Smells have a long and varied history in cultural rituals and practices. In ancient Egyptian culture, particular scents such as myrrh and resin were closely related to the deities; it was believed that some of those scents are derived from their bones or even their eyes in the case of the sun god Ra. Fragrant scents were also used to evoke Greek gods like Zeus and sacred places like Mount Olympus. In Buddhist traditions, sandalwood has always been representative of the Buddhas and enlightened beings.
Certain religious communities have used smells to mark places, activities, and roles amongst themselves. Perhaps it is Christian literature that has given the most attention to sensational experiences as an educational and representational tool. Although the adoption of burning incense only took place in the fourth century, it immediately became central to various rituals, as well as liturgical and private devotional practices. For example, pestiferous wounds could translate to a fragrant afterlife if you cultivated virtuous behavior. In other words, “death itself was said to have feared the blood of Christ, because it was hidden the Fragrance of Life” (Reinarz, 2014). For Christians, true devotion smelled sweet because Jesus offered himself eternally as the perfect sacrifice. In the narrative of holiness, pleasant odours were associated with virtuous people, immortality, and divine presence. In contrast, unpleasant odours tended to carry negative connotations such as illness, disorder, degradation, divine disapproval, destruction, and death.
Smells almost universally serve as reminders of the human connection with faith and spirituality. As part of rituals in different traditions, certain scents and smells could cleanse, purify, and help to (re)connect with the divine on both an individual and collective level. For the early Christians, holy incense was composed of sweet spices in equal parts, including stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense, and salt, while in Jewish literature the scents of balsam and myrrh were deemed “chief of all spices” (Reinarz, 2014). To Buddhists, some plants were described as “beloved” by a particular god, and therefore incense altars were often described as intensely fragrant, with notes of acacia and sandalwood, creating environments suitable for the liberation of consciousness. In the Roman tradition fragrant offerings would go together with floral crowns, as a reminder of the divinity through delight in floral essences (Reinarz, 2014). The Egyptians made three incense offerings a day to their sun god: in the morning resin was burned, at noon myrrh, and in the evening a combination of sixteen spices.
Among the Mesoamericans, scents from aromatic plants were also offered to deities to protect cities and dynasties. This took the form of smoke offerings using dried tobacco leaves, flower extracts, pulque (fermented agave), and copal. In South America, similar rituals have remained alive among many communities, who are still making incense and unguents as offerings to their deities by using regional plants such as the coca leaf and palo santo, among others. The ritual use is often based on the plant's medicinal properties, so they are smoked, chewed, or applied topically. Palo santo (Bursera Graveolens) is a tree that grows in the dry forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Brazil, and Argentina. It is well known for its strong fragrance, with citric and sweet notes, hints of lemongrass, eucalyptus, and mint. Its use was shared by different ancient communitarian traditions since pre-Hispanic times. The Toba, or the Indian communities from the Chaco region, have the belief that illnesses are connected to spiritual entities, disharmony between the body and spirit, and disequilibrium in the relationship with nature. Thus, for the Toba illnesses and diseases such as the flu, chickenpox, measles, and rubella are “white diseases” that affect both your lungs and skin. Since palo santo comes from the mountains, it symbolizes the earth element and has the nutrients that can cure a person by going through the breathing system and thus re-establish balance (Martinez, 2010).
Palo santo has traveled around the world for a range of uses beyond its spiritual connotations. The essential oil, also known as ‘lignum vitae oil’, has been used to perfume luxury soaps by masking the unpleasant smell of synthetic components and as an excipient in the manufacturing of cosmetics. Mixed with pyrethrum it is used to make mosquito repellent coils. Likewise, there is some scientific research on the anti-inflammatory properties of palo santo oil extracted from the aromatic leaves and branches. Actually, Paraguay currently supplies most of the international demand of palo santo oils to Europe, including the Netherlands, as highly valued for aromatherapy due to the following advantages attributed: mood uplifting, helpful for meditation and rest, improvement of mental clarity, calming, relaxing, stress and tension reduction (Waller et al, 2012). It is applied through aroma lamps, light bulb rings, massage, and mist spray. If you’ve picked up a sweet, woody scent drifting in the air at a yoga studio, a local clothing boutique, massage salon, or in a friend’s kitchen, chances are that you were smelling palo santo.
All in all, there are many nuances in the relationship between smells and spirituality around the world. Likewise, the uses of incense, perfumes, and oils, have created different narratives that have shaped rituals and devotional practices in different cultures, surrounded by the mysticism of plants, flowers, and trees. Yet the exact significance for the divine realms, medicine, and healing remains a mystery. As it's been transforming over history, nowadays, it can be recreated and turned into a sublime experience, even by yourself.