BMCR 2007.02.44

Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination

, Scenting salvation : ancient Christianity and the olfactory imagination. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xviii, 421 pages).. ISBN 9780520931015 $45.00.

Table of Contents

This remarkable book examines the phenomenon of smell in ancient Christian literature. Although scholarly interest in the body as a site of religious meaning has increased in recent years, the study of the body’s faculties of sense perception remains a largely neglected area of analysis. While Harvey (henceforth “H”) is not the first to explore the meanings of scent in ancient Christianity (and she singles out the recent dissertation and articles of B. Caseau1 as instructive for her project), her book represents the most comprehensive work on this subject. If there is a watchword that characterizes H’s research, it is most certainly “ambiguity;” for not only do odors themselves straddle the line between corporeal and incorporeal, but the judgment of what makes a given smell “good” or “bad” changes drastically for Christian interpreters depending upon the circumstances.

The book has six chapters, and all but the first generally focus upon the post-Constantinian period: 1) the importance of smell in the cultural landscape of the ancient Mediterranean and early Christianity’s ambivalent relationship to this dimension of religious practice; 2) the post-Constantinian shift in Christian ritual life that provided a new prominence for scent-producing agents; 3) the role of smell in Christian speculation about the body’s capacity for knowledge about God and other beings, speculation that in large part was informed by classical medico-scientific discourses on sense perception; 4) the consequences of the rhetoric of asceticism for the positive estimation of bodily sensation, a relationship that, though complex, was not as antithetical as might be expected; 5) the uncomfortable dissonance between praiseworthy feats of ascetic devotion and the objectionable stench that these practices often engendered; and 6) the relevance of smell and other senses for the resurrected Christian body of the life to come.

Chapter one situates early Christian writers within the pan-Mediterranean valuing of odor as an important component of devotional and funerary rituals, medical care, personal and household beautification, culinary enhancement, and a host of other instances within daily life. As has long been noted, pre-Constantinian Christians often attempted to differentiate themselves from their Jewish and pagan neighbors in a variety of beliefs and practices; this was indeed the case with smell. While the Hebrew Bible affirmed the use of incense as a key ingredient in the rites of the Jerusalem Temple (but nowhere else), it—along with several pagan sources—also provided early Christians with ample ammunition to critique the privileging of smell in religious practice and other social contexts. Writers like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen were strenuous in their critique of the careless use of scenting agents because of the threat to the soul’s wellbeing, though Clement deems that a sparing use of such agents recognizes their inherent goodness as gifts from God.

Despite generally negative attitudes toward the actual deployment of scented material among early Christian thinkers, the faculty of smell was nevertheless a powerful metaphor for reflecting on their role as worshipers; examples abound from Clement and Origen that spiritualize the mentions of incense-burning spread throughout the Septuagint. Moreover, a particularly evocative passage from the Pauline Epistles, 2 Cor 2:14-16, describes the permeable relationship between God, Christ, and humanity in terms of fragrance; in so doing, H argues, it “provided the ancient Christian paradigms for considering the experience of smell.” (p.19) Before concluding her treatment of the early Christian material, H explores the fascinating way in which extracanonical Jewish and Christian narratives insist on Eden as a realm awash with pleasant aromas. Since these fragrances are indicative of the divine presence, the spices that now populate earth (according to one text) are a bittersweet gift from God, a vestige of the “unattainable beauty and comfort of paradise.” (p.52)

Starting with chapter two, H moves on to discuss how Christian attitudes toward smell and scent-producing agents change after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in the fourth century. While H is correct not to overemphasize discontinuity for Christian belief and practice pre- and post-313 C.E., she does assert that Christians began to take the novel step of “claiming the physical world as a realm of positive spiritual encounter through the engagement of physical experience,” (p.58) a move with significant consequences for the valuation of smell. In this chapter, the focus is on ritual practice and the introduction of odoriferous substances into communal worship. First, however, H briefly treats the theological underpinnings that make such a change in outlook possible. Although intimations of a natural theology appear in Christian discourse as early as the letters of the Apostle Paul, the theory that God can be partially discerned through his creation begins truly to flourish only in the post-Nicene writings of figures like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ephrem the Syrian.

