We shall all be changed…

Nathalie Priem and Wooden Horse's egg for The Big Egg Hunt

Eastertide is upon us with all its symbolism of change, rebirth, metamorphosis and immortality all neatly symbolised by the ancient symbol of the Egg. The Cosmic Egg from which some believe the whole universe was hatched; the fertile Egg for which Good and Evil fight for possession; and the humble hen’s egg which Carl Faberge turned into a impossibly luxurious celebration of the Orthodox Easter for the delectation of the last two Russian Tsars. Enamelled in pink, yellow, mauve, blue and emerald; encrusted with jewels on frameworks of gold and platinum; these gorgeous toys celebrated the Easter miracle with an extra symbolic twist – the touch of a tiny switch or rotation of a pearl would reveal a surprise, an interior wonder: miniature portraits, orange trees in flower, the Trans-Siberian Express, cathedrals, laying hens would rise up or burst forth from deep within the egg, a glittering child-like metaphor of rebirth + resurrection.

Theology, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales of every culture celebrate change: of form, of circumstance, of luck, of fate. Classical mythology abounds in tales of luckless individuals who for punishment, reward or escape from suffering, danger, old age or death are changed into statues, kingfishers, fountains, frogs, butterflies, grasshoppers, lizards and spiders, peacocks and sunflowers. Gods assume other forms to court mortal maidens: a white bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Girls pursued by these lecherous gods become laurel trees, rivers, heifers and heavenly constellations. Goddesses (like fairy godmothers and angels) turn themselves into old crones to test the piety and charity of mortals: I used to work with a girl who was always very very careful to be nice to any battered old lady who came near the counter lest she turn out to be a fairy in orthopaedic shoes; or an angel unawares, soliciting a free sample of Houbigant. We all remembered Grimms’ Diamond and Toads: it should be mandatory reading for all in the retail sector. A peasant girl speaks soft and sweet to a beggar-woman: her reward is to have roses and diamonds pouring from her lips with every utterance. Her malevolent sister, envious and rude, is doomed to spew out vipers and toads for eternity.

Brilliantly coloured and scented plants are natural inspirations for tales of transmutation. Scarlet anenomes were said to the blood of Venus’s lover Adonis, sprinkled with nectar by the grieving goddess. I’ve seen them in the deserts of Jordan, springing up from the brown wastes in warm February sun and there, rather than on the florist’s street stall,the legend seems entirely plausible. Lilies of the valley sprang from the Virgin’s tears at the Crucifixion: white violets from the deathbed of St Serafina; the bread in St Elizabeth’s apron was changed into roses. Hyacinths are all that remains of Apollo’s beautiful Spartan lover, accidentally slain by a discus: think of the shape of hyacinth flowers and then the arabesque curls of hair on an antique marble head. Cupid’s wounds of Love left by his arrows become sweet-smelling rose buds, while the self-obsessed cruel Narcissus turns into one of spring’s most fragile flowers, forever gazing into ponds and streams.

Good comes out of evil + pain; beauty and renewal from death. The fragility of humanity is compensated for by the perpetual cycle of the natural world, like the seamless shape of those cosmic eggs: no beginning and no end. And with just a little imagination we can also see perfume as a symbolic part of this cycle: look at oud, a perfect example. A great forest tree becomes infected by a parasite and in its death-struggles exudes this fragrant resin which breathes its own life and mythology. Again, with ambergris, foul waste matter is turned into something precious, mesmeric and aphrodisiac: it promotes life. A roomful of dying rose petals yield a few drops of precious vital essence. The Roman poet Ovid tells us the tale of Myrrha, the Eastern princess who conceived a monstrous passion for her own father and found escape in her metamorphosis into an incense tree, weeping bitter-sweet tears of myrrh for eternity.

“A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me: he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.” The erotic connotations of the resin in the Song of Solomon then transmute into manifestations of Divine Love in the Christian tradition. The costly bitter perfume is offered at the Nativity by the Three Magi, a Zoroastrian caste, said to have been devoted, incidentally, to the cult of the Egg. This foreshadows Christ’s embalming 33 years later by the Myrrophores, the Three Marys who bring myrhh to the Holy Sepulchre during the three days in the Tomb.
Note all the 3’s : one of the great symbolic numbers of religious numerology.

All of which helps to explain why the patron saint of perfume and perfumers is St Nicholas, one of the most famous saints in the calendar though not usually in this context; he is better known in his stocking-stuffing role as Santa Claus. His tomb at Bari was said to drip with aromatic myrrh, a sure sign of holiness and the resistance of a pure body to decay. The odour of sanctity, in fact. All perfume lovers owe him a lighted candle.

Wishing you all a very happy and relaxing Easter: rest up for renewal!

Image of Nathalie Priem with Wooden Horse’s egg from thebigegghunt.co.uk

“Consider the lilies…”

Lily of the Valley has inspired mankind for centuries

Lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically

“… Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Always productive and fascinating to smell perfume oils and then return to the original source – the flower which inspired them. The fascination for me lies in discovering how the flower actually smells in the raw, often remarkably different from what we imagined or remembered.

The radiance of the lily of the valley has inspired mankind for centuries. Modern sources sometimes claim it originated in Asia, though Nicolson’s exhaustive 1886 Gardening Dictionary describes it as native to Britain and at that period still to be seen growing profusely (imagine!) in English woods. Medicinal and spiritual qualities (the warding off of evil spirits) are attributed to it, and an extensive folk lore is not the least of its charms. The flower is said to represent Our Lady’s Tears at the Crucifixion; and sometimes named Jacob’s Ladder or Ladders to Heaven – from the Patriarch’s dream of angels, ascending and descending the Divine staircase.

I have a plant before me now: exquisite in form and colour, both the flowers and foliage. With its vivid green silky spear-shaped leaves and pure white bell-like flowers (one of its French names is Clochettes d’Amour) it was a definitive corsage for Edwardian ladies, fashionably pinned to furs or lapels with a diamond clip. As the sun or the heat of the body warm the blossoms, the sweet,fragile yet pungent fragrance arouses almost unbearable nostalgia.

Inhaling it now, the scent is unexpectedly musky, very expensively soapy, verging on the powdery; with delicate hints of jasmine, orange blossom, even rose. Remarkably sophisticated, with a subtle suggestion of spice rather in the style of an old-fashioned clove carnation; complex and bewitching, unmistakable yet paradoxical.

For lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically. A conjuring trick of the highest order but you can see from the other flowers that it references, even from a pot on my kitchen table, how it can be pulled off, if very rarely. Dior’s Diorissimo is one such example: it was the designer’s favourite flower. His funeral took place in a bower, a cascade of lilies. Caron‘s Muguet de Bonheur catches the waxy muskiness of the flower: a salute to the Parisian chic of Claudette Colbert who wore it; and a souvenir of the French custom of offering lilies of the valley as a token of love on May Day. If you are after for the green, airy, spring-like quality try Frederic Malle‘s Lys Mediterranee – a gorgeously fresh garden of white flowers with lily of the valley nestling discreetly but sweetly at the heart.

‘They toil not, neither do they spin’… lilies of the valley earn their place in creation just by being.

Image from Wikimedia commons