A well-known quote from Hamlet is “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This, of course, refers to the illegitimate and immoral reign of the fictional King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. So, while there is plenty of current relevance related to the political and social turmoil hinted at by this line, instead let’s talk about another aspect that I find particularly fascinating — the connection of scent and odor to ideas of morality, good, and evil.
In an odd turn of events, I recently found myself trying to explain to some chemistry students why a quote saying that someone “smells of sulfur” means that they are diabolical, hellish, or somehow antichrist-like. Why sulfur? No, there is really no connection to sulfur’s having an identical number of valence electrons to oxygen, though that would make an interesting story. Some explanation of the history of sulphurous scent as diabolical can be found here: The Smell of Hell: Does Satan Smell of Rotten Eggs? Connections between scent and good and evil actually abound. Fragrantica has a number of excellent articles about the historical and cultural meanings of scent, including Elena Vosnaki’s A Diabolical Whiff: Scents of Hell:
It was sorcerers during the Middle Ages who, suspected to be in cahoots with the devil, were considered to be sulphurous smelling themselves. Given that these were often “wise women” dealing in pharmacopoeia, of which sulphurous materials did make a part, wouldn’t it be evident that handling them would lend them that odor? Try to prove it to the ecclesiastical courts!
And the counterpart, A Saintly Aroma: Scents of Heaven:
In Biblical times, the link between germs and diseases hadn’t been made (it had to wait till the 19th century), so the logical leap that foul smells, entering the body at once with one’s breath, could carry disease isn’t far fetched… Using incense materials, resins and gums high in purifying molecules such as Verbenone (a ketone) or Trans-verbenol (an alcohol), which they collected spending much time and effort, they fought foul odors with pleasant, “clean” ones… Since these aromatic resins burn without residue, symbolizing the heavenly spirits to whom they ascend to when burnt, and since essential oils represent the very spirit of a plant, could they not be the answer to a prayer against the inavoidability of corruption?
These associations of scent and danger have not disappeared with the advent of germ theory. An antiseptic scent has many associations of its own. Perceptions of morality are also marked by purity of scent, and immorality by malodor. As attributions of moral behavior are deeply cultural, it also makes sense that “When two people smell the same thing, they can have remarkably different reactions, depending on their cultural background” (Sniffing Out Cultural Differences). There are also theories that our senses of disgust, perhaps forged in the evolutionary times of high microbial pathogenesis, have now become embedded as an internalized form of social control: “Our ancestors reacted to parasites with overwhelming revulsion, wiring the brain for morals, manners, politics and laws” (Disgust made us human). So, it may be that humanity is a creature of disgust, and that our social institutions are vestiges of our co-evolution with microbial parasites. (I can’t help but wonder, if the web had an odor, what would it be?)
Additional miscellanea of potential interest:
- Scent related:
- Meet the Woman Who Is Preserving the Smell of History (Atlas Obscura)
- Scientists search for death’s aroma and Zombie Apocalypse Survival Chemistry: Death Cologne. (Both from the American Chemical Society.)
- An interesting piece on the meanings of evidence, expertise, and flossing one’s teeth: Flossing and the Art of Scientific Investigation
- Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence? Because, why wouldn’t it be?
- “The ancient Japanese art of flower arranging was the inspiration for a groundbreaking technique to create tiny “artificial brains” that could be used to develop personalized cancer treatments.”
- And, for a few additional thoughts about science, medicine, and magic in all their intertwined and uncleanly complexity: Found in the Eyes of Rams: The Bezoar and its Powers. “A bezoar is a mass of undigested or inedible material found in the GI tract…Whatever the origins of the belief in curing poison, bezoars were popular in the Middle Ages and into the 17th century as antidotes. They were carried as charms, included as decor or attached to drinking and eating vessels to protect the diner, and tests were even designed to detect fakes –the selling of which was a punishable offense.”