A few years ago, I taught a class which explored the relationship between alchemy and perfume. Just as modern chemistry grew out of the medieval science of alchemy, so perfume technology developed alongside advancements in chemistry. Alchemy is the metaphorical heart of perfuming, a process which involves transforming raw ingredients (flowers, plants, and resins) into an ethereal substance worth a King's ransom for how it makes us feel. Alchemists quested for centuries, and slaved in smokey laboratories, in search of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone. It was said that a little sliver of the Philosopher's Stone could transform any stone into gold, and just a few grains from the Elixir of Life could add decades to one's life. Though no perfume can claim as much (at least not yet!), perfume affects me with a powerful euphoria which gives me a visceral sense of the divine and our closeness to God. It's no wonder that the primary use of incense and perfumes in the ancient world was religious; the odor of perfume in the air connotes the invisible (and sweet!) presence of the divine in our lives, and the smoke from burning fragrant woods and incense carries our prayers to heaven.
Once upon a time, people believed that everything in the natural world had a corresponding principle in heaven. Those of us familiar with the idea of "sympathetic magic" in folk traditions will understand this principle. For example, to add love and intimacy to our lives, magical traditions like Santeria advocate rituals involving sweet foods like honey and cakes to propitiate the Venusian deity Oshun. Like attracts like; the sweetness of honey attracts the divine principle of sweetness - love! In the Western magical tradition, particular herbs and plants have a sympathetic correspondence to the celestial bodies or planets. But how were these relationships determined? The principle of energetic "sympathy" or the likeness between things of earth and things of heaven led to a planet's rulership over a physical substance. In alchemy, Saturn, lord of limits and the dross of the material world, was given rulership over one of the heaviest metals, lead. Conversely, gold in alchemy was symbolized by the Sun, not only because of its bright, shiny, yellow color, but also because of its exalted position as the most sought-after and expensive metal. Gold was the primary object of the alchemical quest, just as in astrology, the Sun is the most important principle in the chart for overall health and well-being.
Once you get the hang of this principle, it's really very simple. In our modern world, we're very removed from the medicinal functions of plants in our life, but people who lived in more intimacy with nature would have had a simple way to categorize herbs according to their planetary correspondence. For example, herbs which soothed the digestive tract or assisted in childbirth would most likely have been given a lunar rulership, since the Moon symbolizes women and the stomach organs in astrology. I'm thinking of another simple example that's appearing in yards all over Eugene, Oregon right now - sunflowers! They're big and yellow and they thrive in the summer heat, so it's pretty easy to give sunflowers a solar rulership. Understanding the basic principle of sympathetic magic can authorize you to be more creative in practicing magic at home. Want to increase the solar principles of centered-ness, health, and self-esteem in your life? Place sunflowers on your altar. Don't their large, happy faces and impressive size put a little spring in your step, and give you a boost of confidence in the grandiosity this physical world can support? That's sympathetic magic in action.
Which brings us back to perfume. Using essential oils in ritual or for personal adornment can activate this principle on the sub-conscious level. It's no secret that wearing a sweet perfume with, say, a vanilla base, makes you feel sweet and sexy, an attitude conducive to attracting lovers. Voila! That's sympathetic magic. Wearing pure essential oils is not always practical, not only because they can be hard on the skin (they are potent chemicals, after all), but also because they don't always smell, well, perfumey. Patchouli is great for attracting money and resources, but slathering on a headshop-grade oil is probably not going to endear us to our co-workers. Fortunately, both the natural and commercial perfume industry has developed so much in the past few decades that there are, literally, endless possibilities for drawing on the magical properties of fragrance and still smelling sophisticated. My obsession of the moment is Evan Healy's Saffron Attar, a natural fragrance oil which lifts my spirits at the same time that it delights my senses.
There's something about Evan Healy- I think she's a true alchemist! I was first introduced to her products via her face-care line. As a long-time acne-sufferer, I was always searching in vain for a face cream that would soothe and smooth my skin without causing break-outs. Nothing worked quite right - light moisturizers controlled the acne but left my skin dry and thirsty, and this became of increasing concern as I aged. It was great not to have the acne, but now I had to worry about wrinkles! I took one look at Evan Healy's rich and thick Blue Chamomile Day Moisturizer, and thought, "Yum! But it would never work for me." I gave it a chance though, all the while convinced that the heavy cream was going to clog my pores. The first time I put it on my face, something happened. My skin cheered! I'm particularly sensitive to plant energies and resonances, and I actually felt the synergistic activity on my skin as the herbs soothed the surface and the natural oils nourished my face. The appearance of my skin changed dramatically with repeated use, with the calming herbs controlling the acne and the other ingredients restoring much-needed nutrients and anti-oxidants. There's even shea butter in this cream and it doesn't cause me to break-out!
