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sábado, 23 de janeiro de 2016

A Diabolical Whiff: Scents of Hell

by: Elena Vosnaki

"A force of some hundred of combined atmospheres produced by  the vapors accumulated and long compressed in the interior of the earth, was hoisting us upwards with irresistible power. But to what countless dangers it exposed us! Soon lurid lights began to appear in the vertical gallery, which was growing wider; on both right and left ...
'Look, look, uncle!' I cried. 
'Those are just sulphurous flames. Nothing more common in the eruption of a volcano.'" 
How many of you recall A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and the impressive blue flames that produced such a vivid impression?
Like the secret message from an ancient alchemist found on a crumbling scrap of parchment, we have known how the molten core of the center of the Earth must smell like sulphur, producing flames of vivid blue, since the stench comes up in eruptions. And we have also known how this putrid odor has always been associated with "fires and brimstone" in hell for the sinners to rot in through all eternity. The Bible is explicit: brimstone, aka naturally occurring sulphur.
Sounds scary? Well, it might as well have; it was the whole purpose. 
Sulphur is a component that doesn't easily conform to one's idea of something pleasant, less alone fragrant.
It must have taken bravado therefore to launch an actual fragrance for wearing upon one's self when Sulphur [S16] was presented by Nu-Be. "Sulphur represents the spirit of evil, darkness. A juice that comes from the shadows, a satanic elixir ... its notes evoke the bowels of the Earth. Nothing pure or chaste, a fragrance that evokes hellish potions." This is how perfumer Antoine Lie presented the scent by quirky niche brand NU_BE by Alberto Borri. The notes of Sulphur [S16]...not so sulphurous after all. 

Allspice pairs with cinnamon for a hot touch, while angelica and rosemary provide the contrasting coolness alongside grapefruit. In the heart we find the polarizing note of costus, with pungent castoreum, deep and soft opopanax and a cluster of woody notes: cedar, guaiac wood and the earthy scent of oakmoss.
 

But the connection is there: sulphur and the Devil. And because the devil has been a great medium of casting a moral shadow on things the status quo needed to cast one on, the devil and the paraphernalia of this concept have been connected to the Other, throughout history. 
 
It was sorcerers during the Middle Ages who, suspected to be in cahoots with the devil, were considered to be sulphurous smelling themselves. Given that these were often "wise women" dealing in pharmacopoeia, of which sulphurous materials did make a part, wouldn't it be evident that handling them would lend them that odor? Try to prove it to the ecclesiastical courts!
 
 
But even more disturbing is the theory that there is something called Foetor Judaicus.No other Other was greater than Jewish people on European land for many centuries on end. The fact that doctors, documented in the Larousse medical dictionnary, did not blush to imply that "the skin of men and women, but especially of Jewish people and of heavy-set redheads, then of brunettes, when they sweat a lot, have a sulphurous-smelling sweat", is mind-boggling; but not in sharp contrast to prevalent beliefs of the time (late 19th century and early 20th). If personal body odor as a marker of social segregation makes our modern blood boil ("Four horrible words: 'the working classes stink'" to quote George Orwell) , imagine how more despicable it must have been to receive racist treatment on the basis of your body odor. And since food rich in sulphureous components does secret in one's sweat, we realize how much the cultural aspect infiltrates the segregation of society via smell.  Maybe it's all a matter of proportion; he/she who consumes more of a sulphurous food...
 

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? "
 
 
There is no greater proof of the fallacy of the whole notion than the concept of the Jewish "losing" the stench of sulphur upon being...Christened!
 
Bad smells have long been associated with fear and danger. And with moral defect or lapse. The root for "pute" (French for whore) comes from the Latin putere, to stink, to reek fishy, to be corrupted. Whether it's just bad hygiene accounting for the sexist stereotype is doubtful. The great courtesans, only think of Emillie d'Allancon, Chanel's friend and inspiration behind Chanel No.5, certainly smelled clean, whence the term "παστρικιά", i.e. "scrubbed clean" in Greek, to denote the woman of doubtful virtue. Clearly the connection between sulphurous emanations with low virtue is one that is constructed to recall the satanic temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden....
 
It's not sulphur itself that smells, though, at least in its solid yellow form that can be easily rendered into a powder with one's fingers. Rather it's dioxide of sulphur, SO2, which has the characteristic odor. Universally regarded as something denoting, if not religious fear of the other world or moral status, then surely putrefaction. Something to distance one's self from, sulphur doesn't enjoy genuine appreciation.
But perhaps because it was seen as so antithetical to life (would life subsist inside a volcano?), soon the idea that it must be detremintal to miasmata of all kinds also developed. Scent had the double role of prophylactic and of communicator of danger in the distant past. 
Sulphur was widely used in antiquity in the Mediterranean basin. It might as well have been, as the entire Aegean archipelago and the Italian peninsula are both dotted with active volcanoes. The Greek word for sulphur, θεῖον, sruvives to this day as the source of the international chemical prefix thio- you may have encountered in an school chemistry book. In the Odyssey there is reference to using sulphur as a purification means. It's also mentioned in Eurypides's tragicomedy Helen, and centuries later Pliny the Elder mentions it as a common practice to use it on the island of Melos (which is of course a volcanic isle) for medicine, purification and...cloth bleaching! But not only the Mediterranean braved the sulphurous stench for its superior practical properties. The Chinese extracted sulphur from pyrite, so called "fool's gold", as far back as the 3rd century, for similar reasons. 
But no need to go that far back in time. Go boil an egg for longer than the prescribed 8 minute mark. On cracking the shell, you discover a grey-greenish tint around the yolk and the characteristic stink. This is due to a reaction between traces of iron in the yolk and sulphur in the white and only happens in overcooking. 
But there are other sulphurous everyday materials. Grapefruit, garlic...The devil is in the details!
Guerlain and Mathilde Laurent must have known some people would detect the sulphur behind the grapefruit note of Pamplelune. And alas, some of us do. But the feat of rendering a very classy, fresh grapefruit cologne with the challenging note intact peeping behind the touch of patchouli, hiding there in the shadows, like a small devil that only comes out to play on some skins, reminds us that sulphur is just another element of the awe and wonder that the natural world produces in us...

pic credits: Hard boiled eggs with sulphurous "ring" around yolk from wonderhowto.com, blue flame from Kawah Ijen via Smithsonian Mag. 

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