume flask of the two ducks, became sought after. The famous Greek herbalist, Dioscorides in his book, De Materia Medica written in the 1st century (the Persian translation is in the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul) tells of an ancient Egyptian recipe for Lily Oil:
1000 lilies x 2
4, 226 kg balanos oil (an ancient tree found in the Nile valley)
2354 kg sweet flag ( a type of grass)
140 g myrrh wine
1,530 kg cardamom
270 g best myrrh x 3
37g crocus x 3
281g cinnamon x 3

A total of 2000 lilies! Not your average household recipe I imagine, although
Queen Tiy was particularly fond of lilies and had her rooms at the palace arranged with hundreds and hundreds of lilies each day. But it was the scent of the lotus flower, namely the blue lotus that became the pervading scent of Egypt. The perfume of the open flower is like that of hyacinth. To adorn oneself with a lotus was to declare one’s intentions in love.

I found records of love poems like this one, written by a girl going down to the river to bathe in a diaphanous dress…
Oh my divine, my lotus flower
I love to go and bathe before you
I allow you to come and see my beauty
In a dress of the finest linen
Drenched with fragrant unguent
I go down to the water to be with you
And come up to you again with a red fish,
Looking splendid on my fingers.
I place it before…
Come! Look at me!

Whether ‘lotus flower’ was a pet name for her beloved, or whether it refers to Nefertem, the most handsome of all gods – the god of the Blue Lotus, I’m not sure but there’s no doubt about the girl’s intentions.

On reading the poem I was struck by the fact that the rhythms and what was portrayed was not unlike Solomon’s Song of Songs, which are filled with an evocation of sensuous awareness. So I went back to read Song of Songs again. Some researchers see the poems as Solomon writing allegorically of God’s relationship with Israel but in more recent times study has suggested it is more a tract of biblical wisdom – that gifts of God, like love, are to be received with gratitude and celebration. Song of Songs comes from about 1000 BC. My story setting in Eye of the Moon and Eye of the Sun is 1300 BC. Apparently interpreters have looked to ancient Babylonian and Egyptian love songs, to traditional Semitic wedding songs and songs related to Mesopotamian fertility cults and made comparisons… so I wasn’t far off.

Both the Egyptian poem I found and Song of Songs are poetic celebrations of a young girl’s spontaneous love with a strong connection to the sensuous in nature and include the use of perfume. In the Egyptian poem she draws the man to her with water against her body and the symbol of the red fish and a mention of being drenched with a fragrant unguent. In Song of Songs, the woman’s voice similarly draws the man with a subtlety and mystery to her allurements. She compares herself to a garden with choice fruits for the lover to feast. And says…
My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh
Resting between my breasts
My lover is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
From the vineyards of En Gedi

The problem with writing about history and particularly ancient Egyptian history is that there is almost too much to go on – far too many facts – but small details can infuse writing with piquancy. Add the use of nail colour, lip tints, eye pastes, body decoration, tattoos and strange dowry lists to that of poetry and perfume and one ends with a heady distillation. for a review of FArTHER - winner of 2011 Kate Greenaway Award


adele said...

Well, since History Girls started, I've been enthralled, fascinated, amused, and educated by every single post but this one gets my GOLD STAR for the very best so far. I just loved combines some of my very favourite topics in a heady mix, (if you'll excuse the cliche which seems appropriate for apost about perfume.) I am a perfumaholic and anything like this with an ACTUAL recipe included is heaven. Thanks Dianne, you've made my day. Does anyone know of a good perfume blog to whom we could send the link? They'd be fascinated. I am going to tweet about it right now.

adele said...

Never read the title, Dianne! See you've called it exactly the right thing,too! And for the right reasons!

Stroppy Author said...

What Adele said! This is fantastic - evocative and fascinating. Thank you, Diane! (All the recipes I get to trawl through are for plague remedies and hair dye. Envious!)

Stroppy Author said...

PS for scentaholic Egyptologists - Les Senteurs in Belgravia claims to sell a pomade based on Cleopatra's perfume. I suppose they still do, I have it from years ago.

Sue Purkiss said...

As rich as Kiya's dowry!Wonderful post, Di.

michelle lovric said...

Swooning at all the sensual pleasures you have conjured up, but equally fascinated to see how you draw on them as a writer. The double duck is beautiful too.
thank you!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Such a wonderful, informative post. I wish I had had the recipes when my daughters were small. They made the most evil smelling perfume from rose petals which soon decayed in water. Nefertiti would not have approved.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I think we all made those rose water concoctions when we were little... I'd just forgotten until you mentioned it, Barbara. Thks for tweeting Adele and the GOLD STAR...! It would be good to have it linked to a Perfume Blog. I know Mary did plenty of perfume research in Florence. She probably has more accessible recipes than: take 2000 lilies! I once started a book set in the forests of Madagascar where ylang ylang plantations with really basic distilleries produce oil for the French perfume industry. Will look out for Les Senseurs Anne... pomade is almost as nice a word as unguent and yes Michelle isn't that double duck most beautiful.

Mary Hoffman said...

Loved this, Dianne! And I loved the recipes for perfumes in Patrick Susskind's remarkable novel, in spite of the horrendous nature of the protagonist.

And I'm a sucker for ancient Egypt and have enjoyed both The Eye of the Sun and The Eye of the Moon.

I hope you'll return there and write more? As you say, there is so much to draw on!

Anonymous said...

How utterly, sensuously delicious, swooning indeed! Thankyou Dianne

Anonymous said...

This was a rich, wonderful and entertaining post - even for a non-history girl. Thanks Di.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, I did enjoy this, Dianne. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Oh, what a treat of a post! Thank you, Dianne

Anonymous said...

hi nice site...we had found important
cosmetic and phoenician ivory and glass..see by search google badranghosn and link flickr site