Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > The Odor of the Gods

The Odor of the Gods

Christopher Bamford

Smell is the oldest, most magical sense.

In In Search of Past Time, Proust tells how, returning home for a visit one cold winter’s day, his mother offered him a cup of lime blossom tea with some plump little cakes, called “madeleines,” molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. At first, he declined, but then, for no particular reason, he accepted. As the lime-tea-soaked crumbs touched his palate, a strange emotion overcame him. The world stopped, and an exquisite, transcendent pleasure, like the effect of love, filling him with joy, suffused his senses.

He concentrated on the sensation, but at first nothing happened. Finally, like a gift, a memory filled his consciousness. He remembered how, as a child on Sunday mornings, he would go in to greet to his aunt, who would give him a piece of cake dipped in tea. Immediately, he recognized the taste and smell. The moment returned, and with it a world of smells and experiences previously forgotten. Thus, “in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence,” taste and smell, like faithful servants, became the Rosetta Stone for the entire structure of recollection.

This so inward and personal epiphany at the beginning of the twentieth century has ancient and universal roots. Proust invokes “the smells changing with the seasons” as framing the life of the soul, but for the Andaman Islanders the year itself is a cycle of odors: a calendar of scents that follows the sequence of flowering trees and plants as they come into bloom and emanate their fragrance through the year.

More than that, for the Andaman Islanders, smell is not only creative of memory; it also magically evokes the scene of its origin. Smell is the spiritual sign of vital, generative powers. Each aromatic moment bears witness to the presence of a different spiritual power, and space becomes a shifting field of generative odors: a garden for the blind. Imagine walking through a landscape, as if blind and deaf, led only the scents permeating the air you pass through. If the odors and fragrances you walk though are the seminal powers of the creative beings whose expression nature is, then you had better be awake, for the ground you stand on is holy, and perhaps even dangerous if the spirits are not friendly. You had better know how to talk to them in their language, the language of smell, of perfumes, incenses, essential oils and fragrant herbs, whether fresh, rubbed, dried, or burnt.

Smell was thus once something quite different than it is today in our deodorized world. The scent of a rose, the scent of a lily, was that presence through and from which the plant grew. “The Odor of the Herbe Basil, being enclosed in the Seed, produces that Herb,” the alchemist Van Helmont says. “Essential” or aromatic oil was just that: the essence or seminal being of a plant or flower. Extracting it was a secret, alchemical process.

A scent or perfume was thought to express the “inner essence” or spiritual nature of a thing. Think of the well-attested phenomenon of the “odor of sanctity”—the powerful fragrance emitted by and surrounding beautiful souls or saintly, purified human beings. Whether this was the scent of their own essence or the divine fragrance of the Holy Spirit —“like unto cinnamon and balsam and chosen myrrh”—or, in some ineffable way both, is moot. The fact remains. It is described many times in the lives of saints. The description of the death of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, for instance, the earliest (AD155) testimony to the odor of sanctity, is strangely alchemical. Polycarp’s martyrdom was by fire. Those who witnessed it wrote: “When he had offered up the Amen and finished his prayer, they lit the fire. A mighty flame flashed forth. Then we witnessed a marvel… The fire, which looked like a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled with the wind, made a wall around about the body of the martyr; and he was there in the midst of it, not like flesh burning, but like gold and silver refined in a furnace. And, as we watched, we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.”

After Polycarp, the phenomenon of the odor of sanctity became well known. The bodies of purified holy people “exhaled a perfume of spices.” “When Saint Hubert breathed his last, there spread throughout Brittany an odor so sweet that it seemed as if God had brought together all the flowers of spring.” Many saints, like St. Francis Xavier, when disentombed, were found to be whole and sweet smelling though no spices or balm had been used to prepare the body. But this odor was not simply a sign of heavenly blessing after death. Many saints while alive were said to have emanated a heavenly scent and lived in a cloud profusely fragrant with wild flowers, spices, and aromatic herbs.

Such smells were everywhere. Often the Virgin Mary or Jesus made their healing presence known and felt by the presence of fragrances, most often of roses or lilies. But not all such odors were celestial and were exuded by benign beings or saintly souls. Demons, too, including the devil, announced their presence by smell —in their case a foul odor.

All this was once traditional knowledge. At least into the Middle Ages, it was a living part of culture, a vehicle for the expression of a complex cosmology based upon a profound theology. It was science, ethics, and aesthetics. With the modern age, however, Western culture came under what Coleridge called “the despotism of the eye,” the tyrannical rule that believes that whatever can be seen can be known, and what cannot be seen cannot be known and does not truly exist. Sight became the pre-eminent sign of reason and civilization, while smell, the most ancient and primordial sense, was denigrated to become a symptom of savagery, madness, and poverty. George Orwell put it well: “The real secret of class distinctions… can be summed up in ‘four frightful words,’ ‘The lower classes smell.’”

Today, “a cloak of invisibility” has been thrown over the sensory world, particularly the world of smell.  But when this cloak is lifted, as Constance Classen points out, “ the cosmos suddenly blazes forth in multi-sensory splendor: the heavens ring out with music, the planets radiate scents and savors, the Earth springs to life in colors, temperatures, and sounds.”

