Aromas Carry The Awareness of Spirit

Odors, Edgar Cayce once opined, have the most powerful impact upon the physical body of any of the sensations. This statement may also hold true for the emotional body as well. It certainly is the case that aromas have received unprecedented attention in the past few years. Within industrial/marketing contexts, for example, research has investigated the power of odors to heighten mood among consumers and alleviate stress among office workers. Aromas are also gaining ground as agents of healing.

Perhaps we should say, regaining ground, for their use in therapy dates far back into history. In fact, as demonstrated in Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (Routledge), previous societies greatly valued the power of aromas in many contexts. We learn from the authors (there are three of them, to be precise: Constance Classen, author of Worlds of Sense; David Howes, editor of The Varieties of Sensory Experience; and Anthony Synnott, author of The Body Social) that odors have such power that they have attracted what anything of great power and value attracts within a society: a political life. This particular aspect of social structure, when applied to aroma, pertains to the use of smell to create favored and disadvantaged groups. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, for example, often refer to the "odor" of a particular group of people. The privileged class has a pleasant odor, while the outsiders "stink"—-sometimes both literally and figuratively.

There is certainly an aesthetics of aroma, with what we value most highly acquiring an uplifting scent as part of its aura. We can best appreciate this connection between the ideal and aroma in regard to gods and spirits. Among the Greeks, for example, the various gods had their special scents and they responded to the burnt offerings of the populace. Similarly, among aboriginal peoples, certain aromas would attract certain gods, the appearance of a particular scent would announce the presence of the god, and certain odors could prevent unwanted spirits from making an appearance.

There is a spiritual hierarchy of smells, with stinking smells (often related to decay and bodily waste) belonging to hellish regions and delightful aromas associated with heavenly realms. This hierarchy also pertained to people themselves. Within the Christian tradition there was the phenomenon known as the "odor of sanctity," pertaining to the observation that some saints smelled quite pure, and their scent became even more lovely upon death.

The connection between scent and spirit may be subtle and profound. We learn that among native people nowhere is the politics of aroma more pronounced than in religious observances, especially where contact with the spirits is anticipated. Since dreams are a place where native peoples expect to meet spirits, it is not surprising that the use of odorous substances is commonly thought to attract especially powerful dreams. Interestingly enough, among the Umeda peoples of Papua New Guinea, the word for dream and the word for smell are quite similar and linguistically related; here is an explicit association between aroma and the imagination.

Socrates taught that a person’s breath, the odor thereof, and the person’s spirit were of the same essence. The aroma, like the subtle body, takes on a quality that is halfway between thin air and the more substantial physical liquid, water. The imagination is sensitive to all three: subtle body, the activity of spirit, and aroma. Thus the power of aromas comes from their afffinity with what is truly essential within the human being.