There’s a myth about Marie Antoinette’s attempt to escape the guillotine I love retelling: In seeking to avoid the wrath of the Jacobin revolutionaries, the royal family escaped to the outskirts of Paris in disguise. When their coach was stopped by a mob, they were unrecognizable. They were found out, improbably, by the noble profile of the king (which perfectly matched a banknote), but also in the noble smell of the queen. After all, only royalty could afford such a sublime scent.
Beauty has always been a direction marker. In his essay “Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner,” the writer Wayne Koestenbaum describes it as a vector—and one that may not have a clear trajectory. In The Secret History, Donna Tartt writes the same and goes further: To her, death is the mother of beauty, and we endlessly seek its capture because we want to live forever. Appropriately, much of the history of beauty—and in particular, of perfume—has been a one-way ticket, paid for in alcohol and essential oil, straight into the afterlife.
We could start in most countries when it comes to death by perfume—it’s actually a tale older than Christ. People were poisoning each other for political gain and biological warfare many thousands of years before Jesus walked.
The Sumerians may have been the first, but ancient Rome and Greece quickly followed. The ingredients lists of Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny all explored the medicinal, political, and beautiful uses of herbs, animal parts, and floral absolutes. At this time, medicines and perfumes share both ingredients and centers of production. It was quite often a two-for-one.
Writing in the sixth century BCE, the ancient Indian surgeon Sushruta outlined a perfumed connection to death and its use in warfare in his text, the Sushruta Samhita. The Sushrita Samhita lists common poisonings: Lethal doses of anything available were mixed with food, drink, honey, medicine, bathing water, anointing oils, eyelash pigments and sprinkled over clothes, beds, couches, shoes, garlands and jewelry, horse saddles, and perfumes—anywhere that might allow it to sink into pores. While perfumes could be the face of poison, Sushruta also mentioned that sprinkling the earth with perfume and other materials (wine, black clay, and cow poop) could cure the earth of poison. He wasn’t totally wrong: Black clay and alcohol have disinfecting and filtering effects. The perfume, however, is just a mask.