Wise Men From The East

 

We have just passed – and some of us celebrated – the Feast of the Epiphany which falls on January 6th. Perhaps it was me, but there seemed this year to be an extra emphasis on the ritualistic story from St Matthew’s Gospel. The Visit of the Kings to worship the Infant Christ with magnificent gifts strikes an obvious chord, however crude, with our modern and somewhat debased ideas of Christmas. We can all relate to the concept of giving and receiving lavish presents – dream-gifts of fabulous worth. And, by this time in the story of the First Noel, we have moved on a year or two from the Holy Family camping out in the stable. The Kings  –  Magi –  Wise Men visited a boy of somewhat under two years old, housed in what appear to have been moderately settled circumstances.

When I was small myself, I found the quiet domestic setting of the Theophany something of an anticlimax after the drama of the stable and the manger. It seemed rather detached from the theatrical frenzy of Christmas. Other people appear to think the same, as figurines of the Kings are often placed in cribs, besides those of the shepherds and the oxen. Nowadays  –  maybe because it seems fashionable to stress the rustic squalor and trauma of Christ’s birth – I find it’s something of a relief, and more reflective, to imagine the Family in a more orthodox setting, clean and reasonably comfortable.

The Epiphany has long lost its status as the grand royal finale of the Twelve Days’ celebration. Christmas-tide lasts liturgically right into February, but the modern hasty world is desperate to leap forwards to St Valentine, if not Easter. If you mention Christmas after the statutory Bank Holidays people go all quiet and give you furtive looks, as though they have participated in something shameful. We have truncated the long slow leisurely feast of Christmas which lit up mid-winter and relieved both the outer and inner darkness. But we have failed to replace it with anything more stimulating than the sterile negativity of ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Dry January’ and S.A.D. The fathers of the ancient church knew more about human psychology and the reasons of the heart than is usually assumed.

As was no doubt intended by the Wise Men, and by St Matthew, the three gifts never fail to fascinate. We can all appreciate the symbolism of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But one may  ponder on other meaningful luxuries that might have been brought – food, wine¤, gems, flowers, spices, clothing, fabrics.  Books, spells, runes, horoscopes. For those of us who love scent it is remarkable that perfume should feature so prominently –  twice over.

The Magi’s gifts were not uniquely imperishable. What became of them? Did they survive for centuries? Are they extant somewhere today?¤¤  Or did the Holy Family spend the gold on daily expenses? Some modern gospel commentators are keen on this idea. Maybe the gold financed the Flight into Egypt which took place shortly after the exotic visitors departed for the East. Was the myrrh used at Christ’s burial? Was the frankincense burned as an offering in the Temple at Jerusalem? Who shall say – but you know what? – I think we should have been told by the gospel writers if this were the case. Such pragmatism seems against the whole spirit of the episode.

My opinion is worth less than nothing but I would imagine that the gifts were hidden away; preserved, closely guarded by Christ’s mother. They all had a highly practical value but I think they remained concealed, buried even, like presents in a folk tale. Pregnant with meaning, ominous and auspicious in significance. Frankincense may have represented worship; myrrh – healing, suffering, death and entombment. But the baffling, even frightening, nature of these mystic gums would only be intensified in the mind of the thoughtful girl we are told that Mary was. Perfume resins require some kind of human action to ignite them: to release their powers via heat, fire or warmth of the skin. Perfume is transient. It is a link carrying prayer heavenwards. It awakens physical human desire as well as a communion with the Divine.

And of course frankincense and myrrh would have been as costly as the gold: all three gifts were of equal opulence. We know how disconcerting, embarrassing, even alarming it can be to receive a present of what seems to be disproportionate value. Imagine these presents laid out in a carpenter’s house in ancient Bethlehem while the well-groomed camels and caparisoned horses of the Magi stamped outside in the narrow street and the neighbours gawped. It occurs to me that Mary, having aready had audience of the Angel Gabriel, may have linked the heavenly fragrance of his wings with the perfumed treasures now set before her and her Child. And, as is well attested, heaven itself is scented by the prayers of the saints.

