Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleopatra's Perfumes

Not long ago, a friend gave me a set of perfume oils titled “The Fragrant Past,” subtitled “Perfumes of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.” It was a beautiful gift, to be sure, and piqued my interest in scents of antiquity.

The set was prepared as part of an exhibit done at Emory University’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, Michael C. Calos Hall. This exhibit was quite some time ago, in 1989. I suppose that the organizers needed a “hook,” something to arouse the interest of the casual museum-goer, and Cleopatra sufficed, as she always has. (But to be perfectly accurate, you’d have to include many more people, as the period being examined is that between the first century B.C.E. and the second century A.D., around two hundred years.)

Most of the history traditionally passed down about Cleopatra depicts her as a treacherous seductress, luring poor defenseless Julius Caesar to Egypt, and then Mark Antony to his death, complemented by her own suicide via poisonous asp. A lot of this was written by first-century Romans, who didn’t like her much. She did take up with both rulers, but these relationships started with political alliances. Cleopatra was a ruler, not a mistress. She was ruthless. She had one of her brothers (incidentally, he was her husband also, common in Egyptian dynasties then) assassinated.  Descriptions of her facial features weren’t kind. It didn’t seem to matter. She has been described as intelligent and charismatic, a great talker and, later, an effective ruler who built Egypt’s economy quite skillfully.

Shakespeare’s drama “Antony and Cleopatra” focuses on the romantic aspects of this story. His plays of this type were written to appeal to the commoners, who would have seen it much as we might see a historical romance novel, one we know took certain liberties with fact. He describes her royal barge as having purple sails “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick.” Well, maybe. Who really knows?

Professor Giuseppe Donato, who oversaw the preparation of the perfumes and wrote the package’s insert about them, describes them as unguents, what we’d call oils. None are sweet. They are thick, and the color varies from light gold to deep amber. There is little information on how they were derived, but my best guess -- based on the museum’s reputation, the subtlety of the scents and and the age of the oils --  is that the natural ingredients were used. These all have Latin names.  I found that delving into some of these ingredients led me down a long road, to translations of Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. To 79 A.D.) from whom Donato took much of his historical information.

I was trying to think of a way to describe all seven of these without too many Latin names, but there are some.  It’s my guess that Donato did this for continuity (and also, he’s Italian). So here goes:

Cyprinum -- Oil of cypress reed: I found this to be grassy, herbal and relatively faint. All but one ingredient (oil from unripe olives) are still used in artisanal and sometimes even mainstream perfumery.

Ingredients are cypress, cardamom, calamus, rosewood oil and onphacium (the olive oil).

Metopium -- Oil of bitter almond. (Incidentally, described elsewhere as “the perfume of ancient Egypt.”) This one is a little sharper than the last, and resinous at first, but there is a trace of sweetness in the drydown. Myrrh is the standout essence, at least to my nose.

Ingredients are bitter almond, probably the oil base -- benzaldehyde is sometimes synthesized from it now. Cardamom appears again, as does “rush,” calamus, honey, wine, myrrh, galbanum, turpentine resin and onphacium (the olive oil.)

Myrtle Laurum -- Oil of Myrtle and Laurel: Initially very much as expected -- an aromatic evergreen. Again, a little sweetness in the drydown. The ingredients are lily -- which I can’t detect at all -- fenugreek, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon, spikenard and rush.

Regale Unguentum  -- Royal Unguents: Pliny mentions this as having been composed for the kings of the Parthians, who ruled from a region of what is now northeastern Iran between 247 B.C.E. And 224 A.D. Certainly, it has a long list of ingredients. This makes it more mysterious to my nose, a little floral, a little animalic, well-mixed like a modern perfume but still relatively faint, with a herbaceous drydown.

So here we go with the ingredients:

Balanus oil, probably a fixative, also called Ben-nut; panace, a balm known for its healing power, also called all-heal or Hercules balm; oenanthe or “vine leaves,”; malabathrum or malobathrum, aka “Indian Bay Leaf” or tamala pattra (Sanskrit) -- obviously very ancient, used in cooking, too; amomum, another name for cardamom; cinnamon; spikenard; maro (marum or maron) which is a spice mixture similar to the modern Za’atar -- many variations; cassia, styrax, laudanum (possibly a misprint, as laudanum is tincture of opium -- maybe they meant labdanum? Or maybe not.) Balsalm, myrrh, calmus, rush, oenanthe, serichatum, a shrub not well-identified botanically but possibly cinnamon-like; cyperus (a rhizone with a violet-like scent), rosewood oil, crocus blossom (possibly saffron), henna, marjoram, honey, lotus and wine.

Rhodium -- Oil of Roses:  Initially, I can smell roses here, and a grassy, slightly animalic quality, but the drydown has a citrusy note that dominates. Apparently roses were quite common at this time and heavily used in perfumery.

Ingredients are rose, crocus, cinnabar, calmus, honey, rush, alkanet  (a coloring substance, made from a root, usually reddish), wine, “sublimated salt,” and onphacium (the olive oil.)

Susinum -- Oil of lilies: This one is quite faint, lightly floral. Donato says that it was the most refined and delicate of all the unguents. Even on skin, I can barely smell it, and it disappears rapidly.

Ingredients are: lily blossoms, crocus blossoms, balanus, calamus, honey and myrrh.

