There is no perfume culture with more mystery or confusion than that of the ancient Egyptians. Their perfume production wasn’t the oldest in the world nor the most sophisticated, yet the mystique of Egypt drips with fragrance. Perhaps it was because perfume and cosmetics played such a vital role in everyday life.
The popular image of the ancient Egyptians as morose and death-obsessed in inaccurate. If anything, the Egyptians were sensualists with a healthy dose of death acceptance. Above all they loved perfume. There is evidence of perfume and cosmetic production going back to the reign of Narmer (31st century BCE). FYI, Narmer was the guy who united Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. Where was the best-kept image of King Narmer found you might ask? Why on the back of a cosmetics pallet of course.
It will take several posts to discuss the multitude of ways that scent played a part in Egyptian death rituals, and several parts just to talk about their history and religious significance in everyday life, for now, we are going to focus on the history and alchemy of Egyptian fragrance production.
Ancient Egyptian Perfume Production: What we know and what we don’t
A quick google search will provide all the pop Apocrypha about the Egyptians that you can stomach. The Egyptians’ iconic art and myths have been commandeered to sell everything from cold cream to whatever is going on here.
Perfume is no exception. Surprisingly, the Egyptians were not remembered as the darling of the fragrance world until a renewed interest in Egypt occurred in the West at the latter end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 has been particularly powerful in spurring public interest. From the fall of Cleopatra to the Ottman Empire no one seemed to care about ancient Egyptian perfumes much. Perfumes made in Egypt in the interim were indistinct from fragrances found elsewhere in North Africa and the Levant. Coinciding with King Tut’s world tour. However, it seemed that every Tom, Dick, and Tutmoses found an ancient recipe or magic perfume papyrus and started making fragrances, but what do we know about Egyptian perfuming making?
Well sadly, not a whole lot on specific formulae. Archaeological evidence and tomb reliefs show perfume production from the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, but the earliest recipe is from the Ptolemy Era and came from Greece. Industrial perfume factories have been excavated from the New Kingdom period, but no evidence of any formulae. The art of the time does not depict a precise process. So, sadly your bottle of Eau d’Sphynx is not based off an ancient magical formula found in a canopic jar. (It might be a good time to mention perfume companies can legally lie about the ingredients or origin of their juice.)
Why Did No Formula Survive?
Well, one explanation, which I believe, is that like today, perfuming was a highly specialised skill. Formulae were kept a secret to protect production exclusivity. Secondly, these scents were used in ritual and therefore, also needed occult exclusivity. For several thousand years of Egyptian history, perfume was the sole property of the gods and the Pharaohs to be used in a ceremonial function. It wasn’t until the 18th Dynasty that we start to see evidence of courtiers and royal servants using perfume. By the 20th Dynasty profane, or specifically made for commercial sale, perfumes were available to middling Egyptians.
Collecting raw perfuming materials was one of the reasons behind the trade expedition to Punt under Pharaoh Hatshepsut around 1480 BCE. It still took until the Ptolemies (305 BCE-30BCE) for the perfume to be exported from Egypt to the Mediterranean. The Ptolemies, being a conquering ruling class that promoted the cult of Serapis, would not have had much use for these highly specialised perfume factories devoted to the Cosmic Lotus beyond making money off them. 3,100 years of importing perfumery materials for non-commercial use versus 278 years of exporting perfume supports the concept that perfuming was not a business venture for most of Egyptian history, but a form of religious devotion.
We do know a lot about production, though. The perfume shop in Amarna was not that different from what you would have found in Grasse before WWII. Steam and heat distillation, maceration, infusions, and solid concrete making were all techniques in regular use 4,000 years ago. They also seemed to be creating several hundred kilos of finished product each year, which is incredible given the amount of labour needed to hand distil these items. We also know that both men and women worked as perfumers, and there appears (from art depicting production) that a hierarchical system was in place not unlike the apprenticeship system that we still have echoes of today.
The head perfumer at a given site was known as the Processor of the Blue Lotus, and several of them were buried in the Valley of the Queens (18th-20th Dynasty), known at the time as Ta Set Neferu (The Place of Beauty). Clearly, the Processor of the Blue Lotus was an honoured position. They would have been responsible for handling the production of the most sacred ingredient in both religious and domestic scents, the blue lotus.
They may have also overseen the production of an intoxicating aphrodisiac of blue lotus and Mandragora. This concoction was well known throughout the ancient world and often depicted on tomb walls. There are reports by officials in the 17th Dynasty of people having difficulty functioning in day to day life due to an overindulgence of blue lotus. This may be the first known record of drug dependency in history. It has been speculated too that this narcotic brew was the inspiration for the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey.
When these head perfumers/drug pushers were not busy keeping the court mesmerised they were probably also priests of Nefertem (The God of Perfume, Beauty & Health) or Shezmu (The God of Oil Extraction). The fact that the Egyptians had gods of perfume and oil distilling says a lot about what they found important.
One of the many ways Victorian archaeology projected its worldview on ancient Egypt was by downplaying the sensual importance of perfume. These killjoy academics often asked, “Well if it meant so much to them why don’t we see large tracks of land devoted to flowers?” A recent theory may answer why no dedicated flower plantations have been found. El Shimy points out that the ancient perfumeries in Karnack and Amarna were not close to the fields like the brewery, and wine presses were but were close to temple and burial structures. These buildings once hosted elaborate and expensive temple and funeral gardens filled with henna, labdanum, daisy, poppy, anemone, chrysanthemum, jasmine and rose. Dried cassia and cinnamon from India have been found in storerooms nearby, and there are clear paths from these areas to blue lotus, papyrus, and water lily patches. He asserts that the grave and temple gardens were not ornamental, but for perfume production and were ritualistically placed in a sacred precinct to give further religious significance or holiness to the raw materials used. This is further supported by the perfumer’s role as priest and the sacred nature of their products.
These factories were for making perfume for the gods that eventually included kings and the wealthy on its client lists. In Part II we will look into how mummies became a sought-after fragrance ingredient.