Smells about right, huh? Hellen’s work in progress so far

Hello there. This is where I’m up to with my current thoughts on smell. It’s been building up for quite a long while now and I have the strong but vague feeling that it’s destined to be helpful or something. I hope so anyway. I’ve always been interested in smells -  don’t snigger please! - because I think smells help us process such a lot of information that we’re not even consciously aware of. Universal experiences like falling in love, feeling uncomfortable, bonding with children, awareness of others - they’ve all been conducted by smell. I did my PhD on smells in 19th-century British fiction and I discovered that writers of Victorian ghost stories routinely used the sense of smell to indicate that something was a bit ‘off’ and that something paranormal was about to appear. This led me to investigate Victorian pneumatology, and this led me to this point. Here it goes:

It is hugely important to reclaim the act of smelling. Firstly, because it’s universal - breathing in fragrance is something that all living people do equally and there are no educational, cultural or racial hierarchies in place when it comes to judging who huffs best. Secondly, because it’s a way of expressing the inexpressible - the act of smelling offers a paradigm for something that is received at the deepest emotional and experiential level, but that is impossible to articulate in words

. Thirdly, digging for our shared sense of smell is important because it offers a liturgical liberation where we drag out fossilised worship-words into the brighter, clearer daylight. Finally, it’s important because - just maybe - we’ve all been obtusely missing the point of smell for generations while our innate, overlooked, under-used God-detector has just been sitting there, plain as the nose on our faces. D’uh!

Smell is both an actual, anatomical process and a cultural metaphor for detecting inauthenticity. You know how it works: we can ‘smell the bulls**t a mile off’. In fact we’re all quite good at using our sense of smell to wordlessly judge whether something is a bit iffy or not. Although there are hardly any words - in English or in any other language - to precisely describe scents, we all know a ‘stinker’ when we see one. We know that they’re ‘in bad odour’ because we can ‘smell a rat’. Such ‘rotters’ make us ‘sniffy’ or else ‘turn up our noses’: they ‘smell to high heaven’. In fact, you might say that they get ‘right up your nose’.

Our human gut-reactions are so often mediated through the nose that we frequently forget that we’re doing it at all. After all, smell was dismissed by Aristotle as the ‘least regarded’ human sense on the grounds that even dogs do it better than us. Apparently there are two obscure South-East Asian tribes that have a dozen specific words for describing smells according to which predators will be attracted, but mostly humans are completely useless when it comes to describing smell experiences. “It kind of smells like bacon” we’ll say helplessly, or else “it kind of smells like coffee”, or else “it kind of reminds me of that time I spilled lime tea on my copy of Proust”.

All in all, people can get through life pretty well today without ever having to think about smells in any greater depth than choosing a nice bottle of perfume at Christmas, or sniffing to see if the gas is still on, or being tempted to buy extra fresh buns in the Bakery aisle. In order to reclaim the common use of our sense of smell therefore we need to look back further. The Old Testament furnishes a particularly good place to start: the Christian Creation story describes a far more complex (and practical) set of human olfactory tools than we usually credit.

It starts off early in the Bible. Just one verse into the very beginning, even before we get to the part about Adam being vitalised through his nostrils, we get the animation of the whole world by God’s ruach. Throughout the whole Old Testament, ruach contains the ideas of breath and spirit and wind and breezes and storms. In some translations therefore, we get ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters’. Only in some translations, though.

Now right here we have to remember that one of the reasons why there are so many conflicting translations of the Old Testament is that the Hebrew text we’ve inherited didn’t have any spaces between words, nor any punctuation, nor any vowels in it to help us decide what precisely is being described. It was an oral tradition until then: the ben-Asher family of Masorite scribe-scholars (who lived in Medieval Palestine and Iraq about ten centuries after Jesus) were the ones who put in the spaces and the diacritical marks. Taking deeply seriously their responsibilities as custodians of The Sacred Text, they made the contextual additions that help us to distinguish what meaning and what tense the old Hebrew words should be understood as describing. Which, in turn, means that it’s also incredibly important to realise that it was latter-day post-Trinitarian Christian translators who were the ones deciding which bits to put in capital letters, as in “The Spirit of God” and which bits to de-emphasise with a little ’s’, as merely desert storms and the like. Which is why, in the Jewish Publication Society version of that verse, it doesn’t read The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, but A wind from God was sweeping over the waters. Both translations are right; at least in terms of lexis and grammar. But they imply quite different things. The sheer breadth of meanings for ruach doesn’t half make narrow ideas of ‘scriptural inerrancy’ look daft.