Telinum-- Oil of fenugreek: This has the strongest smell of them all, and it is clearly identifiable as fenugreek aka immortelle -- the familiar maple-syrup note used in some niche and artisanal perfumes today. The drydown features the fenugreek note prominently.

Ingredients are: Fenugreek, cyperus (a rhizome with a violet-like scent), calamus, melilot (yellow sweet clover), honey, mato, marjoram, and onphacium.

There is a lot of interesting reading possible here! I picked and chose from several references in my attempt to verify the insert’s description of the unguents. Here are some:

The New Perfume Handbook, (1997) by Nigel Groom. An essential resource. The book is out of print and pretty expensive, but the text is available on the web, often by googling the name of a perfume ingredient. ISBN is 0-7514 0403 9.

For some of Pliny’s writings on perfumes and plants, go here or here.

The bust of Cleopatra image, held by Berlin Museum, comes from WikiMedia. Historical information about her from various sources, including the Smithsonian and Wikipedia.

The package was prepared by Professor Giuseppe Donato, Director Emeritus for the Institute of Applied Technologies, National Research Council of Italy.


Anonymous said...

I went on a "kick" for a while that I was going to try to make my own historic versions of fragrances, so I tracked down many of those used in your samples. I have a small amount of Spikenard, Cassia & Calamus as well as myrrh & galbanum. I played a little and then I started doing some research on the oils. SCARY! The warning on the cassia is dermal irritant, dermal sensitizer and is a mucus membrane irritant. The Calamus is even scarier. It has warnings like Oral toxin, and is reported to have carcinogenic properties. Well after that I put little warnings on the bottles & put them away. Interesting to think that people used to died so young from perfume.

Olfacta said...

Hmmm....well, these re-creations were prepared long before the IFRA. In general, lab tests are done using tremendous amounts of the substance being tested. Calamus shouldn't be eaten, but is used in perfumery even now (Diptyque's new Duelle, Hermes Jardin Sur le Nil are two examples). I think it's costus root that has been banned.

Cassia is what most Americans think of as cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks are pure cassia bark and much supermarket "cinnamon" is also ground cassia. No one would recommend that you eat a bottle of it, but I think that the FDA would be all over it if moderate use was proved to be harmful. Most recipes call for a small amount -- 1/4 tsp or so. Often this is a matter of degree.

There is a lot of hysteria surrounding this subject. Maybe other commenters who may know better than I do would be willing to chime in.

olenska said...

Fascinating essay! I'm very taken with the concept of "historical perfume reenactments", such as Dawn Spencer Hurwitz' Egyptian perfumes, but this series sounds exceptionally true to historical records.... We have a copy of the first edition of Nigel Groom's Perfume Handbook in our library reference collection-- it includes a section in the back detailing historical perfume formulae. Does the New Perfume Handbook include it as well? (I've recommended that we upgrade to the newer edition, but that's not likely to occur in the near future...)

Olfacta said...

Hi Olenska -- The 1997 edition has as Appendix A the list of perfumes (name, house, year and family or brief description). Appendix B has historical formulas from the 1st century to 1800's or so, sort of a survey, and then "recipes" for things like pomader beads, from various periods of history. Then comes the Bibliography and a page of perfumes that were new in 1997 but didn't make it into the main part of the book.

ALibris sometimes has pretty good prices on this book. Hope this helps!

I need to check out DSH's Egyptian series. Thanks for reminding me, I'd forgotten about them.

Angela Cox said...

When reading Malcolm X's autobiography I was very amused by one subject. It seems nutmeg contains a strong toxin that causes hallcucinations. The kitchen in his prison was ordering nutmeg by the sack and the authorities never noticed. Maybe they thought the prisoners were addicted to Easter biscuits ?

Olfacta said...

Hi Angela -- That's a good one! I remember reading that it causes hallucinations, but you're lucky if you don't become, um, nauseated from it before it's had time to work. I wonder if the prison officials thought there was a stomach flu going around.

Bloody Frida said...

this post is so intriguing - I love it!! thanks so much.

Olfacta said...

Thanks BF! I was thinking, hmmm, this one isn't exactly a hit. But it is kind of long and nerdy, I know...

azra said...

I was actually reading a copy of National Geographic, October 1998 issue. I am still amazed by smell of Cleopatra's perfume and Napoleon's cologne samples in the magazine. They smell the same as I first smell them 3 years ago. I really love Cleopatra's perfume. It stated in the magazine it was blended with myrrh, balsam, cinnamon, cardamom, lotus, iris root, saffron and marjoram. I was wondering where can I get a copy of this fragrance. It's a very seductive scent.

Olfacta said...

Hi Ava -- The set I have isn't available as far as I know. But the well-known artisanal perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz makes a collection of Egyptian perfumes that might be what you're looking for. The URL for that is


Good luck!

jmpw said...


I with you have been obsessed with Cleopatra's perfume since smelling it in National Geographic.

Lucy said...

Have you tried Dawn Spencer Hurwitz Egyptian collection? Several perfumes based on the formulas that have been translated from the hieroglyphics. I think you would love them. Also look out for the blue lotus ingredient in natural perfumes, both soothing, intoxicating, literally, and fragrant in a way that seems to have the calming effect greater than valium.
I am hoping it becomes the next oudh.

Elaine said...

I came across an old copy, Oct. 1998, National Geographic, with a sample of Cleopatra's perfume. I have worn out the page smelling the scent. Heavenly!!! I detect a definite citrus odor--bergamot? Wish they sold this perfume.