Since the beginning of time, we have been fascinated with ephemeral nature of scent. We have often assigned many sacred and spiritual qualities to scent. Master perfumer, Dove, exquisitely describes the effect that scent can have on our psyche:1
“It is often said that our eyes are the window to our soul. I believe them merely to be observers, whereas our nose absorbs the world life essences. Since the dawn of civilisation, perfumes have been with us, evolving within the complex fabric of the human psyche and culture. Scent is intangible. It can touch us, move us, and inspire our very being. It can transform us into seducers or seductresses, elevating and transporting us to an ethereal realm of memories and sensations.”
Essential oils and the soul
Scent has long been used in spiritual practices across all cultures. I believe that the sacred qualities often assigned to scent in traditional spiritual practices have contributed to the framework in which essential oils are often used in the way holistic aromatherapy is practised nowadays.
In the classic text, The Art of Aromatherapy, Tisserand assigns ethereal qualities to the essential oils:2
“They are like the personality, or spirit, of the plant. The essence is the most ethereal and subtle part of the plant, and its therapeutic action takes place on a higher, more subtle level than that of the hole, organic plant, or its extract, having in general a much more pronounced effect on the mind and emotions than herbal medicine.”
Fischer-Rizzi suggests that essential oils will open the door to your soul:3
“Getting to know these heavenly scents is something like falling in love. They will touch your heart, make you keenly aware of the beauty surrounding you, and open the door to your soul. Suddenly, every facet of your life will seem touched by magic.”
Schnaubelt states that aromatherapy contributes to the realization of health what no material science can achieve. It accepts and integrates phenomena of the soul. He explains that scent has always transcended the material planes of consciousness and communicated directly with those of the soul:4
“While aromatherapy accepts a hierarchical order of the planes of consciousness, it does not commit the fatal mistake of trying to explain the psycho-social and the spiritual plane of consciousness with the means of the lower material plane. Aromatherapy does not mandate a spiritual belief system, but it is practically self-evident that catching a glimpse of the interdependence of all life will make the concept of a higher order very appealing. As such, aromatherapy has in it the spiritual element that American Indians have always recognized in plants. As such, aromatherapy has the ingredient of healing that is missing the most in the materialistic modalities.”
Sesquiterpenoids – the spiritual molecules?
In my blog, Sourcing essential oils sustainably, I stated that I was fascinated to find an article, Sesquiterpenoids: the holy fragrance ingredients, stating that many aromatic ingredients used as incense, such as frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, agarwood and rich in sesquiterpene compounds and that such compounds may possess spiritual qualities.
Schnaubelt explains aromatic ingredients such as myrrh and frankincense have been employed for millennia for ritual, healing, transition and transcendence. He explains that science is now allowing us to understand the role of sesquiterpenoid substances and their potential psycho-neurological activity. For example, myrrh is known to bind with opioid receptors. He suggests that as more research is conducted, we will find evidence linking scent to ritual, magic, transcendence, and consciousness.4
Worwood suggests that while many plants have long been used in spiritual practice, it is the more fragrant aspect of the plant that is considered to be more spiritual. She explains why this may be so:5
“This may be because fragrance transport. You can be in a place feeling very uncomfortable, with chaos and noise all around, then close your eyes, inhale a particular fragrance, and bypass it all, reconnecting with the great cosmic whole, and peace. It’s like a private vehicle silently and instantaneously whisking you away to reconnection; fragrance can be a ticket to the divine.”
Kenna suggests that aromatic ingredients often used as an offering to the Gods are made of woods, gums and resins rather than flowers because flowers may smell beautiful, but they fade, decay, wither and rot, reminding us of physicality and mortality, whereas, the woods and resins remind us of longevity, suggesting immortality, and incorruptibility.6
In Volume III of The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, we will examine the sacred qualities of an extensive range of essentials oils. In this blog I will briefly introduce you to four fascinating oils that I have been working with to create a range of sacred perfumes. These four essential oils are the very rare yakusugi oil from the wood of Cryptomeria japonica; oud from the resin/wood of the Aquilaria species; labdanum from the resin of Cistus ladaniferus and pink lotus absolute from the flowers of Nelumbo nucifera. Over the coming weeks I will be posting a more comprehensive monograph on each of these oils.
When I was in Japan sourcing our hinoki oil, my distiller was excited to show me an essential oil that I have never smelt before. Actually, not many people have smelt this oil. Upon smelling it, I knew that this was a very special and unique oil. It had the most delightful delicate floral, woody, sweet-resiny and mossy scent. He explained to me that it was yakusugi that had been distilled from wood that was 1,000 years or older. It can only be called yakusugi if the tree is over 1,000 years old.
He could tell that I was very concerned at the thought of a 1,000-year-old tree being cut down. He quickly proceeded to explain that no tree is ever cut down or harmed! Yakusugi tree grows on Yakushima island, at the very tip of Kyushu. Since 1993, the area of the island where the 1,000 plus year old cedars live have been declared a Natural World Heritage Site, and the cutting down of trees is strictly prohibited. Only dead wood, which is wood that has fallen down as a result of bad weather, is allowed to be collected and this is strictly controlled.