Now part of what Evan Healy got right was the science of dermatology (her company slogan is, "the skin breathes"), but I'm also convinced that she is a master-blender, and that part of what impacted me the first time I used the Blue Chamomile face cream was the consciousness and intention that went into gathering these healing herbs. So when I heard she sold fragrances too, I jumped at the chance to experience them.
Saffron is a solar herb, an attribution that derives not only from its warm, sunny colors, but also from its healing properties. The ancients used saffron for a variety of purposes, among these as an aphrodisiac and mood enhancer. Nicholas Culpeper, the seventeenth century English herbalist, wrote the book on the correspondences between planets and plants - literally. His incredibly popular texts, The Complete Herbal and The English Physician, tell us much about the history of medical astrology and how it was practiced. Culpeper has this to say about saffron: "It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion [sign of Leo] and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens your heart so exceedingly." Just as all life on the planet would cease without the Sun, human life is dependent on the beating heart, and so the heart in the body corresponds to the Sun is astrology, and the sign of Leo. One of the most expensive spices in the world, highly-prized golden saffron (remember the Sun's rulership of gold!) is naturally a solar herb. As a further illustration of how this principle would be applied astrologically, Culpeper explains that saffron "quickens the brain, for the Sun is exalted in Aries." Each planet or celestial body is said to be unusually strong in a particular sign, and the Sun finds this "exalted" expression in Aries (modern astrologers still refer to these ancient dignities, by the way). Aries rules the head in medical astrology, and so the solar herb saffron also has a strong application for the brain.
I will tell you that the first time I applied Evan Healy's Saffron Attar, it quickened my brain and strengthened my heart exceedingly! This perfume is definitely a mood enhancer, and activator of the solar principles of centered-ness, confidence, and a sunny disposition. So many perfume companies invent bogus, metaphysical properties for their perfumes - but in this case, the claim is not bogus! Beyond the emotional lift Saffron Attar gives you, it smells heavenly, and I mean that with all the spiritual inflection of the term. Evan Healy's fragrance line is called Puja, derived from the Sanskrit word for ritual offering. I think this is one of those rare companies which perfectly hits the mark of combining pleasing scents with sacred purpose.
Describing a perfume is a sophisticated art, almost as rarefied as the craft of perfumery itself. It involves being initiated into a certain vocabulary of fragrance families such as floral, oriental, and citrus, and occasionally draws on more exotic terms like chypre. For myself, I've never found descriptions with these pseudo-scientific terms to be very helpful in grasping the essence of a scent, because smell is such an intensely personal and non-linear sense. Saffron Attar smells like dawn in a woodland retreat. It's decidedly not green, but it is reminiscent of the promise of a new day among a circle of sacred trees. True to its solar nature, the saffron note is bold and loud and vaguely strident, but this fiery note is mellowed and contained by the base of a heart-breakingly beautiful sandalwood. I've never cared much for sandalwood before, finding its oily components a bit too close to the odor of semen for my taste. But this is a perfume ingredient which varies widely in quality, and Evan Healy's sandalwood smells like an ornate wooden chest - with the saffron adding an accent of faded red paint.
Fire and earth: saffron and sandalwood. This is a perfume not for dreaming but for being, for capturing the focus of your solar purpose and planting it in the bosom of a soft and welcoming world. Saffron Attar smells remotely (and naturally) of India, where its materials are sourced. The slightest hint of food in the attar is due to saffron's ubiquity in Indian cookery, and this subtle connotation is fully overpowered by saffron's bracing, herbal quality. The entirely feminine sandalwood balances the masculine singularity of the saffron with a lovely dry-down, both powdery and ethereal in the way it calls to mind the onset of evening in an ancient market-bazaar. It's not flowers, it's not France, it's not particularly sexy or spicy, just a gorgeous woody perfume which yet works well on a woman.
Find more on Evan Healy's fragrance line here
I just checked and it looks like many of the fragrances are sold out because they are made in small batches and availability changes with the seasons. Please keep in mind that Evan Healy's ingredients are of impeccable quality in addition to being all natural, a combo which, while it delights the senses, makes a considerable dent in the pocket-book. The bottles are small, but worth every golden copper you will pay. Saffron Attar: a way to enjoy the Sun, even in Winter. Now go out and make some magic!