The two primary elements of God’s creation that increased in prominence were holy oil (quite often perfumed) and incense. The first of these was less problematic, since anointings for burial, healing, and baptism (though the references to this are somewhat opaque) appear very early in Christian literature. Much slower to find attestation is the burning of incense, due in no small part to uncertainty about its association with pagan devotional practices. Yet Christian thinkers, perhaps drawing on the same conceptions of Paradise as found in non-canonical literature, increasingly came to appreciate the role of incense as a nexus between the divine and human levels of reality, as a pedagogical device for congregants to better apprehend the elusive nature of God (p.80). H closes this chapter by arguing that the growing emphasis on incense’s fragrance as “an active agent of divine presence,” (p.96) can be charted through the fourth and fifth century Syriac recensions of the Virgin Mary’s death narrative (the Transitus Mariae).

Chapter three transitions from a stress on scent-laden physical objects to late antique Christian theorizing about the faculty of smell as a precious epistemological tool. Indeed, H argues that it occupied a unique (though in no way consistently privileged) status for discerning the morality and identity of divine and human beings, since “olfaction provided knowledge. . .to which there was no other means of access.” (p.100) As a backdrop to this Christian intellectual development, H provides a most valuable overview of ancient philosophical, medical, and scientific views concerning the mechanics and hierarchy of sense perception. The general consensus of Greek and Roman thinkers was that smell was of limited importance: useful for some specific tasks of discernment but not of as much significance as seeing or hearing. While the ancient Christian sources generally reproduce this hierarchy—and in so doing, H argues, downplay the weighty role of smell in Mediterranean daily life (p.105)—some thinkers seized upon the ethereal dimensions of odor as the perfect theological metaphor for God as “proximate yet unseen” (p.115).

Throughout this chapter H treats the epistemological function of smell as it appears in a variety of ancient Christian literary forms (sermons, biblical commentaries, letters, treatises, poems/hymns), but perhaps most intriguing among these is her attention to the little-studied genre of the liturgical commentary. Marking the inception of this genre with the pseudonymous fifth-century writer Dionysius the Areopagite, she pauses over his description of the holy oil, which he esteems as “an exact likeness of God,” the liturgical equal of the eucharist “in dignity and effectiveness.” (p.139) For Dionysius, H contends, the involvement of the body in the liturgy is the prerequisite to greater intellectual understanding of God, but it can also be a worthy end in and of itself. (p.140-141)

Chapter four considers the relationship of smell to one of the most distinctive discourses of ancient Christianity, that of asceticism. While the valuing of the physical senses would, at first blush, seem to be diametrically opposed to a phenomenon commonly regarded as self-denying, H insists that the rhetoric of asceticism instead directs bodily sensation toward the proper, regulated channels of the liturgical experience. (p.162) Congregants were instructed, for example, to eschew expensive perfumes and instead cultivate “a fragrance of virtue.” (p.164) It is this emphasis on the “spiritual senses” that H believes scholars have misinterpreted as being opposed to the body and physicality, neglecting the necessary starting point of “sensory experience in any human form of knowledge, including the understanding of God.” (p.171) The nature of the “spiritual senses” gains precision for a number of Christian writers through recourse to Scripture; the Song of Songs, in particular, is a salient resource for thinking about the indissoluble bonds joining physical and metaphysical sensation.

In bringing this chapter to a conclusion, H highlights the ascetical impulses of Syriac-speaking Christianity, since it is this variety of the religion that gave rise to the most extreme examples of self-mortification. Surprisingly, even here there is not a straightforward rejection of the senses in general and smell in particular, since the Syrian church is also the site of many of the earliest references to the devotional use of incense and holy oils. In order to explain this apparent contradiction, H uses literary and material evidence to demonstrate that stylites and other rigorous ascetics were configured to represent ‘churches outside of church’ through the holy nature of their bodies. As such, practices such as the burning of incense by pilgrims were rarely absent from the pillars and caves where these saints dwelt. By means of this most striking example, H challenges dominant scholarly understandings of asceticism as sensory-hatred, instead emphasizing the “profound reconciliation between the ascetic and liturgical discourses of late antiquity.” (p.197)