After giving us the ruachy waters, the Bible details the creation of Adam through the spirit of life (nishmat hayyim) being breathed into his nostrils (I know, I already said that, but Genesis can have two versions so why can’t we). Fair enough, that’s about respiration and not necessarily smell - but the point I’m hoping to develop is that they overlap. As anyone in a foetid Tube carriage will tell you, smelling is unfortunately done through the nose at the same time as breathing. It is not a voluntary extra.

Noses and smelling are vital throughout the Old Testament. God’s nostrils are seen to be either calm and steady, or else flaring as the source of power and destruction. We’re used to seeing references to God’s ‘patience’ and ‘long-suffering’, but actually the original Hebrew is that God has a ‘long nose’. Yes, it’s idiomatic - you can see the connection, because having wide, flaring nostrils is a sign of anger whereas having an unwrinkled, long nose is a sign of being calm - but the frequent references to God’s nose also reminds us that our sense of smell is extraordinarily potent in our relationship with the Divine.

The two subjects of a) God’s long nostrils, and b) the animating breath of God have already been pretty well covered in the existing scholarship. As far as I can tell, however, their overlap with our sense of smell is not. And this is where we come in; hurray! You and I and everyone reading or listening to this is embarking on a whole new field of enquiry. Yippee!!!!!!!!

We know that smell is more than just a subset of breathing, it is a thing in its own right. However, it appears to be a thing that carries some seriously privileged divine weight. That’s partly because it overlaps with breathing (ie it’s done through the nose), with ruach and with all the animating-breath-of-God stuff. It’s also partly because the Hebrew Scriptures make a big deal out of the state of God’s nostrils. So I wanted to be very alert to what the original Hebrew says about the nose as the actual organ of smell, as well as to what it says about aromas themselves.  And blow me down by Jingo, if the very first story about human history after the Garden of Eden ain’t all about smells! Sacrificial smells, that is - savours and scents that reach back from humans to God. 

In Genesis you go straight from Adam and Eve getting thrown out of Eden - and all the curses about labouring and childbirth that go with it - to Cain & Abel. And to sacrifice. And to the correct way to do a sacrifice. At this point it’s good to remember that the etymological root of ‘perfume’ - per fumen - means ‘through burning’. Cain is a farmer and sacrifices vegetables while Abel is a shepherd and sacrifices some plump joints cut from that season’s earliest lambs. In a way that infuriates vegetarians everywhere - but that I understand is explained in terms of God preferring First Fruits rather than Random Harvests - God seems to do a Homer Simpson and picks out the BBQ meat guy for favour while the poor veggie guy is driven to fury, fratricide and finally exile in the Land of Nod. Fortunately (spoiler alert), Adam and Eve have another kid, Seth, to replace Abel and he begets - after several generations of begetting - Noah, who survives the flood. So phew, we’re all children of Adam and Eve via Seth and consequently we’re all inheritors of the the divine breath in our nostrils.

Throughout the rest of the Bible, Edenic smells more or less supply the basic materials and metaphors for perfection. In the very erotic bits of Song of Solomon for example, the belovèd one is hymned by comparison to fragrant greenery such as spikenard, cassia and cinnamon. Spikenard is an antibacterial flowering plant, related to Valerian, that grows high up in the Himalayas and looks a little like allium. The flowers are quite small but its oil, made from steaming the roots, is relaxing and gives a mild mood boost.  Cassia and cinnamon on the other hand are both made from the inner bark of cassia/cinnamon trees and they were pretty interchangeable, except that cassia bushes grow lower and that cinnamon held the higher prestige because it was a major ingredient for embalming royal Egyptian mummies. So the sexy smells in the Old Testament are ultimately just a reference to what was lost when humans left Eden. They’re not even 100% pleasant: the smell of myrrh is surprisingly bitter. I think that despite all their carnal, sensual appeal those erotic smell-descriptors still harbour an edge of tragic lament.

