Did you know that smell was the first and only existing sense? In the oceans of way back when, sight and speech had not yet been developed. Multicelled organisms relied on the detection of odours and chemicals to eat, and to stay out of harms way.
In our modern times, the sense of smell has lost its predominance in most western cultures, and we tend to rely heavily on our vision - defining and describing our surroundings in a highly visual manner. There are, however, still pockets of olfactory reliance around the globe…..
For example, there is a tribe known as the Ongee from the Andaman Islands where their whole world is defined by smell.
Their calendar is based around the odours of flowers that come into bloom at specific times of the year. Each season is named after a particular odour. Personal identity is also defined by smell. In order to refer to oneself, one touches the tip of one’s nose - a gesture interpreted as ‘me and my odour’.
When first meeting a member of the Ongee tribe, instead of asking ‘how are you?’ you would instead ask ‘konyune onorange-tanka?’ which means ‘how is your nose?’ This is followed by a strange etiquette. If the person responds that they feel heavy with odour, then the greeter must inhale deeply in order to remove some of the surplus, but if the greeter feels a little short on odour then the only polite redress would be to blow on them to bestow a little extra scent.
In India, an ancient text declares ‘I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love’, and is considered the equivalent of a western hug or kiss.
In certain Arabian countries it is considered impolite to deny someone the smell of your breath whilst speaking as it conveys a shameful avoidance of involvement.
In cultures where the sense of smell is still highly valued, the mixing of odours is often very carefully regulated. In the Amazon, each tribe is believed to share a similar odour, and so marriage is only allowed between persons of different odours which prevents relationships between close family members from occuring.
The Malay Temiar people go one step further……they believe that everyone has an odour soul located at the base of the spine. If you pass too closely behind a person then this soul is disturbed and mingles with your body often causing disease. This is prevented by calling out ‘Odour Odour’ whenever you approach a person from behind, which then forewarns the odour soul of the impending intrusion.
Our western interpretations of which perfumes and aftershaves cause an attraction effect would be way off the mark if you wanted a night out in Ethiopia. Here there is no scent more beautiful, than the odour of cattle. Men wash their hands in the urine and smear their bodies with manure. The women get off a little more lightly, rubbing butter into their heads, shoulders and various other body parts in order to make themselves smell more attractive (or maybe just to mask the smell of the manure?!?)
If you are invited for a meal in certain Arab countries, a perfume box containing between 4 and 8 bottles of oils is passed around, and each guest anoints herself with different scents using a glass dropper. This signifies the end of your visit and guests must depart as soon as the perfume ritual is completed. The ritual serves to promote a feeling of bonding and unity, and the social prestige of the hostess is enhanced by the pleasant smells she imparts to her guests.
So, the next time you are invited round to a dinner party and your host brings out the perfume – that’s your cue to order your taxi!
Do you have any smell or scent rituals that you’d like to share with us?