My interest in scent stems from my hobby as a perfumer, and I am especially intrigued by historical perfumes. A precious and rare vial of L’Origan perfume, released in 1905, sealed the deal for me as a perfume collector. When I opened the box it had arrived in, I was hit with the aroma that once caused a newspaper reporter to proclaim, “All Paris smells of L’Origan!” There was a small spill of perfume. To put it simply, it was a blissful instant. I was taking in the aromas of the world in the same way that ancient people had.
Number 10: The Space
Logic dictates that there shouldn’t be any odors in space since it’s a vacuum. Still, it is the case. To begin, our galaxy’s nucleus is a huge, sweet-smelling gas cloud that smells like rum (the chemical is called Ethyl Formate). That just doesn’t make sense. The truth is unknown. According to astronaut reports, other space odors are also food-related, with some describing them as sulfurous and meaty. Don Pettit, a science officer aboard the International Space Station, offered his observations: “The best summary I can come up with is metallic; a rather enjoyable sweet metallic sensation.” It took me back to the summers I spent in college repairing heavy machinery for a local logging company using an arc welding torch. To me, it smelled like sweet welding fumes. Yes, that is the aroma of outer space.
Number 9: Different Planets
So long as we’re discussing the cosmos, let’s talk about the planets, shall we? The chemical makeup of various planets’ atmospheres allows us to make educated guesses about their smell. Sulfuric acid clouds in Venus’s atmosphere are responsible for the planet’s rotten egg odor, while sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide on Mars and Uranus contribute to the planet’s sulfurous odors. Because different chemicals make up different parts of Jupiter’s atmosphere, the planet has varying aromas depending on where you are. The not-so-delightful hydrogen cyanide in some layers gives off the scent of bitter almonds, while the noxious odor of ammonia permeates the air near the surface.
Number 8: Death
A common deathbed odor is acetone, which is a byproduct of the decomposition process (the very fruity-smelling chemical that is used as nail polish remover). However, in some cases, that is compounded by unpleasant odors caused by the specific illness the person is dying from. When a death occurs, the body begins to decompose, giving off several chemicals with rather apt names: the first two, cadaverine and putrescine, have a putrid odor just like their names imply. Exactly why do our bodies secrete these chemicals? Those who hold this view think that it evolved to serve as a signal to the group that danger is present.
Number 7: Palace in Versailles
Marie, Queen of Scots, and Louis XVI, King of France, made Versailles Palace their home. It’s a stunning landmark, and you should check it out on your next trip to France. We can all agree that in our fantasies, life is replete with delicious aromas of perfumes, pastries, princes, and pompadours, but we never picture the other two ‘p’s: piss and poop. In the 18th century, plumbing was primitive at best, and the facilities at Versailles Palace were severely lacking (flush toilets were in the royal apartments only). Since there were few other options, people had to use something called a bourdaloue, a miniature porcelain pot, whenever nature called.
Number 6: The Colosseum of Rome
The Roman Colosseum hosted a wide variety of entertainment for its patrons, from gladiator battles to live animal hunts featuring exotic animals. Later on, during the Christian persecutions, Christians met their deaths in a variety of ways, including at the jaws of wild animals. However, Romans were sensitive people who found the smell of blood offensive, so the Colosseum employed a cunning trick to alleviate the problem. An awning (known as a velarium) was erected above the heads of the paying customers to provide shade from the hot sun and shelter from the rain. Ingeniously hidden tubes would continuously spray perfumed water over the awning, not only to dampen the heads of the spectators and keep them cool but also to help mask the stench of death.
Number 5: Drugs
Naturally occurring drugs have been used for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, drug companies successfully persuaded the public to reject natural remedies in favor of synthetic equivalents. To be honest, most of us probably couldn’t identify the odor of a drug if it slapped us in the face. When smoked, opium has a pleasant aroma reminiscent of sweet, slightly charred marshmallows. Heroin: when burned, heroin gives off an overwhelming vinegar smell. The smell is reduced with increased quality, but some smell is inevitable with any presentation. The vinegar aroma comes from the processing method used to turn opium into heroin. Drug dogs are specifically trained to sniff out the vinegar aroma.
Number 4: Ship Titanic
On the morning of April 15, 1912, the Titanic’s massive body, split in two and plunged to the ocean floor. As many as 1,300 people perished in the tragedy. The first thing a passenger would notice upon boarding the ship would be the aroma of freshly varnished wood, painted walls, and sawn planks. Back then, lead and linseed oil were common ingredients in paint. Smoke from the coal-powered engines and the delicious aromas of roasting duck, lamb, and beef would have filled the air that fateful night in first class. Earlier that same year, L’Heure Bleue (the bluish hour) was released by the illustrious French perfume house Guerlain, described as “velvety soft and romantic, it is a fragrance of bluish dusk and anticipation of night, before the first stars appear in the sky.”
Number 3: Temples of Ancient Egypt
Since frankincense and myrrh make up the bulk of most Church incense, their aroma will be familiar to anyone who has visited a Catholic church. The same resins were also used by the Ancient Egyptians in their temples, so the piercing aroma of incense would have greeted you as you entered. Flowers were a common sight in Egyptian churches, just as they are in Western ones. Lotus flowers and other marsh plants and reeds predominated. The lotus flower has an intensely fruity aroma. While the sickly sweetness would have been the most noticeable, the water and dirt scents from the marsh plants would have been present as well. Jasmine, with its hypnotic fecal odor of indole, roses, with their sweet blossoming aroma, and fresh mandrake, with its intense scent reminiscent of dried tobacco, would have also been present.
Number 2: Nazism and the Holocaust
The Nazi regime disbanded Jewish ghettos and initiated mass deportations of Jews via train in 1942. The entire trip from the city to the camp was permeated by the stench of diarrhea, feces, and urine. Inside and outside of the trains, the worst of human nature was on display. Those who were in the camps and saw bodies being burned reported a stench that was apart from anything they had ever experienced. The smell of meat being seared for consumption is a simple one. That is not the case when a human body is burned. Those living in the concentration camp would have been subjected to a nauseating odor that was reminiscent of both beef and pork due to the burning flesh and human fat. There would be noxious odors of sulfur from torching nails and hair a coppery metal aroma from scorching blood and iron-rich organ systems, and a sickly sweet musky odor reminiscent of perfume from burning spinal fluid. It’s an aroma so rich you can almost taste it.
Number 1: Sanctity
Saints tend to stink a bit. Odore di Zolfo, the stench of death, sulfur, is the antithesis of the odor of sanctity, or Osmogenesia. There are many manifestations of this holy aroma. Some saints have a sweet fragrance that they emit for no apparent reason while they are alive; for others, this fragrance begins to emanate from their bodies after death and is often accompanied by incorruptibility. And for some, it seeps out of the tomb where the saint’s body is buried along with a pleasant aroma. St. Simeon Stylites, who spent 37 years atop a pillar while his skin slowly rotted beneath the objects of mortification he wore, provides one of the most striking accounts of the odour of sanctity. Those who came in contact with the saint described a sweet fragrance. If you could describe the aroma of holiness, what would you describe it as? Honey, butter, roses, lavender, frankincense, myrrh, pipe tobacco, jasmine, and lilies are all common descriptors, as are hints of spiciness and floral aromas.
Among the list, what do you think would smell the most incredible?
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