Ok. Take a deep breath. This next bit about smells is so super-important that I’m going to go all cinema-trailer-style on you:

BOTH THE HEBREW WORD ‘MASHIAC’ (‘Messiah’) AND THE GREEK WORD ‘CHRISTOS’ (‘Christ’) MEAN ‘THE ANOINTED ONE’.

Aha. Smells, sacrifice and anointing. See where I’m going?! Please keep that etymological connection in mind while we think about smells and anointing recipes in the Old Testament.

There are two very precise recipes in Exodus 30 and they’re repeated, with further instructions for priests, in Leviticus. The first recipe is mainly myrrh mixed with olive oil to make a holy anointing oil for the temple and the priests, and no one else can use it on pain of exclusion from the community. The second is a solid incense made of frankincense with ground up resins and spices, and its purpose is to make a lot of smoke when it’s burned at the altar. I can’t actually think that anyone would even want to use it outside of worship because it would produce such a choking cloud of vapour, but that second, solid one was also forbidden to non-priests on pain of banishment. There is a long, long list in Leviticus of which anointment should go with which sacrifice: the sacrifices are just not enough on their own. Instead, they must be consecrated as sacrifice by demonstrating the pleasing aroma of worship.  Oxen, goats, turtledoves and bread buns are various covered but, despite their separate provenances, their main ingredients (ie myrrh and frankincense) come equally from trees.

Can I explain the technicalities of production here?  The method of extracting frankincense and myrrh is the same. The frankincense and myrrh trees are usually grown commercially in plantations, and the manufacturing process is to get a big knife, to score a thick deep line into the bark and to wait for the tree sap to come out as beads of resin that you can snap off. So in a very real sense, frankincense and myrrh are the tears and the blood of the wounded trees. It would seem that the smell that we make from frankincense and myrrh is taking us back again to our origin: it seems that we are back to the trees of Knowledge of Good and Evil and of Eternal Life (cough, green leitmotif, cough). In the New Testament of course you get frankincense and myrrh and a whole different perspective on the various things you can do with, or nail onto trees; but we’ll come to that later.

Right, so before we move on to the New Testament,  let’s summarise the last few paragraphs. Smell in the Old Testament is very important but under-researched. Smell is a subset of breath, but it’s also a thing in its own right. The right way and the wrong way to make sacrificial smells are the first things we get after the Fall, and certain smells are prescribed in Exodus and then again in Leviticus. The words that we use to translate the Breath of God include wind, storm, breeze, spirit with a small ’s’ and Spirit with a big ’S’. The nicest smells in the Old Testament are reminders of the Garden of Eden and especially of its trees.

Summary over. Well, bearing all that in mind, smell does become something different in the New Testament. Different in a way, I think, that sheds light on what at first seems like discrepancies and problems in the way that he two Testaments relate to each other. The most important consideration is that it’s written in Greek, not Hebrew, so even though we have Jesus’ words - which as a first-century Gallilean Jew he presumably said in Aramaic Hebrew - they’re written down for us in Greek with helpful translations for the hard of understanding (like in Mark 5:41 where it goes: And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha kum”, which translates as, “Little girl, I say to you, get up”). As far as smells go, that change of language from Hebrew to Greek means that suddenly there is no equivalent word for ruach, with its associations of ‘spirit’ along with cloud and vapours and what you inhale through your nose. Instead, you get pneuma, which bears a lot of resemblance to the way that ruach can mean Spirit, but that implies sweet zip all about the way it involves noses.

Although pneuma means ‘Breath of life’, it’s used very precisely in Greek classical philosophy to mean the opposite of psyche, which implies a ‘soul’ which is distinct from a body. EEEk: that’s a very not-Ancient Hebrew perspective, because there’s no such thing as a mind-body split in the Mosaic Jewish tradition, where soul and body are thought of as being one and the same. On the contrary, the word pneuma is attached to the ancient Greek medical, anatomical model where a living organism is reliant on circulating air to stay alive. You get the words ‘pneumonia’ and ‘pneumatic drill’ from the Greek word pneuma, which kind of show the emphasis on a physical, not a spiritual, movement.

