Perfume today is, as it always has been, a symbol of status and wealth; however, if you were to associate only one thing with perfume, it probably wouldn't the mummification process – yet there can be no more apt association. Perfumes, oils, and other fragrances played a key role in the process of mummifying a body for burial, as well as denoting what status the person held in life. Scientists have learned so much about the people of the past from studying mummified human remains, and much of the credit goes directly to the oils and perfumes that still reside within the bodies.
Scented oils were used as early as 10,000 BCE to help combat body odor and to soften the skin. Some of the most common scents used by the Egyptians were thyme, lavender, peppermint, cedar, rose, almond oil, and aloe. While providing a definitive use in life, these scents also had a purpose in death – namely, the process of Egyptian mummification. The famous method of embalming was developed around 2600 BCE. Before the bodies could be buried, they first had to be emptied of internal organs. Once that was done, the body was washed out with spices and palm wine, an alcohol created from the sap of different kinds of palm trees. The drink is still popular today, but for the Egyptians, the palm wine helped clean the body as well as combat the odor of decomposition. To recreate the natural process of mummification, which occurred when bodies were buried in shallow, hot graves, the body would then be covered with natron, a special salt, for forty days.
Understandably, after the body was removed from the natron, the skin was wrinkled and tough. To keep it supple, the body would then be covered in ox fat, ointment, and cedar oil. The body was stuffed with pleasant-smelling spices, like cinnamon, to help give the body a more lifelike appearance. Even the linen wrappings that went around the body were treated with materials like myrrh, cassia, and camphor oil. All of these elements had a pleasant scent, which was important because the Egyptians equated a pleasant smell with holiness. This mixture of oils applied to the body ensured that the person would be welcomed into the afterlife; however, the embalmers included them in the process as much for their antibacterial properties as for their scented appeal. Myrrh, which is the fragrant resin of a tree, helped seal the body, in addition to warding off the stench of decay. It wasn't until the process of mummification evolved, focusing more on the preservation of the physical appearance of the body, that herbs and perfumes were used more cosmetically.
One excellent example of this practice, while not Egyptian, may be found in the heart of an English king. In 1199, King Richard the Lionheart died. His body was divided into three pieces, so as to be buried at several sites important to his life. His heart was pickled and delivered to the Cathedral of Rouen, but by 1838, the heart had all but disintegrated into a fine powder. Upon analysis, scientists discovered that prior to pickling, King Richard's heart had, in Egyptian fashion, been stuffed with herbs and disinfected with lime. Among the scents found were mint, myrtle, daisy, and frankincense. Even incense was present, having been included to provide King Richard with a connection to God. The menthol provided from mint, bound into an essential oil, has been used as early as in the time of Pliny, around 40 CE, for its crisp, clean scent and for its aid in easing stomach aches and an antipruritic (used to stop itching from an insect bite, illness, or rash). Daisies are still used as a scent in perfumes today, but it was probably included in Richard's embalming as a symbol of his innocence and purity.
Whether it's in Egypt or in England, perfumes and essential oils are invaluable when it comes to understanding the science and belief systems of those times. The Egyptians associated a good smell with holiness; today, we associate pleasant scents with status and wellness. We still don't know all the facts about how ancient perfumes were used. Scientists are continuing to discover new things about the process of mummification (like the fact that cedar oil was not always used, and that it was an option for embalmers rather than a requirement), and only time will tell what new aromatic discoveries arrive on our doorstep.
For more information on the Egyptian mummification process and the perfumes involved, please feel free to peruse the following links.