Monday, July 25, 2011

The Use of Perfumery in Greek Religious Ceremonies

Alexander the Great’s tutor objected to the excessive and wasteful use of incense in the sacrifices that Alexander ordered. He said:

“It would be time for him, so to worship when he had conquered the countries that produced the frankincense.”

So basically: conquer the countries that make the incense instead of importing them, so that they're cheaper. Alexander must have remembered his tutor’s words, because when he had taken possession of Arabia, he sent a shipment of frankincense and myrrh to his old teacher.

Incense and perfumery were almost always used in ancient Greek sacrificial ceremonies. When the Greeks sought the guidance of the Gods or wanted their luck in an undertaking, they sacrificed the animal associated with that particular God or Goddess. For example:

Zeus (Greek) / Jupiter (Roman) – an ox

Hecate – a dog

Aphrodite / Venus – a dove

Poseidon / Neptune – a fish

Demeter / Ceres – a sow

The animal victim was laid on a bed of fragrant flowers and herbs, and garlands of flowers were placed around its neck while frankincense was burned. Libations of wine were poured out of flat vessels and fragrant, edible plants were consumed by those present.

Hesiod described the scene:

“Let the rich fumes of od’rous incense fly,

A grateful savour to the powers on high;

The due libation nor neglect to pay,

When evening closes or dawns the day.”

In more ordinary sacrifices, incense was still burned, filling the air with its scent.


Piesse, George William Septimus. The Art of Perfumery and the Methods of Obtaining the Odours of Plants. London, 1862. pp. 4.

Rimmel, Eugene. The Book of Perfumes. London, 1867. pp. 78.

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