Although the transition from Hebrew to Greek meant we lost the idea of God’s breath being something you smelled through the nostrils, the new, Greek, word allowed a quite different emphasis to be placed on the Breath of God. In Greek, in pneuma, the breath of God is something inside you - you are dead without it just as no-one can live without breathing. The definition of pneuma is that it is internal (ie., not externally imposed like ruach) and that it is common to all people not just among those possessing certain tribal markers. Wow, that’s big potatoes! I’m going to say it again! The translation of ruach as pnuema means that the ‘Breath of God’ is suddenly understood as operating internally inside all humans, everywhere.

I personally don’t think Christianity - as opposed to Judaism - could have existed without the change from ruach to pneuma, and I’m absolutely certain that Calvinism, and all those 16th century protestant cults that banned smells and bells, couldn’t either.  If you translate pneuma again into Latin, as they did for the sake of spreading the Gospel across the then-known world, you get the crop of words involving spirare - to breathe upon or to blow - and so you get inspiration (taking the spirit in), respiration (breathing in and out again and again) perspiration (breathing hard through labour) and expiration (dying, ceasing to breathe). Those of us who come from an Anglican tradition will remember the prayer of preparation, which goes: ‘through the inspiration of your holy spirit’. I’ve always thought that’s a bit of a tautology as the word inspiration kind of means ‘by your Holy Spirit’ anyway.

Hang on now, you’ll be protesting that there are plenty of smelly bits in the New Testament - I hope someone’s going to mention Mary of Bethany and the jar of Nard - but basically there are two main Christological implications about smells that are really interesting and really puzzling to me. Both of them offer fundamentally important directions towards holding together the two Testaments - assuring that we pay more attention to our noses, and to what happens when we inhale with them.

The first of those (as you probably already guessed from my previous unsubtle hints) is about how smells coincide with the persistent ‘tree’ image we’ve got from Genesis. Jesus is allegedly a carpenter in English translations of the Bible, which is interesting enough because there weren’t that many trees around in the Middle East. (I’m told that people working in the construction industry in his day were far more likely to be stone-masons. Tbf the original Greek is ambiguous as Jesus is only described as a tectōn - an generic artisan or a craftsman - but all those references he made to ‘living stones’ and ‘cornerstones’ make me inclined to agree). It’s true that we all like our Children’s Bible mental pictures of Jesus with his Dad in the Carpenter’s shop surrounded by shavings and learning to hammer in nails straight. Nonetheless, I think it’s also relevant that “a carpenter” was apparently at the time a slang way of saying “Rabbi”. So whichever way it goes, the professional identity of Jesus is tree-related.

References to the death of Jesus on a xylon (the Greek word interchangeably means ‘wood’ or ‘tree’) are splattered across the New Testament alongside the Greek word for cross (as in Jesus dying on the Cross), which is stauros. Reminding ourselves that frankincense and myrrh - which are aromatics extracted from wounded trees and used for ritual purposes - were famously 2/3 of the gifts of the magi when Jesus was a baby, we can read the self-immolation of Christ (etymologically ‘the anointed one’) on a wounded tree as a really, really, really extreme way of extracting the fragrance of sacrifice. Ta-da!  That’s kind of where my smell-studies are going. Cue the confirmation from St Paul in Ephesians 5:2:

Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Finally, a trailer for the other nose-related theme that I’m chewing over right now. It’s about Jesus’ last breath. If I’m right (and really, I don’t know if I am), it seems to me that there is a distinct narrative arc between the moment of Jesus’ expiry - I mean literally the moment of his last breath or as it’s sometimes translated ‘giving up the ghost’ - and the moment of Adam’s first breath that set off the whole human story in the first place. The relationship between Adam’s first breath and Jesus’ last breath would then be the beginning and end of the whole story. The alpha and the omega. Such a narrative arc would depend on conceiving of the Bible as a united story and not as a random library of bronze-age myths, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Having said that,  as an enlightened, secular, modern, self-determining kind of person, I really don’t like the idea at all. In fact I’m rattled, and keep asking myself, is that right? Can it possibly be right? Because if it’s right that the story is over, it means that nothing can substantially change. Even if we eventually get anything right it’ll just be on the old Monkeys-with-Typewriters principle, rather than through any particular effort of our own. Because if it is right, everything that comes after Calvary is just a repercussion or an iteration of the original story. We are all just echoes.

Oh, Buggeration.

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