14 January 2007

Scented at the Symposium

I have never been a fan of oils and unguents and I really can't stand to have them on me for very long. Even the thought of it is a little annoying, which means that from time to time — more often than you might think — reading Greek poetry causes me a mild mental distress. Evidently, dousing yourself in scented oil was a standard part of symposium culture. Alcaeus mentions it at least twice:

κὰδ δὲ χευάτω μύρον ἆδυ κὰτ τὼ
στήθεος ἄμμι. (Z 39)

and pour sweet unguent down
our chests.


        χέε μοι μύρον
καὶ κὰτ τὼ πολίω στήθεος. (B 18)

pour unguent also
on my grey chest.

Even pious Xenophanes indulged:

νῦν γὰρ δὴ ζάπεδον καθαρὸν καὶ χεῖρες ἁπάντων
    καὶ κύλικες· πλεκτοὺς δ’ ἀμφιτιθεῖ στεφάνους,
ἄλλος δ’ εὐῶδες μύρον ἐν φιάλῃ παρατείνει· (B 1 West)

For now the floor is clean, and the hands of all
and the cups (are clean); one person puts on a woven garland,
and another hands out sweet-smelling unguent in a bowl.

Now Xenonphanes and Alcaeus were both from the Levantine side of the Greek world, where the use of scented oils had been going on a good long time. The Egyptians were heavy users of oils from the Levant, too. Of course they wore it as perfume but it could also be used as an offering. While reading the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt recently I learned that the tomb of Semerkhet (~2950 BC) had so much scented oil poured down the entry ramp that the oil soaked into the stone to a depth of about three feet. Nearly 5000 years later the aroma is still detectable.

Another thing I learned while reading the Oxford book is that climatologists describe Egypt's current climate as hyperarid, and suddenly I figured out why people in the region might be coating themselves in oil, apart from the luxurious aroma: to stop itching. In dry climates (southern California) and in winter (heating systems) my overreactive skin dries out and makes life a little difficult for me. Dermatologists recommend bath oil, an idea I'm still trying to come to terms with. How much of that early oil use in these dry Mediterranean climates was therapeutic, how much a luxury?

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