Valentine’s Day? Since when has love needed to express itself on a set date? Granted, the tradition goes back centuries before florists, candy-makers and Hallmark turned it into another opportunity to pull out the plastic. In fact, it goes back even further than the Christian calendar: like many of its celebrations, the Church grafted it onto older pagan rituals. The period between February 13 and 15 was when the ancient Romans celebrated the Lupercalia (from lupus, “wolf” in Latin) to honor Faunus Lupercus, the protector of flocks: a goat, the symbol of fertility, was sacrificed by two naked young men in the grotto where the she-wolf fed the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Remus and Romulus. The celebrations involved a lottery where young men would draw the names of maidens from a jar and squire them for the duration of the festival, hence the link between the pagan fertility and purification feast and saint Valentine’s patronage of lovers.
So rather than the mawkish day of roses and chocolates, I would rather celebrate the goat and the she-wolf with a picture of the heroine of Rossellini’s Rome Open City and Pasolini’s formidable Mamma Roma, the patrician peasant Anna Magnani, and a note on a she-wolf, he-goat smell that came to me from Italy, courtesy of Abdes Salaam Attar, also known as Dominique Dubrana of Profumo Italia.
I’ve never met Salaam or even spoken to him, but we’ve exchanged emails. He’d promised to send me a few samples and when the envelope arrived, as soon as I unsealed it the cat literally teleported herself next to me, trying to pry a little stone from my fingers, purring and meowing like a mad thing.
I had to lock up the cat before having a proper sniff, which yielded fascinating observations: a smell all at once animal, mineral and vegetal with facets of blood/old penny, acetic acid (present in vinegar), apple, flint, patchouli, vetiver, pepper, cow and horse dung, herbaceous notes (basil?), blackberry, blackcurrant bud, ink, leather, olive… The closest thing it came to in perfumery was castoreum.
I immediately shot off an email to Salaam to ask him what the stuff was: he replied he’d deliberately not identified it so that I would ask him the question. But by the time he answered I’d sussed it out on my own: the little rock now resting in a feline-proof box was hyraceum, otherwise known as African Stone, the fossilized urine of a rabbit-sized South African beastie called the hyrax or dassie. Hyrax colonies urinate at the same place, often for centuries and their urine is jelly-like rather than liquid. Over time, it fossilizes and can be collected in chunks. It has been used in vernacular medicine for centuries and the perfume industry has been considering it as a replacement for materials of animal origin, since it is cruelty-free. After all, it’s basically recycled piss.
Ick? Hardly. I couldn’t get enough of the warm, funky, somehow feminine smell of hyraceum, I wrote back to Salaam, whom I could imagine chuckling in his beard as he typed back his answer: “Then you must be a member of the olfactory perverts club…”
African Stone has nothing at all to do with Saint-Valentine’s day, but to me it is the smell of the Day of the She-Wolf. I can bill and coo with the best of them, but there are some days where I’d rather howl.
What about you? What’s the smell of the She-Wolf for you?
You can order a hyraceum stone tincture kit from Profumo Italia by clicking here.
Illustration: photograph of Anna Magnani.