The Lusty Origin Story of Perfume

The island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean is loved for its cerulean oceans and endless stretches of sand. According to legend, it’s also the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, beauty, sex and desire. The story tells that Aphrodite was born on the sea foam from the severed genitals of Uranus, rising from the ocean a grown woman and carried to a rock formation off the coast of Paphos, in the cusp of a giant shell. In 2003, a team of archaeologists unearthed an industrial-scale collection of ancient alabaster amphora, distillers and mixing bowls less than 100km from Paphos. The vessels, which were dated to be over 4000 years old, contained traces of lavender, bay, rosemary, pine and coriander – evidence of the world’s oldest known perfumes and the source of the story of Aphrodite.

Long before the words Chanel No. 5 or Guerlain ever held any meaning, the people of the ancient world were obsessed by the mystery of scent. Their fascination and experiments with plant aromas created the beginnings of modern day aromachology, with their findings preserved through archaeological evidence, such as the Cyprus perfume factory, wall motifs and historical writings. Pungent concoctions played an integral role in everyday public and private life – connecting the people with their divine Gods, warding off sickness and disease and cleansing the body and soul during its journey to the afterlife. But the origins of perfumery were also at the centre of controversy and scandal.

Its seductive aroma and promise of beauty sparked lavish displays of grandeur across the ancient world and its scent trailed in the wake of death and destruction, greed, lust and desire.”

The ancestries of perfume begin in the semi-arid lands of ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs discovered in tombs and crypts dating as early as 3500BC depict Egyptian priests, the world’s first perfumers, crushing and mixing fragrant plants and oils as an offering to their Gods. A deeply religious people, the Egyptians believed the perfume of these tinctures to be the sweat of the Sun God, Ra, and by burning and wearing his aroma, they could create a portal to the divine. Lily, cinnamon, cardamom, myrrh, resins and wood were all common ingredients in mixtures, with many of these imported from the elusive lost African kingdom, the Land of Punt.

Created from beautifully scented plants and flowers growing wild along the Nile valley, incense was used across Egyptian society in private temples and for medicinal purposes. The compound incense, kyphi, for example, was a mixture of sweetflag, aromatic grasses, spices, tree resin, juniper, mimosa, henna and raisins, and was rolled into balls and burned over hot coals to create a soothing odorous smoke for relieving anxieties. The wearing of expensive unguents was a luxury restricted to the royal family and high priests and they took great pleasure in exuding their fragrant Godly origins – in 41BC, despite limited finances and a disastrous famine in Egypt, Cleopatra sailed to Rome in a decadent display of opulence.

Dressed as Aphrodite-Isis, she ordered the sails of her ship to be soaked in perfume so that her scent would drift across the ocean to seduce Marc Antony before her arrival.”

Similar fascinations with perfumery could be found in Mesopotamia and Babylon during the rise of the Persian Empire. Under the reign of Darius and Xerxes, the oriental decadence of Babylon boasted exquisitely scented aromas of frankincense, cedar, myrrh and cypress. The Persians were the first to learn the art of distilling oils from flowers, with the 10th Century scientist Avicenna creating rose water, the irresistible source of trade that would go on to fill the baths of both Cleopatra and the Roman empire, and, many years later, capture the attention of the European perfume industry.

Discovery of a 4000 year-old perfume factory on the Island of Cyprus. The vessels contained traces of lavender, bay, cypress and coriander. Image from National Geographic News, March 29th, 2007.
A fragment of limestone tomb decoration shows the making of lily perfume - from the 4th Dynasty (2500s BC). Image by Jastow, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Across the ocean, the influence of Eastern aromas upon the classical world was infectious. The conquest of Alexander the Great had opened the Eastern trade routes to mainland Greece and Rome, introducing a plethora of exotic aromas from Asia, Arabia and Persia. Among these strange and alluring new smells were sandalwood, patchouli, jasmine and amber and animal extracts like civet, a secretion of the anal glands of the civet cat, musk, from the pods of male musk deer and ambergris, a lumpy substance found in the digestive tract of the sperm whale.

Keenly interested in the study of natural science and botany, the Greeks were the first to investigate the link between hygiene, disease prevention and aromatic plants.”

Around 340BC, Theophrastus, the student and successor of Aristotle, released ‘Concerning Odours – an enquiry into plants, odours and weather patterns’, a detailed record of the odours found in iris, cistus, hyacinth, narcissus, rose and mint.

With greater access to ingredients and an improved technique of infusing the ephemerality of fragrance in oils, a bourgeoning perfume industry arose in Greece. No longer was perfume restricted to the temples, Gods and houses of elite – factories, such as that found in Cypress, appeared seemingly overnight, selling beautifully packaged alabaster bottles in an array of intoxicating scents. It would seem likely that the tale of Aphrodite’s birth arose because of the thriving perfume trade already existing on the island; the romantic legend of her creation only creating further interest around the trade.

Of all the ancient cultures that held a fascination with the allure of perfume, there was none as intensely lavish as the Romans. It is said that when Julius Caesar returned from Egypt, he launched flagons of expensive, exotic aromas into the crowds, lauding his control over Egypt. The Romans were quick to make these aromas their own, giving perfume the name it still carries today (per fumum – through smoke). The popularity of cosmetics and fragrances grew as quickly the Empire itself. During the  1st Century AD, the Romans were importing around 2800 tons of frankincense and 500 tons of myrrh a year from the East for the purposes of beautification. Public baths were the centres of pleasure, with an abundance of fragrant salves, sprays, oils and rosewater on offer.

The Emperor Nero loved the scent of rose so much that he had silver pipes installed in the dining rooms to spritz guests with its fresh aroma during meals – Nero is also purported to have spent a small fortune installing a rose petal fountain that was later removed after the death of a guest.”

The infatuation with fragrance was so profound that a group of moralists, led by historian, Pliny the Elder, arose in condemnation of perfume, claiming its over excessive use was un-Roman and would lead to the ultimate demise of the empire.

Rome did eventually fall – and with it, the majesty of the ancient fragrance obsession. Although perfume returned again, to tempt and seduce the human spirit with its alluring aromas, it was never with the same sense of grandeur as it was during the reign of the ancients.


Recipe for Kyphi – one of the most popular Egyptian temple incenses, sourced from the Papyrus Ebers.

Honey, frankincense (antiu), mastic, genen (sweet flag), pine kernels, Cyperus grass, camel grass, inektun, cinnamon.

Recipe for the Blue Lotus fragrance
– made popular by Cleopatra

For a 5ml bottle of perfume:

2ml x frankincense, 1ml of blue lotus absolute, 1ml of cinnamon, 2ml of sweet almond oil, 4 oz of spiced rum. Mix oils together in bottle, add frankincense, add blue lotus, add cinnamon, add sweet almond oil. Let stand for a week, gently shaking the bottle each day. Add spiced rum and leave to sit in a cool dark place for a few weeks before wearing.

Frankincense, a common ingredient in ancient perfume recipes. By the 1st Century AD, Rome used about 2,800 tons of frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh a year in aromas, imported from Persia, Arabia and Africa. Image from Wikimedia Commons.