“The Earth, after a shower,” Pliny writes, “sends out that divine breath of hers, of quite incomparable sweetness, which she has conceived from the sun. This is the odor which ought to be emitted when the earth is turned up, and the scent of the soil will be the best criterion of its quality.” Here we are on the boundaries of a different science of nature and the Earth. But we must approach slowly. First, we must appreciate the sheer volume of fragrance with which previous civilizations lived.

In the beginning, we may say, the world was a world of odors. Paradise, the Garden of Adonis, was a scented world, a perfumed, fragrant place. And this was because the world was alive, filled with spirits whose presence, whose medium, whose speech, all took place through the perfumes that filled— “smoked through,” “per-fumed”— the air.

Crocus, hyacinth, and blooming violet
and the sweet petals of the peerless rose,
so fragrant and divine –

Such were the garments of the Graces for the ancient Greeks.

Imagine walking through a meadow filled with wild flowers—lilies, iris, tender narcissus, quince, and wild grape. What Presences would greet you! And if you wrapped sweet-smelling garlands around your neck or placed a special floral crown upon your head, what respect you would pay and how you would be recognized! Not only flowers, of course, and herbs, but everywhere smells of spices—cinnamon and cassia—and aromatic resins, the tears of trees: frankincense and myrrh. Scents were involved in all of Earthly life—religious, cultural, and scientific. For this reason, the ancient Zoroastrians created a sacred botany that linked flowers with the liturgy. Each archangel and angel had a flower and a scent as an emblem. To contemplate the plant was to become a receptacle for heavenly energies. Each archangel had a day of the month, each day therefore a flower and a perfume. As Henry Corbin writes: “Contemplation of the flowers, which are their emblems, evokes psychic reactions, which transmute the forms contemplated into the energies corresponding to them; these psychic energies then dissolve into states of consciousness, into states of mental vision, through which the heavenly figures appear.”

We are so far from that world now.

The story of smell begins for us in the West in Egypt. From the most esoteric realms of the temple to the everyday life of ordinary people, Egypt was awash with perfumes. Floral fragrances, scented oils, unguents, scented medicines, incenses were everywhere. In the court and on the street, people always smelt sweet with ointment of sweet moringa oil redolent of frankincense and cyperus grass. Herbs, resins, oils, and fats were highly valued. In the markets, you could find, among others, camel grass, cardamon, cassia, cinnamon, cypress, dill, henna, iris, juniper, lily, lotus, marjoram, mint saffron, spikenard, frankincense, myrrh, and the resins of fir, pine, bidellium, and mastic. The first documents attest that in the temple there existed a profound science, metaphysics, and practice of fragrant incense and oils.

Behind all this lay the intuition of the dual, mediating, communicating role of scent as interfusing inner and outer, heavenly and Earthly, essence and seed. Scent or odor lay between spirit and matter, cause and effect, seed and fruit. In the temple, the central rites, always accompanied by the sound of chant and the silence of meditation, involved incense, oils, and unguents. Daily, the statues were ritually anointed with aromatic oils and adorned with scents and perfumes. Specific incenses were ritually burned to the accompaniment of chant, for it was believed that odors came from the gods and could return there. Incensing and oiling was thus a kind of “communion” and commemoration.

There was, for instance, a scent called “the Eye of Horus.” Horus lost his eye in the struggle over the death of his father Osiris. Thoth then returned it to him. One chant, to accompany the incense called “the Eye of Horus,” goes as follows:

The incense comes, the incense comes.
The scent is over thee,             
The scent of the eye of Horus is over thee.
The perfume of the goddess Nekhbet   
Which comes from the town of Nekheb
Cleanses thee, adorns thee       
Makes its place upon thy two hands. 
Hail to thee, o incense!         
Take to thyself the eye of Horus,  
Its perfume is over thee.

Burning and offering incense meditate between Earthly and heavenly worlds. They allowed the gods to work in the world, and at the same time, allowed this world to communicate with theirs.

The incense goes up, the incense goes down. Ascent meets descent. There is a release toward the heavens. There is a fine rain of grace from above. Heaven and Earth touch and begin to communicate, work together. Smell is the medium, a kind of Jacob’s Ladder, with angels, spirits, and beings of all kinds ascending and descending. But there is still a little more.

The idea of the creative function of smell as it emerged in Renaissance alchemy, is therefore very ancient— and continuous. In Egypt, the vital coagulating fire, the creator-power of the Word, was metaphorized as odor. “Odor” was the seed specifying the abstract “fire” or creator-power of God. The “Fire” of the seed, which would make it burst forth in its true quality, was therefore called by the ancient Egyptians, the “odor” of the Neter, or god.

