jeudi 5 juin 2008

The Myth of Myrrh

« Theias, king of Assyria, had a daughter called Smyrna (or Myrrha). Smyrna incurred Aphrodite’s wrath by not paying homage to her. She inspired a passionate love for her father in the girl. Wirth the help of her nursemaid, Smyrna managed, by fooling her father, to sleep with him twelve nights in a row. When Theias realized what he had done, he took out his knife and set off in pursuit of Smyrna. Theias was about to reach her when she begged the gods to make her invisible. They took pity on her and changed her into a tree called smurna (or murrha), the myrrh tree. Nine months later, the bark of the tree split, and out came the child called Adonis. He was so beautiful, when he was very young, that Aphrodite hid in a chest to conceal him from the eyes of the gods and gave him to Persephone to keep. The moment Persephone saw Adonis she refused to return him to Aphrodite. Zeus was called on to arbitrate the conflict; he divided the year in three parts: Adonis would spend a third alone; Persephone would receive another; the last would be for Aphrodite. But Adonis gave his own share to the latter goddess. Later, during a hunt, Adonis perished, wounded by a boar.”
Panyassis of Halicarnassus (5th century B.C.), quoted by Marcel Détienne.

Thus Adonis, the perfumed lover, was born of the worst possible sexual transgression, incest, loved by two rival goddesses, and died sterile on the eve of manhood like all those who give devote themselves too much, and too early, to sensuous pleasures.

In The Gardens of Adonis, Marcel Détienne’s remarkable study of the myth of Adonis and of the use of spices, the historian underlines the Ancient Greek’s ambiguous perception of perfume.
On the one hand, frankincense and myrrh are incorruptible substances – the very antithesis of the mortal flesh of men and beasts and of putrescible plants. They establish a bridge between the earthly world of men and the celestial world of the gods, who receive them as offerings during sacrificial rituals: the immortals feed on their divine fragrance, so close to their own.

On the other hand, when they are used in order to seduce, these aromatic substances take on a negative connotation. The women who wear them to entice their lovers abuse them: by imitating divine beauty, they divert perfumes from their primary function and exhaust their partners’ sexual energy. Married couples who use them commit a perversion by falling into lechery: the aim of marriage is to produce legitimate heirs, not to lead men astray from their civic and religious duties… The courtesans, concubines and prostitutes who wear fragrances – and who cannot bear legitimate offspring – are sterile like Adonis. The festivals in which they pay homage to the demigod emphasize this. During the Adoniads, these women and their lovers or clients plant small gardens in pots or baskets, and expose them to the mid-July sun, in a type of inverted celebration of the Earth’s fecundity. The plants grow quickly and wither at once: the gardens of Adonis are then thrown in the sterile waters of fountains or in the sea. This rite is accompanied by the simulated harvest of spices, taken down from rooftops and burned during orgies where all the fleshly excesses are allowed, and sought.

Myrrh is therefore a paradoxical substance, incorruptible and corrupting, sacred and perilous, whose birth is marked by maximum transgression ending in tragic death. In The Gardens of Adonis, Marcel Détienne adds that the blood spilled by the perfumed lover, mortally wounded by a boar, dyed anemones red… And that anemones have no fragrance.

The erotic use of scents – of Adonis’ perfume – is thus, from the birth of Western culture, assigned a negative connotation. Christianity will take it a step further – unlike the Old Testament, rife with sweetly fragrant lovers. This suspicion towards perfume persists throughout history, and the anathema has never quite been lifted: it even seems to be on the rise – just think of the ban on perfumes in several American workplaces, or in the public buildings of whole cities like Halifax, Canada. It is possible to consider this Puritanism masquerading as a medical condition – known as “multiple chemical sensitivities” – as a distant reminiscence of the Ancient Greeks’ mistrust of the artifices of seduction.

Image: The Birth of Adonis, by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1754-1837)

8 commentaires:

  1. Please, please tell me you're writing a book about perfume.
    x e

  2. Eartha, from your keyboard to the publisher's ears! A couple of projects are under way,none definitive as of yet. Thank you so much for your encouragement!

  3. You are an amazing writer and I have enjoyed reading your thoughts here and elsewhere. Frankincense and myrrh remind me of high Catholic mass when I was little - very solemn and wondrous.

  4. Elizabeth, that's very kind of you.
    My memories of mass in Québec, where I was raised, involve priests with guitars in the 60s and 70s... I only discovered the full glory of Catholic rites in Andalucia during the Holy Week, but only frankincense was burned. I plan to write about the intoxicating smells of the Semana Santa some time soon, though a bit out of season...

  5. Well, maybe it was just frankincense. I am a novice, though I do know that at least one of them was smoldering. :-)
    And your masses sound like much more fun than I remember mine being, the frankincense notwithstanding.

  6. Elizabeth, there's a shop near the church of Saint Sulpice, in Saint Germain des Prés, where you can buy various Catholic "accessories" (crucifixes, rosaries, missals, etc) and also various qualities of incense, along with the little hollowed out coal to burn them. That's when I discovered about "real" Church frankincense. Nobody said a thing about myrrh, but I'll ask next time I'm near (it's right next door to Annick Goutal!).

  7. Also, it smells really good...

    Lovely post, D. Now you're going to share your favorite myrrh frags with us, right?? Because I don't really feel like I have a handle on this one & I need to explore it more.

  8. Hi A.! Favorite myrrh frags coming right up... Just felt the post would've been too long if I'd added them straightaway. Stay tuned tomorrow!