Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell

Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell

Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell

Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell


This book uncovers the secret history of smell. It discusses why modern societies seem to have buried or masked the sense of smell and it shows why smell is culturally significant. Compelling, accessible and beautifully written, it is the first comprehensive exploration of the cultural role of odours in Western history - from antiquity to the present - and in a variety of non-Western societies.


Smell is powerful. Odours affect us on a physical, psychological and social level. For the most part, however, we breathe in the aromas which surround us without being consciously aware of their importance to us. It is only when our faculty of smell is impaired for some reason that we begin to realize the essential role olfaction plays in our sense of well-being. One man who lost his sense of smell due to a head injury expressed this realization as follows:

when I lost [my sense of smell]—it was like being struck blind. Life lost a good deal of its savour—one doesn’t realize how much ‘savour’ is smell. You smell people, you smell books, you smell the city, you smell the spring—maybe not consciously, but as a rich unconscious background to everything else. My whole world was suddenly radically poorer.

A survey conducted by Anthony Synnott at Montreal’s Concordia University asked 270 students and professors to comment on the role of smell in their lives. The question, ‘What are your favourite smells?’ elicited a wide range of responses, from the expected—‘the smell of babies’, ‘freshly mown lawn’, ‘roses’, ‘home-made bread’—to the unexpected: ‘the odours of the Montreal Forum and the Olympic Stadium’, ‘body perspiration’, ‘dogs’, ‘gasoline’.

The question, ‘Which smells do you dislike?’ evoked a similar variety of responses: ‘smelly men on the bus’, ‘pig farms and chicken coops’, ‘cigarette smoke’, ‘hospitals’, ‘raw meat’. Interestingly, while for many people commercial perfumes had fond associations, many listed them among the odours they disliked. Some stressed the physical discomfort perfumes gave them: ‘instant headache and nausea’, said one respondent of her

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