Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Scent of a Woman

Public release date: 15-Mar-2009 Contact: Michael Höveler-Müller 49-228-739-710 University of Bonn What scents did the ancient Egyptians use? Researchers in Bonn aim to recreate a 3,500-year-old scent This release is available in German. Pharaoh Hatshepsut was a power-conscious woman who assumed the reins of government in Egypt around the year 1479 B.C. In actual fact, she was only supposed to represent her step-son Thutmose III, who was three years old at the time, until he was old enough to take over. But the interregnum lasted 20 years. "She systematically kept Thutmose out of power", says Michael Höveler-Müller, the curator of Bonn University´s Egyptian Museum. Hatshepsut´s perfume is also presumably a demonstration of her power. "We think it probable that one constituent was incense – the scent of the gods", Michael Höveler-Müller declares. This idea is not so wide of the mark, as it is a known fact that in the course of her regency Haptshepsut undertook an expedition to Punt – the modern Eritrea, and the Egyptians had been importing precious goods such as ebony, ivory, gold, and just this incense, from there since the third millennium B.C. Apparently the expedition brought back whole incense plants, which Hatshepsut then had planted in the vicinity of her funerary temple. World Premier with an interesting Result The filigree flacon now under examination by the researchers in Bonn bears an inscription with the name of the Pharaoh. Hence it was probably once in her possession. The vessel is exceptionally well preserved. "So we considered it might be rewarding to have it screened in the University Clinic´s Radiology Department", Höveler-Müller explains. "As far as I know this has never been done before". This world premier will now in all probability be followed by another one: "The desiccated residues of a fluid can be clearly discerned in the x-ray photographs", the museum´s curator explains. "Our pharmacologists are now going to analyse this sediment". The results could be available in a good year´s time. If they are successful, the scientists in Bonn are even hoping to "reconstruct" the perfume so that, 3,500 years after the death of the woman amongst whose possessions it was found, the scent could then be revitalised. Hatshepsut died in 1457 B.C. Analysis of the mummy ascribed to her showed that the ruler was apparently between 45 and 60 years of age at the end of her life; that she was also overweight, and suffering from diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and arthritis. Obviously for reasons of security, she was laid to rest in the tomb of her wet nurse. In 1903, over 3,300 years later, the famous Egyptologist Howard Carter stumbled upon the two mummies. However, more than 100 years were to pass before the Pharaoh´s corpse could be identified using DNA and dental analysis in the year 2007. Thutmose III, incidentally, appears not to have shed a single tear for his step-mother, as during his reign he had every image destroyed which showed her as ruler, and which could have belonged to her. ******************************************************************** Ancient Egypt seems to have had a god or goddess for just about everything, and sure enough, there was a god of scent - Nefertem (image, right, from Tour Egypt). To our modern sensibilities this seems a bit unusual, as we usually associate perfumes and colognes with the ladies. However, in many ancient and not so ancient cultures, both sexes wore scent to enhance their attractiveness, and perhaps to also mask much more unpleasant aromas (emanating both from the person and from the environment). In western societies today, men wear "after-shave" - which is just another word for cologne. Who among us has NOT heard of "Old Spice," etc. LOL! In ancient Egypt scent was used not only to enhance one's personal attractiveness, it was also used in a holistic manner to encourage health and emotional well-being. In that sense (pun!), the ancient Egyptians were way ahead of the aromatherapy of today! Nefertem was both an aspect of and, in some mythologies, a grandson of the Great Sun God, Re. He is very ancient, part of the Memphis triad, father: Ptah and mother: Sekhmet (opinions vary), although not well known, perhaps due to the prejudices of 19th century archaeologists who though that "scent" was an unimportant subject (and, as they were mostly men, were perhaps embarrassed that a male god was associated with so "feminine" a subject!) Nefertem is closely associated with the beautiful lotus. Interestingly, the lotus is also important in ancient Indian and Chinese symbolism. Whether this is a case of ancient cross-cultural contact or "simultaneous" (independent) development, I leave our readers to ponder. For further information on Nefertem, please see:
  • From the always excellent Tour Egypt, "Beauty Secrets of Ancient Egypt" by Judith Illes
  • From Encyclopedia Brittanica Online: In ancient Egyptian religion, youthful god associated with the lotus flower. Nefertem was an ancient god, mentioned in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2350 bce), but he became more prominent during the New Kingdom (1539–c. 1075 bce) and later. As a blue lotus he was believed to have emerged from the primeval waters. He also had a warlike aspect and could be depicted as a lion. He was most commonly represented holding a scimitar with a falcon’s head and wearing a headdress of a lotus with a menat (ritual necklace counterpoise) on each side and a pair of plumes above. As the son of Ptah and Sekhmet, he formed part of the Memphite triad.
  • Nefertem, God of Perfume, Water Lily of the Caroline Seawright (Seawright does excellent research and has written many articles for Tour Egypt and other ancient-Egypt related websites)
  • From Ntlrworld, an intriguing word and image essay on the "evolution", if you will, of Nefertem. Who among us doesn't love a mystery? Certainly provides material for further research...

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