Perfume has been a desired commodity since ancient times and many of the techniques used are still used to some degree today. When looking at ancient attitudes towards perfume it is surprising to discover how much it actually reflects the expectations of it in the modern day. To understand the nature of it in Ancient Greece, historians rely upon written sources, excavated mosaics and other pictorial representations and artifacts such as perfume bottles. From these items, lots can be determined about the function, importance and production of it in ancient Greece.
The art of perfume making began in the island such as Crete and other Greek colonies. It was brought to the agora or marketplace and sold from stalls. The ancient Greeks quickly began to experiment with them, and created their own extraction techniques which incorporated boiling herbs and flower petals. These methods isolated the required plant ingredients and then perfumes were made by infusing the extracted scents in oils. The process was a simple version of modern techniques but could create as wide a variety of them as can be enjoyed today.
The ingredients were mainly homegrown flowers such as iris and marjoram, roses, lilies, and violets. Herbs and spices such as sage and cumin were also used. Incense and myrrh were seen as decadent and were perfume ingredients reserved for gods until the 4th century when there was a shift in tastes, ideology and availability. Like other ancient civilization, the ancient Greeks imported oriental essences to create more exotic perfumes. However, unlike other civilizations, they kept them mainly for their own use, rather than for export.
Perfume was central to ancient Greek life. It was so popular that the politician Solon temporarily banned the use of it to prevent an economic crisis. It was at the centre of hospitality, wealth, status, daily life and even philosophy. It was seen as erotic, mystical and spiritual. It was linked to beauty which was inextricably linked with divinity. The origins of perfume and perfumery are interwoven with Greek mythology. In Homeric tradition, the Olympian gods taught perfumery to people. The colour and scent of the rose is attributed to events surrounding Venus and Cupid.
Perfume was worn by both men and women and was central to cult worship as it was seen as pleasing to the gods and able to win their favour. It covered the scent of sacrifices during ceremonies, and was used as a good omen for marriage and childbirth. Babies were anointed with it for good health. It was also central to death. Perfumed libations were carried at the front of the funeral procession. Bodies were burned wrapped in perfumed shrouds which were thought to help secure a happy afterlife. Other bodies were buried with containers of it, again as offerings to the gods.
Perfume was also integral to cleanliness, and used in elaborate bathing rituals by both men and women. It was used so widespread that the philosopher Socrates openly disliked and dismissed its usage claiming it made a free man indistinguishable from a slave. Athletes used perfume after exercise for medicinal purposes in the form of balms and unguent oils. This is an early recognition of the possible therapeutic and healing properties that are reminiscent of attitudes towards aromatherapy and aromacology in modern times. Hospitality also required an abundance of perfume as guest`s feet were washed and anointed on being seated. Some wines were also perfumed according to works by Appicius, in the hope that they had medicinal properties.
With the importance of perfume so apparent, it is no surprise that it was stored in bottles shaped as birds an animals, sometimes only a few inches in size. Many are found from around the 6th century BC and are known as plastics. In fact, the perfume bottles are spun ceramics and they commonly adopted a shape which reflected the type of perfume to be contained.
Lekuthos were used for liquid perfume and were slim elegant glass bottles. Aryballes were used for oils and unguents. Alabastron perfume bottles were highly prized, mainly amongst women and it was common for the craftsmen to brand the bottles to mark their craftsmanship, making them even more collectable. As you can see, there are many similarities to modern day attitudes towards perfume.