The sense of smell.


The sense of smell is ignored by many most of the time these days, except when an unpleasant smell impinges on us or when we are manipulated by supermarkets who put out an artificially made smell of freshly baked bread around the bakery section.

And yet, without this sense, we would lose most of our sense of taste as well. In many ways we have forgotten how to really make use of this sense with the possible exception of wine tasters, perfumiers and tea and coffee blenders and a few other specialists.

Galen and the other ancient physicians would smell their patients as part of the diagnostic procedure and even before the days of distillation, the aromas of essential oils from fresh herbs were used to combat disease. They were strewn in the Temple of Jerusalem where blood sacrifices were made to Yahweh. They were also widely used in inns. Myrrh and Frankincense, herbs of purification were given to the infant Jesus.

The natural smell of our bodies has become something to get rid of rather than share in the Western world and indeed in much of the rest of it.

And yet there are still smells that are incredibly powerful in what they evoke. Who has not smelt the smell of the first rain after a hot dry spell, the aroma of newly cut grass or mown hay? An old fashioned rose, bred for it’s aroma rather than the showy blooms of some of the modern varieties.

Once, our sense of smell would have been a survival tool, just as it is for insects today. Bees and other pollinators can find food sources. Night scented stocks and evening primrose, have evolved to put out their scent mostly at night to attract moths and other night flying insects.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to pay more attention to the essential oils I use in my Aromatherapy and Massage practice here in Cambridge. I will take each oil in turn and write down the characteristics of it’s smell but also what emotions or memories it evokes. What I discover may not agree with the text book, just as when I describe colours I certainly don’t agree with them being red green colour-blind. What it will do is put me more in touch with the oils I use and that can only help improve my skills as an aromatherapist.

I invite anyone who feels inclined to do the same to share their thoughts. It doesn’t have to be with essential oils from a bottle, fresh herbs can be used too. Where I have them I intend to compare the two. Perhaps see if I can identify which type of rosemary or thyme I have. (Thyme has several different chemotypes named after the chemical predominant in the essential oil, thymol being the alcohol in the most common type.)

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