The historiography of late antiquity has awakened to the senses. Recent studies have elucidated the power of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch for delineating religious experience and social boundaries throughout the late antique world. Susan Harvey's Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (University of California Press, 2006) deserves special note here, alongside studies by Béatrice Caseau, Georgia Frank, Deborah Green, Rachel Neis, and many others. Mary Thurlkill's intervention in this growing bibliography compares the role of “sacred scent” in the religions of late antiquity and the Islamic world. The book's scope is highly ambitious, ranging from the role of incense in Roman sacrifice to the spice-infused purity rituals prescribed by medieval Islamic jurists. As the author herself emphasizes, comparisons on this scale are challenging, perhaps inherently “messy” (163). Readers who seek a sharp, linear argument may find themselves frustrated by the book's sometimes-meandering style. Its comparative framework, however, yields some valuable insights.
“Sensory Worlds,” the first of the book's three parts, considers the role of scent in defining domestic and civic spaces (ch. 1), culinary practices (ch. 2), and health and disease (ch. 3). Each chapter includes Roman, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic material that shows both the material underpinnings of the scent economy—especially Indian Ocean commerce in spices—and the various social settings where scents were deployed. In the Roman world, these settings included baths, banquets, theaters, funerals, temples, and even the Senate, though Cicero chastised Senators who dishonored their togas with perfume (7; In Cat. 2.3.5). The pace throughout these chapters is rapid, and Thurlkill readily mixes evidence from diverse periods. These juxtapositions can be jarring, but also underscore long-term continuities. Pliny joked that southern Arabia received its nickname Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”) because the subterranean gods rejoiced in their receipt of perfumed corpses (13). Three and half centuries later, the Latin poet Prudentius reported that Christian mourners “wrapped their dead in violets before burial and then sprinkled perfume on the funerary stones” (14). Archaeological data enriches the discussion: a fifth-century skeleton found in the Church of St. Victor at Marseilles was still covered by traces of incense and thyme (15, citing Bonnie Effros' work on Merovingian funerary rites).
In her handling of the Islamic material, Thurlkill makes still larger chronological leaps, juxtaposing the musk-scented beauties of early Arabic poetry with the hygienic guidelines prescribed by the Egyptian polymath al-Suyuti (d. 1505). This methodology leaves little space for close analysis of her sources. For instance, the “pre-Islamic” poems she cites (19) were heavily edited or even composed in the Abbasid era. On the positive side, Thurlkill culls evidence from a remarkable range of Arabic sources, including the major hadith collections, medieval cookbooks attributed to Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and al-Hasan al-Baghdadi, and pharmacology treatises penned by both Muslim and Christian scholars. A consistent theme across these diverse Arabic sources is the validity of using scents to enhance the “dignity and integrity” of the human body (25). The ninth-century Syrian medical writer Sabr ibn Sahl, for instance, detailed recipes for pastilles combining musk, myrrh, saffron, cassia, clove, and roses (64). As Thurlkill persuasively argues, this tendency to valorize the application of scents to the body contrasts sharply with the hostile, or at best ambivalent, view typical of early Christian and rabbinic sources. The rabbis warned, for example, that a man wearing perfume in a public market placed himself in great sexual danger (12, citing b. Ber. 43b and the work of Michael Satlow).
Part II, “Sacred Scents,” explores the importance of aromas for defining ritual space in Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts (ch. 4), early Christianity (ch. 5), and early Islam (ch. 6). This is the book's most successful segment. In both Greco-Roman and Jewish sacrificial rites, lavish scents wafted up to “God's nostrils,” allowing human participants to imagine their communion with divinity (82). In Jewish contexts, the Temple's destruction in 70 CE shifted the use of fragrance increasingly to the domestic sphere—that is, in Jonathan Z. Smith's terminology, from the priestly controlled rituals “there” to the familial rites of “here.” As Thurlkill notes, the results of this shift endure in contemporary Judaism through the smelling of spices in the Havdalah prayers used to mark the end of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays (80). In early Christian thought, pleasing aromas regularly served as a marker of holiness. The pure bodies of virgins, the altars of churches, and the uncorrupted bodies of the saints were all associated with beautiful scents, spices, and unguents. By contrast, the Church Fathers sharply condemned the perfuming of ordinary human bodies, especially women's bodies (102). In perhaps the most original portion of the book, chapter 6 traces the centrality of purity concerns in early Islamic discourse about sacred scents. The use of scents was permissible, even laudatory, in early Islam as long as they were used in the proper contexts. As Thurlkill rightly emphasizes, the more positive valence of the body in Islamic thought was crucial for this shift. Muslim bodies, she argues, did not need “salvific experience or ascetic heroism to confer a corporeal transformation” (111). The Prophet's body provided the ultimate model for this state of sweet-smelling purity. According to one report (al-Bukhari 61.61), his body smelled “sweeter than musk.” According to another (al-Muslim 43.113), the Prophet's mother collected his sweat and mixed it with perfume to create a superior scent (116). Some hadith even endorse the wearing of perfume in the mosque, but with a clear gender distinction: men could do it, but women could not (119–20, citing al-Nisa'i 48.88 et al.).
Part III, “Scents of Paradise,” closes the book with a single chapter on early Christian and Muslim views of Paradise. Patristic images of Paradise draw both on Roman garden imagery and on the heavenly palaces of the Jewish prophetic tradition. References to sacred scents are uncommon, at least in Thurlkill's survey of the Latin patristic tradition, where there is more emphasis on gems and other splendid visual markers of Paradise. Early Islamic thought promoted, by contrast, “a more opulent materialism in its paradisiacal traditions” (155). The lush Garden awaiting believers in the afterlife was redolent with the sweet smell of spices. Many traditions presented the most fragrant objects in this world as remnants or offshoots of the sacred plants of Paradise, transferred to earth by Adam and Eve (154). Al-Tha‘alibi (d. 1038) and other scholars explained how scents acquired from animals, such as ambergris and musk, originally came from extraordinary plants on which the animals had fed (155). These and other Islamic accounts celebrated the aromatic substances of this world as reflections of a higher reality.
In sum, this is a stimulating book if one accepts its “messy” dimensions. Its structure is idiosyncratic, and there are many paragraphs that veer outside the book's central concern. More vigorous editing at the review stage might have addressed this issue. The book's chief accomplishment lies in its bold comparative scope. Thurlkill demonstrates the extensive overlap in the use of scents to mark sacred spaces—both real and imagined—in Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought. She also shows how Islamic views of the body allowed the Muslim world to embrace the sweet odors of exotic spices in multiple social settings. Early Christian thinkers cherished sacred scents as well, but within a more narrow range of acceptable spaces.