The magic of smell

Objects of personal adornment are closely connected with an invisible power: that of smell. They carried aromatic substances, dispersed fragrance or were made of scented components. This was not simply a form of beautification, but also carried meaning in magic. Scent was used to avert evil, attract blessings and to operationalize transitions in life.

Burning bakhūr. Photo: Canva

Scent was utilized in two capacities: as a generally beneficial agent, and as a particular means to serve a specific goal. Incense in general was believed to keep malevolent spirits at a distance. Because agreeable scents were seen as a manifestation of benign beings, wearing fragrance had a strong apotropaic connotation. [1] Both men and women therefore protected themselves from evil by taking the necessary care of their personal appearance. In Yemen, myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) was even indicated by the general word for amulet, hijāb, in addition to its regular name murr, because of its capacity to keep evil forces at bay.[2] This type of olfactory protection is also the rationale behind glass stoppers of perfume bottles, which are set in silver and worn as amulet in Oman: their power lies in their association with fragrant smells.

Smell in informal ritual

A more specific use is seen in the variety of incense mixtures used to protect women from envy, witchcraft or possession by malevolent spirits. Ūd or oudh for example is burned for its blessing capacities. In the United Arab Emirates, nigella seed was burned to protect from envy, while sweet myrrh (Commiphora mukul) was burned in a mixture to prevent possession and the consequences of witchcraft. [3] A Tunisian ritual involving scent was thought to predict whether a new marriage would be happy. The groom walked through the smoke of bakhūr burned on an earthen brazier, and kicked the brazier to break it. If it didn’t break, this was considered a bad omen for the marriage. The bakhūr was made of the root of distaff thistle (Carlina gummifera), gum ammoniac (Dorema ammoniacum), and a dried chameleon: all unpleasant scents, used to drive evil away. Cloves, such as strung in the Palestinian necklace pictured below, were widely believed to work as an aphrodisiac.

Smell and personal adornment

Many pieces of personal adornment are related to scent in one form or another. In the western part of the Arab world, jewellery is designed to contain fragrant materials. Morocco for example is home to elegant containers in the shape of an elongated teardrop or a small circular box. These could be opened to receive a piece of wool or textile that had been soaked into perfumed oil. The containers would dangle at the base of fibulas and with every move of the wearer they would disperse their perfume through small openings. In the eastern part of the Arab world, most notably on the Arab Peninsula, clothing was perfumed abundantly. This practice was certainly not limited to this region and occurred in other countries as well, but to a lesser extent. Textile is an ideal carrier for scent, because its porous structure allows fragrance to linger for a long time. Just how intense the perfuming of clothing could be, is illustrated by the treatment of the bridal overgarment in the United Arab Emirates. This particular piece of clothing was prepared for the wedding by soaking it for days in scented oils like saffron, jasmine and aloe wood oils, or a mixture of musk and ambergris oils. Rosewater with saffron and musk was also used. After the soaking, the garment was fumigated intensely with musk and ambergris. [4]

Smell as amulet

In the above examples, you see how perfume and scent form an important protective layer around the wearer. Scent belongs to the same category as particular colours, materials, patterns and sounds: it is powerful on its own, and combined with other forms of personal adornment even more so. Keeping clean and well-perfumed is an essential act in the battle of good and evil!

This post is based on my book Silver & Frankincense, which explores scent and personal adornment on a journey for the senses.

Enjoy a conversation on the crafts and rituals of scent, in which I participated, here: fascinating views from all over the world on the meanings of scent!


[1] Mershen, B. 2009. Wierook en andere geuren. Het geurige erfgoed van Oman, in: Mols, L. & B. Boelens 2009. Oman. Museumshop De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam; Zimmerle, W.G. 2014. Aromatics of all kinds: cuboid incense burners in the ancient Near East from the late third to the late first millennia B.C. University of Pennsylviana, pp. 416-417; Becker, C.J. 2000. Arts, Gender and Changing Constructions of Amazigh (Berber) Identity: The Ait Khabbash of Southeastern Morocco, 1930-1999. PhD-thesis, University of Wisconsin, p. 182

[2] Muchawsky-Schnapper, E. 2012. Healing though Medicinal Plants, in: Hehmeyer, I. & Schöning, H. (eds) 2012. Herbal Medicine in Yemen. Traditional knowledge and practice, and their value for today’s world. Brill, Leiden, p. 138

[3] Kanafani, A.S. 1983. Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates. The Anthropology of Food and Personal Adornment among Arabian women. American University of Beirut, Beirut, pp. 176-177

[4] Kanafani 1983, p. 283

Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment. Discover more about the many uses of amulets here!

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