¤ thus linking the Epiphany with that first and most intriguing of Jesus’s miracles: the episode at the Cana wedding.

¤¤ The Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos claims to house the presents: or a portion of them, at least. The skulls of the Three Kings lie in Cologne Cathedral.

The Splendour of Splendours

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

 

They were talking about the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut on the radio the other day and I was taken back 20 years to my visit to her mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile. To the ancient Egyptians this was the land of the dead, the domain of the setting sun. From a distance the Splendour of Splendours looks like an Art Deco cinema or a 3,000 year old shopping complex rising in three pillared tiers and terraces hewn out of the rockface backing the Valley of the Kings.

On the silver-blue and apricot early morning of my visit the air was full of the scent of fresh mint and sweet basil. 3,500 years ago it was here that Hatshepsut planted the myrrh trees brought back from the Land of Punt, the Realm of the Gods beyond the Red Sea: the guides still show you the plots where the bushes grew between the paving slabs. Among them flowered fragrant henna: strands of hair dyed with the leaves can still be seen on the skulls of certain mummies, though the body of the Woman-King has vanished, probably for ever. Myrrh was a sacred substance in Egypt as in so many other ancient middle eastern cultures. Today we recognise it as a powerful beneficial antioxidant (once prescribed for my mouth ulcers) and a natural preservative, so it is not surprising that the Egyptians used it in embalming, believing it to be the scent of their gods’ immortal flesh, the flesh that was all of gold.

Hatshepsut had it recorded that she was herself semi-divine, conceived by the supreme god Amun. Her royal mother recognised the intrusive deity by the heavenly scent of myrrh emitted by his gilded skin. The legend of the phoenix originated or at any rate was elaborated in Egypt: the unique gold and crimson bird that lived for 500 years and nested in cinnamon, cassia, spikenard and myrrh, dieting on drops of frankincense. When the old bird died its offspring was said to enclose the corpse in an egg of pure myrrh and bring it for burial at the temple at Heliopolis, the former City of the Sun now prosaically incorporated into the suburbs of Greater Cairo.

Anyone who thrills to these old tales will love Papillon’s ANUBIS by perfumer Elizabeth Moores, a poem in perfume to the arcane beliefs of the ancient world. It is also very apt for Christmas by the way: as one of its central ingredients is – you’re sure to have guessed it! – myrrh, the gift brought by the Magi to presage Christ’s suffering and entombment. “Myrrh is mine / Its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom…” . And don’t forget that genial old Santa started life as St Nicholas of Myra, the city in modern Turkey where his sarcophagus was said to weep miraculous tears of sweet-scented myrrh resin: which is why the saint is now the official patron of perfumers and all things fragranced.

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

ANUBIS is not Liz Moore’s only scent – there are two other beauties – but it is perhaps the most exotic. Anubis was the god of embalming & mummification, the guardian of cemeteries, the conductor of souls to the afterlife. At the core of his perfume is absolute of pink Nile lotus, not flowery and pretty but dark, vegetal and virile like the vital sediment of the inundation which fertilised the green East Bank of the Nile. Then around this Liz wraps a series of powerful pungent oils, as intricately as the linen bandages swathing a dead monarch. One can almost hear the funerary priests in their black jackals’ head masks intoning the ritual names of benzoin, castoreum, opoponax, saffron, labdanum, tolu and sandalwood. There’s jasmine too, like the dried flower wreaths sometimes found by archaeologists in the tombs. ANUBIS is a precious and unique thrill: don’t start worrying that it might be a touch morbid – the Egyptians believed that all the joy they found in life would be redoubled after death. So with this scent: ANUBIS is an explosion of life-affirming energetic delights!

You can meet the wonderful Elizabeth Moores at our Seymour Place shop on Weds 10th December, alongside two other incredibly talented British perfumers.

 

christmas-flyer-dWEB

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