Consider the account of the divine conception of Queen Hapshepsut. In the sacred “room of the theogamy” in the temple, devoted to the divine conception of the Pharaoh, the God Amun approaches the queen’s mother. The seed is called “the odor of the god.” She recognizes his presence, not by hearing him or seeing him, but by “smelling the divine scent.” Because of this scent, she feels love for him flowing through her body. And, as conception of fertilization occurs, the palace becomes flooded with divine scent. “The odor of the god pervaded the palace.” “It smelled like incense land.” “The god found her lying in the depths of the palace. She awakened at the odor of the Neter… The palace overflowed in waves of odor of the Neter.” Much in the same way, when Mary Magdalene “took a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair, the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” Odor here seems to signify incarnation, coagulation, a descent (as well as an ascent) of the spirit, for? Mary anoints Jesus just as he is about to go to Jerusalem for the crucifixion. Here we might note that, each in its own way, every sense is fecundating: we can be impregnated through the ear, the eye, and touch. Nevertheless, odor plays a special role. In the ancient alchemical text of the Dialog of Mary the Prophetess and Aros, Mary who plays the part of the soul, is asked, “Can one make the work from a single thing?” “Yes,” she replies, “…the root of our Science is a power that coagulates mercury by its odor.”

We often forget in our haste or greed to literalize that the alchemical work was a work of prayer and was always said to be a donum dei, a gift of God. Ora, ora, ora et labora, “pray, pray, pray and work.” Prayer has always been likened to a perfume, to incense rising, and grace has likewise frequently been likened to a celestial scent descending, while the process of prayer itself has been likened to the intermingling of heavenly and Earthly aromas.

The Neoplatonist Proclus’ example is the heliotrope and its prayer. “What other reason can we give for the fact that the heliotrope follows in its movement the movement of the sun and the selenotrope the movement of the moon, forming a procession within the limits of their power, behind the torches of the universe? For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praises of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs…”

“So there is a harmony,” Proclus concludes, “ a union, a connection, a sympathy between above and below, visible and invisible.” The expression of this “sympathy” is prayer, and so, to the one who has a nose to smell it (and eyes to see it and ears to hear it), everything prays. The scented world constitutes a liturgy and to smell is to participate in the union of heaven and Earth, prayers ascending and descending.

And what are such fragrant prayers? For St. Bernard they are soul qualities. In his many sermons on the Song of Songs, which is filled with references to oils, scents, and perfumes, he always assigns them qualities: contrition (pungent), faith, devotion (soothing), love (healing), peace, courage, and so forth. Oils that have been poured out, as in “Your name is oil that has been poured out,” St. Bernard interprets as effusions of Grace, as the presence of the Holy Spirit.

What shall we then make of our odorless world? What is the difference between a rose whose delicate perfume transports us to another state, and a rose that looks just the same but has no scent and may as well be made of silk? It is perhaps a work of art, but not one that “imitates nature in her mode of operation”—that is, not one that prays.

How can we help the world become a fragrant, praying place? Certainly, reawakening the senses, both the organs and the worlds to which they correspond, has much to do with it.

Image attribution: Sandy/Chuck Harris on Flickr

Together with Seven Pillars, Christopher Bamford will co-host Vanishing Art: An Intimate Festival of What May Be August 24th-28th, 2011 at the Abode of the Message, New Lebanon, New York. For information and to register please visit the event page or call us at (518)-794-8777.


Christopher Bamford is Editor-in-Chief for SteinerBooks and its imprints. A Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association, he has lectured, taught, and written widely on Western spiritual and esoteric traditions. He is the author of The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West. He has also translated and edited numerous books, including Celtic Christianity, Homage to Pythagoras, and The Noble Traveller. An essay by Mr. Bamford is included in the HarperSanFrancisco anthology Best Spiritual Writing 2000 by Philip Zaleski.

Read more about Christopher Bamford

Comments (4)
  • Thank you so much for your words. My heart delights in hearing confirmation of it’s experience. One further thought that has occurred to me during my work with practical alchemy is this: The process of creating alchemical products, from prayer over the seed as one plants it, through to slow purification of the final essential oil, seems to travel an evolutionary path of aroma. The quality of the fragrance at inception is subtle, and though there is a distinction to identify the different plants, there is a unifying olfactory aura in the aroma at each stage, regardless of which plant is used. I hope to refine this perception. It is helpful to determine the integrity at each of the seven stages of the alchemical process.

    One final thought, there is a musical aura as well….but perhaps that is topic for another conference. : )

    — Cynthia Burke on July 22, 2011

  • What a beautiful article!I feel more awake even though it is almost 2 in the morning.Swedenborg’s writings show a vast understanding of correspondences concerning the Lord’s kingdom. Ex. Ascend or Go up Gen13:1 here advancement from memory knowledges into celestial light.In the Lord’s case, infinite and eternal communication,and so conjunction.

    — Stephen McShane on August 26, 2011

  • Just wanted to say you have a great site and thanks for posting!…

    — Penny Imes on July 28, 2012

  • exquisite…thank you…

    — casimira on March 16, 2013

19 July 2011

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mysticism, sacred, love, prayer, spiritual practice, spirit, divine, knowledge, alchemy, art, senses, The Great Mystery, Vanishing Art, perfume,
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