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Fragrant Temples: Scent and the Sacred Landscape

Britta Ager

Vassar College

Pliny the Elder describes a temple of Athena at Elis whose plaster had been made with milk and saffron (NH 36.177). When the building was rubbed with a wet finger, it still emitted the smell and flavor of the spice. Why would the Eleans build a perfumed temple? And were visitors actually in the habit of sniffing and tasting the building?

While the Elean temple is a remarkable case, scent was integral to the ancient religious experience. Sanctuaries and altars were frequently described as fragrant, from Aphrodite’s θυώδηα νηόν at Paphos (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 58) to the Roman altars which Ovid claims once smoked with native herbs instead of foreign spices (Fasti 1.339-344). Odors which a visitor might encounter included incenses burned on altars, perfumes applied to cult statues, the savory smoke of animal sacrifices, flowers in wreaths, libations of wine (itself typified as fragrant), fresh cakes, and greenery, including sacred trees. Scents acted both as a gift to the gods and as a reciprocal sign to worshippers of the invisible presence of the divine. Smell helped to coordinate the mood of worshippers, enveloping them in an aura of perfume which separated the ritual setting from everyday life, and recruiting even reluctant bystanders into participation in cult. Less transcendently, expensive fragrances demonstrated the wealth of a site, and could be important components in its self-presentation, as at Elis. At home, scent was an easy way to replicate the experience of civic cult, since the scent of sanctuaries was remembered as one of their most characteristic features.

Scent has received increased attention from classicists in recent years (e.g. Harvey 2006, Butler 2010, Bradley 2015), and ancient attempts to curate the olfactory experience of the public in other spaces, such as the Colosseum, are well-documented. In this paper, I argue for the importance of scent for understanding the sacral landscape, the self-presentation of religious sites, and their perception by the public. 

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Visions of Ancient Cities...

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