Chapter five also addresses the relationship of ascetic practice to the sense of smell, but from a different perspective than the previous one. Here, the attention is on the unpleasant odors frequently generated by the more extreme forms of asceticism. Foulness of breath from fasting, the reeking of a sweat-drenched, long-unwashed body, the overwhelming pungency of gangrenous sores—all these scents hindered monastics and laypeople alike from associating too closely with the most dedicated of saints. It is this tension that is arguably the most provocative part of H’s study because it throws into disarray the entire pan-Mediterranean value system for linking aroma/stench with a corresponding morality. What does it mean for ancient Christians when practices that are widely esteemed as “good” lead to very, very “bad” smells?

Several strategies emerged, one of which was to portray unpleasant smells as spiritually, if not actually, pleasing; such a tactic is already present in the early second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp, where the saint’s burning flesh is said to smell like fresh-baked bread. Another option was simply to refrain from commenting on practices that obviously produce stench, as in the biography of the holy fool Symeon of Emesa, who wore the corpse of a dog and defecated in public. A third strategy was to view the deformation and putrefaction of the flesh as a violent prerequisite for those who aspired to have “the divine perfume God would pour down in response.” (p.212) Fourth and finally, stench might be seen, as in Jacob of Serug’s “Homily on Simeon the Stylite,” as both the ultimate demonstration of humanity’s fallen condition and the means by which the holy man eventually prevailed in his contest against Satan. H calls attention to the frequent assertion that these saints “in death exuded the fragrance of sanctity” as the indisputable sign of their victory. (220).

Fittingly, the sixth and final chapter addresses the function of scent for the resurrected body in particular and the afterlife in general. H notes that ancient Christian thought was quite homogenous in its assertion that the believer’s body would indeed still exist in the world to come, even if the nature of the changes it would undergo in the passage from death to eternal life were not expressly clear. What was certain, however, was that the resurrected body would become perfect in its perceptive ability, “unlimited in what it could experience of the divine.” (p.224) Smell was a most useful tool for describing this transition, since odor— especially that of spices—was itself on the boundary-line between human and divine spheres. The otherworldly migration of the dead saint was assured by his mortal stench giving way to sweet aroma at life’s end. But for the less-rigorous congregant as well, the smells associated with relics and the liturgy served as “the guide for how and what to expect in the life to come.” (p.229)

H concludes this chapter and her study with a striking comparison of the role of the senses in the afterlife for two ancient Christian theologians. For Augustine of Hippo, often regarded as the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity, the glory of the heavenly city can be perceived solely through the faculty of sight. Such an outlook is a testament to the centrality of Neoplatonism for his thought, but it is also a harbinger of future Christian sensibilities that overwhelmingly esteem the visual. (p.235) In contrast, the lesser-known Ephrem contemplates Paradise in his Syriac hymns as not only a beautiful sight to behold, but moreover as a place of unsurpassed fragrance. Yet this aroma is by no means simply decorative, H observes, since inhaling it both provides the resurrected with a kind of sustenance to which earthly food is incomparable and also allows unmediated access to God’s revelation. (p.235-237) The difference between Augustine and Ephrem is an encapsulation of one of the central threads running through H’s study: the theological and devotional culture of Syriac-speaking communities affords to olfactory experience a prominence rarely seen elsewhere in ancient Christianity.

H has produced a fascinating book on a rarely considered topic, and is to be commended for this work of creative and erudite synthesis. Several strengths deserve special mention. First, the focus on smell provides an opportunity to ponder familiar points of scholarly consensus (e.g., the differences between pre- and post-Constantinian Christianity on matters of practice and theology) from new analytical perspectives. In the same way, H’s work gives pause to oft-echoed but questionable assumptions, such as the view of asceticism as fundamentally anti-sensory.