It is no surprise that the mountains where the yakusugi tree grow are considered the realm of the gods. I was honoured to be smelling this precious and rare oil and absolutely delighted when my distiller would share some of his precious yakusugi with me. I was so keen to have a GC/MS done to confirm the chemistry of this rare oil. The chemical composition was as follows:
δ-elemene (0.51%). α-cubebene (0.34%), α-copaene (0.86%), di-epi-α-cedrene (1.8%), β-elemene (0.87%), α-cedrene (3.74%), caryophyllene (2.37%), β-cedrene (1.49%), cis-thujopsene (3.51%), epi-cedrene (1.33%), cadina-3,5-diene (4.6%), Ƴ-muurolene 2.5%), aromadendrene (0.5%), α-amorphene (8.16%), β-bisabolene (1.55%), cuparene (1.62%), Ƴ-cadinene (0.69%), δ-amorphene (17.45%), cis-calamenene (10.43%), α-calacorene (1.8%), elemol (2.14%), cedrol (1.95%), epi-cubenol 2.59%), Ƴ-eudesmol (1.44%), cubenol (2.48%), α-eudesmol (2.57%).
Yakusugi oil is entirely composed of sesquiterpene compounds! No wonder it is so special and considered sacred. To my knowledge this oil has not been used in aromatherapy because it is so rare and difficult to obtain, even in Japan.
1,000 year old yakusugi trees in Yakushima Island, Japan.
Australian oud oil
Earlier this year I was excited to discover that we are growing agarwood trees in Australia and are producing agarwood oil from these sustainably grown trees. I had fallen in love with oud many years ago when I first travelled to the Middle East. The incense and perfume produced from agarwood have been highly valued for many centuries and used in many cultures for spiritual and perfumery purposes. It is highly revered in Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.
The trees produce a dark aromatic resin in response to an infection, which results in a very dense, dark, resin embedded heartwood. The aroma is considered one of the most complex olfactory notes known. It has often been described as smelling obnoxious, having the smell of a cow shed. However, I prefer to describe it as having a deep, rich, warm and tenacious earthy and woody aroma. The scent of the Australian agarwood oil is divine!
The chemical composition of the agar wood essential oil from Australian plantation grown Aquilaria trees was reported as follows:
4-phenyl-2-butonone (0.3%), (-)selina-3,11-dien-9-one (2.01%), α-guaiene (2.41%), guaia-1(10),11-diene-15-ol (1.41%), agarospirol (1.1%), eremorphila-9,11(13) dien-12-ol (6.10%), epi-10-g-eudesmol (3.42%), vitispirane-2(11)6(14)diene-7-ol (n/d), valance-1(10)8-diene-11-0l (6.44%), vetispirane type sesquiterpene (5.71%), 2,14-epoxy-vetispir-6-ene (1.87%), vetispirane type sesquiterpene (5.29%), aragofuran (1.59%), guaiene type sesquiterpene (1.74%), guaia1(10), 11-diene-9-one (1.12%), selinene type sesquiterpene (1.85%), selina-3, 11-dien-9-ol (4.89%), 2-2-phenyl ethyl) chromone derivative (1.27%).
It is so rich in sesquiterpenes! It is not surprising that agarwood has been used for millennia within so many cultures for spiritual practice.
Sadly, as I pointed out in my previous blog, many of the Aquilaria species are now critically endangered in their natural habitat. Therefore, I was so happy to acquire a small quantity of very expensive agarwood oil from the Australian plantation grown trees.
Agarwood trees growing in a plantation in Far North Queensland.
Pink lotus absolute
The lotus flower is an object of immemorial significance and revered in many cultures. It is a symbol of beauty and absolute purity. It represents the divine status of deities. The lotus flower rises from ‘impure, muddy waters’ characterises purity and perfection and provides an ideal for Buddhists, who aim to live a life of honesty and purity.7,8
The pink lotus flower is often referred to as the most heavenly scented of all the lotus flowers. It has a honey-sweet, rich, floral and earthy aroma; a spicy, penetrating, green, earthy top note and a tenacious, deep, earthy dryout.9 Pink lotus absolute is not commonly used in aromatherapy. However, its scent is divine and most certainly reflects all the spiritual qualities often assigned to the lotus flower.
Exquisite pink lotus.
I have always been in awe of the powerful diffusive aroma of labdanum, otherwise known as cistus or rockrose. It has a somewhat dry, musky scent reminiscent of ambergris. It has long been used since ancient Egyptian times as a perfume and as an incense. Labdanum is obtained from the gum, which is extracted by boiling the leaves and twigs in water. The oil is then obtained from the gum by distillation. I love the way Fischer-Rizzi describes the subtle qualities of labdanum:3
“Its essential oil conveys a warmth that deeply affects the soul. Rockrose is favoured for treating patients who feel, usually after a traumatic event, cold, empty, or numb. … Rockrose incense aids meditation and centering as well as visualizing spiritual experiences and bringing them to consciousness.”
In my next blog I will introduce you to the four exquisite sacred perfumes I created from these amazing oils.
- Dove R. The essence of perfume. Black Dog, London, 2014.
- Tisserand R. The art of aromatherapy. CW Daniel Company, Saffron Walden, 1979.
- Fischer-Rizzi S. Complete aromatherapy handbook – essential oils for radiant health. Sterling Publishing, New York, 1989.
- Schnaubelt K. Medical aromatherapy – healing with essential oils. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley,1999
- Worwood VA. The fragrant heavens. Transworld Publishers, London, 1999.
- Kenna ME. Why does incense smell religious?: Greek orthodoxy and the anthropology of smell. Journal of Mediterranean Studies. 2005;15(1).
- Moro CF et al. Lotus – a source of food and medicine: current status and future perspectives in context of the seed proteomics. International Journal of Life Sciences. 2013;7(1):1-5. doi:10.3126/ijls.v7i1.6394
- Siddiqui, Kiran Shahid. Significance of lotus depiction in the Gandhara art. Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society. 2012;60(3).
- Shapiro R. Pink lotus absolute. Perfumer & Flavorist, 2004;29:74-78.