Following the thread of the history of perfume we arrive at one of its most important milestones: Greece. Everything that represented beauty, aesthetics, harmony, proportion, and balance had a divine origin in classical Greece and was personified in divinities and mythological heroes. It is not strange, therefore, that they believed that the ointments and perfumes that contributed to this exaltation of beauty also had a divine origin.
According to Homeric tradition, it was the gods of Olympus who taught men and women to use perfume. Mythology has many stories in which goddesses, nymphs and other characters were believed to be the creators of fragrances. Thus, the rose, which was once white and odourless, gained its red colour and penetrating aroma from the day Venus was stuck by a rose bush thorn, her blood dyeing the flower red. The rose became so beautiful that Cupid, on seeing it, kissed it and gave it the aroma that it has today.
On another occasion Venus was bathing at the edge of a lake and was surprised by several satyrs. Fleeing, she found cover among some myrtle bushes and was able to hide from the satyrs. In her gratitude, she gave the myrtles the intense fragrance they now give off. When Smyrna committed her great sin, she was turned into a tree as punishment, but she wept so bitterly that the goddesses took pity on her and turned her into the myrrh tree that weeps aromatic resins.
Aside from mythology, the origin and development of perfume in Greece can be traced to neighbouring Crete and to its colonies, as well as to Syria and other Mediterranean cultures. The perfumers of these countries set up their businesses in Greek cities and sold the products they made in small shops, called kiosks, in the agoras or public markets. The Greeks were quick to learn and soon began importing oriental essences, quickly becoming great masters in the making of ointments and perfumes. Men and women used them in such abundance that Solon, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, forbade the use of essences to limit the expenses incurred by their import.
These restrictive laws, which went against the will of the majority, were short-lived, and the custom of wearing perfumes and offering them to the gods after animal sacrifices was quickly taken up again and incense and myrrh were once again used in liturgical acts. These sweet-smelling resins were imported from Arabia and were extremely expensive, to the point that Herodotus mentions that he once saw Alexander the Great offer a large quantity of incense in front of an altar, and his teacher Leonidas rebuked him, saying: “Thus you may sacrifice when you have conquered the regions where frankincense grows”. Alexander did not respond, but later, when he conquered Arabia, he sent Leonidas a shipment of 500 talents of frankincense and 100 of myrrh.
But not everyone in Greece was fond of fragrances. Socrates did not like them and claimed that men should not use perfumes, since every man, whether slave or free, immediately smells the same once anointed with perfume, On the other hand, Diogenes, a sloppy, rather dirty man who allegedly lived inside a wine cask, perfumed his feet and justified it by saying: “When you anoint your head with perfume, it flies away in the air and birds only get the benefit of it, whilst if I rub it on my lower limbs it…ascends to my nose”. The Greeks enormous contribution to perfume was to apply their art to the bottles that were used as containers for storing fragrances and which are unsurpassed in beauty even today. The Greeks made a range of different pottery for all uses, which can be categorised into seven types for storing perfumes: decorated with geometric motifs, whimsical animals or mythological or everyday scenes with black-figure or red-figure decorative elements, depending on the period. The most classic and widespread was the lekythos, a slender and elegant vessel so popular that in Greece it was said that someone “who did not have a single lekythos” was truly poor.