Second, while H demonstrates the little-noticed role of smell in ancient Christian discourse, she does not fall into the trap of overplaying her hand. Nowhere does she claim that smell was, on average, more important than the senses of sight and hearing. Indeed, part of what makes this study intriguing for the reader (and, I suspect, for H herself) is the ambiguous nature of smell; it is not the pre-eminent sense according to ancient theorists, and yet it is capable of discernment in ways that other, “higher” senses cannot replicate.

A third success is H’s remarkable command of the vast and disparate ancient literature related to the topics of scent and odor, complemented by a sophisticated awareness of new and old trends in scholarly research. Her work is especially illuminating for the study of Syriac Christianity, since this branch of the ancient church has historically been maligned as theologically derivative. H’s analysis of Ephrem’s poetry, in particular, demonstrates the rich and distinctive quality of this milieu of Christian thought.

There are a few weaknesses in approach, though these are slight, given the scope of this study. While H has been admirably thorough in her assembling of the ancient sources, a few noteworthy texts have perhaps escaped her notice. In the Latin infancy gospels edited by M.R. James, the luminous birth of Jesus is accompanied by a smell “more fragrant than any aroma of ointments.”2 Conversely, the arch-villain Judas Iscariot, in a fragment of the early second-century writer Papias, is said to have become so swollen and bloated that the land upon which he died was rendered uninhabitable because of his stench, with passers-by forced to hold their noses even until Papias’ day.3 Even so, both of these examples correspond to the pattern, well-established in H’s study, of divine activity and moral character being disclosed through the medium of smell.

A second shortcoming is that, for all the extensive discussion of good and bad smells, there is very little consideration of what the absence of odor signifies. In a worldview where smell is a crucial identity-marker, what does it mean when the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus asserts that odor only results from compound substances, and that basic elements like water, air, and fire are scentless? Or that much of the holy oil used by ancient Syrians in their ritual practices was simple, unscented olive oil, deployed without the augmentation of stronger odoriferous substances?

A final critique involves the mechanisms that facilitate olfactory experience. As noted above, chapter three contains a welcome discussion of ancient theories of sense perception, a field of inquiry that H characterizes as contentious, puzzling, and lacking any clear consensus (pp.100-105). It may have been useful to integrate into this discussion present-day ideas about the faculty of smell and how it works (though H does reference several recent scientific articles in her endnotes and bibliography). Coincidentally, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2004 was awarded to two American researchers for a significant breakthrough in the science of smell: the discovery of the process by which olfactory receptor cells allow for the discernment and recollection of approximately 10,000 distinct odors. For human beings, 347 different types of receptor cells each detect a quite small number of smells, and the combined stimuli from these receptors are funneled into the cortex of the brain to form the perception of a recognizable smell. This research, while far removed from the context of ancient Christianity, might have provided an opportunity to situate ancient theories of smell within an ongoing scientific discourse on this remarkable and enigmatic sense.

In conclusion, H’s work represents a significant boon to the study of late antiquity Christianity, and will be a valuable and provocative resource for scholars working on ancient conceptions of the body, the history of science, ritual studies, asceticism, and Syriac Christianity, among other topics.


1. B. Caseau, ” Euodia. The Use and Meaning of Fragrances in the Ancient World and their Christianization (100-900 A.D.),” PhD. diss., Princeton University, 1994; “Christian Bodies: The Senses and Early Byzantine Christianity,” in L. James (ed.); Desire and Denial in Byzantium, Aldershot, 1999, 101-109; “Les usages médicaux de l’encens et des parfums: Un aspect de la mediédecine populaire antique et de sa christianisation,” in S. Bazin-Tachella, D. Quéruel, E. Samama (eds.); Air, Miasmes et Contagion: Les épidémies dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Age, Langres, 2001, 74-85.

2. Latin text in M.R. James, Latin Infancy Gospels, Cambridge, 68. English translation in O. Cullmann, “Infancy Gospels,” in W. Schneemelcher (ed.); R.M. Wilson (trans.), New Testament Apocrypha, Louisville, KY, 1991, I. 466.

3. Greek text and English translation in B.D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, Cambridge, MA, 104-107.