ROMANCING THE ROSE

Troubadors and aroma.

Smell without Thought. Thought is born from what we know. Fragrance draws us to the unknown. Do not smell by preconditioned notions of what something is like or what it should do. Allow it to find you, to seep into your unconscious. Ventilate the mind and not the space around you before valuing an odour. Inhale the rose, the being, through the nose allowing it to do with you as it wills unite with you as no other being. Be aware and free from hope, anxiety, tradition or ritual. Only then will the sacred be inhaled. Smell with every sense, let aromas touch you. Awareness is not thought but is a sense of the whole an unfolding of what is, that is not classified and thereby restrained. Listen with your nose and feel the intensity of stillness and quiet. The division between smeller and smelt disappears. We pass the veil to the divine. Smell without choice.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna reveals his true identity to Arjuna by declaring his essential nature to be the “fragrance of the earth”.

For the Egyptians perfume was the sweat or essence of the gods. Myrrh was the odour of Ra the sun god. Ben oil was said to be the essence of Horus. Sntr or sonter was one of the earliest perfumes derived from the terebinth or turpentine tree.

In all traditions the gods are delighted by aromatics and manifest themselves through odour. Virgil describes the ambrosial locks of Venus fragrant with heavenly odour another poet describes her as dressed in robes perfumed with the rich treasures of the revolving seasons. Hades seduced Persephone by creating the narcissus flower. Euripides writes that Artemis invisible presence is noted by her odour. Ovid writes when Bacchus approaches “the air is full of the sweet scent of saffron and myrrh”. Homer tells us how Aphrodite anointed Hector with the precious oil of roses.

When Anthony met Cleopatra, daughter of Isis, she prepared their meeting room by filling it with rose petals to a depth of two feet. The fleet of Mark Anthony washed down their boats with rose water. 

With a change of divinities the early church railed against perfumes. Origen described incense as “the food of demons” and Clement of Alexandria warned “Attention to sweet scents is a bait which draws us into sensual lusts”.

Perfumery became the provenance of the more decadent Eastern Church of Byzantium and in particular of the island of Cyprus, the birthplace of Venus. In the 9th century trade with Venice and Byzantium to more eastern countries drew in all manner of spices, aromatics and cosmetics. The Crusades, the invasion of Spain by the Moors the Mongol hordes all brought perfume to the outlying countries of Europe. 

The troubadour movement of Southern France carried the seeds of past moralities and a different view of fragrance to the established church. The troubadours were in effect a cult of the divine feminine. Much has been written about the poetry and songs of this group but little in the way of their more secret associations. They were a closed society that promoted love in an idealistic format. This was little more than an extension from the sacred sexuality of pre Christian times. The movement raised women’s status and asked men to behave in a civilised manner. The movement promoted the fulfilment of the senses and a keen involvement with nature. Like the art of the time their language was symbolic.  Women were equal in status but not in evident power. But there was a an equalisation; the power of woman to seduce to pacify the horned beast and by her breath or essence to exert influence beyond physical strength. To allow entry to the enclosed garden and to drink at the fountain of life and unfold the mystic rose.

‘The Lady’, virginal or not, was their central theme and love the supreme experience of life. Other themes surrounded the garden where in fact lovemaking took place. Masters at double meaning this metaphor not only covered the historical sacred groves but also the female herself seen as the ‘hortus conclusus’. Hence other ideas such as the unicorn in the garden and mystic rose of red and white or the union of virginity and carnal knowledge.

Eleanor of Aquitaine may rightly be called the Queen of Troubadours. She inspired a new religion of Aphrodite one of romance and courtly love. This was born of a return to the interest in King Arthur his knights and their ladies and in particular his two loves. Troubadours espoused the virtue of reaching the unobtainable. No mere mortal can mate with a goddess unless she chooses. Likewise the poetry of the troubadours exist in realm where the knight aspires to the Lady socially his superior or married to a Lord beyond his match. The lady would set quests for him to demonstrate the boundaries of his love and grant him favours to be worn at the tournaments.

Alongside Eleanor stood her daughter Marie Countess of Champagne who organised the Courts of Love. Similarly Marie de France a contemporary of Eleanor also espoused the troubadour movement contributing erotic themes emphasising the woman’s right to choose her lovers. It is women who make the sexual advances to men, offering love in exchange for happiness and transformation.

Eleanor was not popular among the Northern clerics of her age. Her enemies mostly wrote what we know of her. We do not know the colour of her eyes or even the colour of her hair. At an early age she married the King of France. She travelled to the near East in Crusader style and had an affair with her uncle. In the East she would have learned more of the perfumers art, the slow art of massage and the pleasures and treasured secrets of the harem. After a failed and annulled marriage to Louis (failure due to her inability to produce sons not morality) she married the future Henry II of England. She became the mother to her favourite son Richard the Lion heart and of course King John Lack land. 

Henry and Eleanor were rich and famous and led colourful lives. Henry had a hideaway manor at Woodstock near Oxford. Here he kept a zoo of exotic animals and his beloved mistress the fair Rosamund Clifford. Was this a real name, Rosa munde the rose of the world? Eleanor might have called her contrastingly, rosa immundi the rose of unchastity. A play on the red and white rose itself. It was said that Eleanor poisoned Rosamund but there was no reason to this. Eleanor was well aware of the interplay between summer and winter queens. She always held the Lion Henry in Winter. Eleanor already possessed the essence of excitement and well new the secrets of the irresistible odour of the sexuality of flowers.

Dante wrote, “Here is the Rose wherein the Word of God Made itself flesh”. Was he speaking of Beatrice? This rose, this metaphor so universally known has a diversity that displaces its so called familiarity. What may a rose smell like? Likened to grapes, apples, lemons, musk , clove, just green or tea there is no true rose scent except that which we instantly recognise whatever the characteristic as rose.

Smell like our Troubadours, is most subtle. A little registers at low intensity to be savoured whilst intensity is dismissed in seconds. The round art of slow love. The unfolding of the rose. We can be sure that along with the delights of song and words that the Troubadours were not only well aware of the visual symbolism of the strawberry between the lips but the odour of the crushed fruit. The enclosed garden heavy with many scents. The bower so often made from sweet chamomile and thyme and never grass. The strewing herbs of sweet cicely and woodruff, lavender and rosemary made this time a scented place, a pleasure garden an Eden found again by woman’s knowledge.

Jan Kusmirek 04/08/2004

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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