Perfume in History Ancient Greece

Written by Leanna Serras

The popularity of wearing a sweet-smelling, indulgent fragrance dates back to the beginning of civilization. Humans have been creating scents out of natural materials--such as flowers, spices, oils, and herbs--for centuries. We know that perfume existed in ancient India, around 3300-1300 B.C.E., and that the ancient Egyptians used perfume for both beautification and ceremonial purposes. To the ancient Greeks, perfume was thought to be a gift from the gods, and many perfumes were named after Greek goddesses. Wearing perfume was also thought to be a pleasing act for the gods. Perfume actually became popular in the 3rd century after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and sent large amounts of plants, spices, and incense to Greece for perfume to be created for him. The ancient Greeks were such great innovators when it came to perfumery that we still use many of the same methods and recipes today!

How The Greeks Used Perfume

Both men and women in ancient Greece used perfume) in a variety of ways. They practiced a form of aromatherapy in which certain scents were used to improve health, vitality, and moods. Perfume was used in almost all of their traditional rituals and ceremonies, from birth to marriage to death. They believed that wrapping bodies in perfumed shrouds would ensure their happiness in the afterlife. For marriage, it was considered a good omen to use a special fragrance on the wedding day. Perfume was also a source of hospitality to the Greeks--when guests would arrive at a home, servants would bathe their feet in perfumed oils. The ancient Greeks also practiced elaborate bathing rituals in which perfumes were very important.

How It Was Made

The oldest perfumery was discovered on the island of Cyprus in 2007. The ancient Greeks enjoyed experimenting with perfume-making by incorporating different extractions and blending techniques into creating scents. They would often boil flower petals, herbs, and spices, and soak (or "infuse") the material into a "carrier" oil, such as fresh-pressed olive oil. They typically used local flowers and herbs, such as marjoram, parsley, irises, violets, and lilies; and spices like cumin and sage. They also loved to import spices, like pepper, cinnamon, cassia, and ginger from neighboring Eastern countries. Many ancient Greek and Roman perfume recipes have survived throughout the centuries. Because the ancient Greeks carefully documented their perfume-making process, we are able to recreate these perfumes in the modern age.

Perfume Bottles & Vessels

It is believed that the ancient Greeks were the first to create liquid perfume. Needing somewhere to store these precious oils, artists began making perfume vessels and bottles specifically for perfume storage. These bottles were beautiful and often made into shapes, like animals and birds. Women began collecting the bottles, which were prized for their unique artistry. Artists even began branding their bottles to make them more desirable and collectible. Many of these bottles can be found on display today in museums. Terracotta, alabaster, and metal were the most common materials used for perfume vessels in Greece.

In addition to smaller vessels, most homes in ancient Greece had an "exaleiptron," which was a bigger vessel used for storing large amounts of perfume. This was usually used for anointing the feet of visitors, but also held religious significance and was used during important rituals.

'Concerning Odours' by Theophrastus

The Greek scientist and philosopher Theophrastus wrote a book called Concerning Odours that delves greatly into the use of fragrance in ancient Greece. In the text, he discusses how scents mix with wine, how they are used as ointments for the body, and how they are used to scent the home. In Concerning Odours, Theophrastus makes many interesting observations about perfumes used in ancient Greek life. For instance, he makes distinctions between "good" and "evil" scents, and discusses the relation between smell and taste. He also points out that the "lightest" perfumes, made from roses and lilies are best suited to men, while the best for women are megaleion, sweet marjoram, myrrh oil, and spikenard. This gives us insight that even in ancient Greece, there were scent preferences between men and women.

Hippocrates & His Use of Perfumes

Hippocrates, known as the "Father of Medicine", wrote many treatises on medicinal plants including cinnamon, saffron, thyme, mint, coriander, and marjoram. He discussed in great detail the importance of preparing herbs in the correct way for medicinal use--some should be dried, others crushed, some should be gathered early in the morning or later in the evening. These rules for collecting herbs were closely followed by the ancient Greeks as they created perfume. Hippocrates is often thought of as the original founder of aromatherapy, since he put so much thought and effort into learning about the gathering and caring for therapeutic plants.