A Numinous Light


– a review of Olympia Orchids’ ‘Kyphi’

A while ago, I commented on Doc Elly’s blog, Perfume Project NW, on what constitutes “art”, prompted by the heated debates on many blogs over Juliette Has a Gun’s launch of ‘Not A Perfume’. For doing so, Doc Elly was generous enough to send me a bunch of samples, and despite the deluge of international Christmas mail, it arrived today. There was a lot of goodwill and no fewer goodies in that box, goodies which will be reviewed here over the next few weeks, and that, dear readers, is a definite promise!

Meanwhile chez Maison Tarleisio, I had a dead-curious six-year-old and a no less curious cat – the fiendish ginger Hairy Krishna – all over the box. The boy was disappointed it was full of “girlie stuff” (“Eww!”), and the cat wanted to eat the Styrofoam packing peanuts and chew the bubble wrap, before trying to plant his not inconsiderable backside inside the box, which he did – and promptly got stuck. As the cat took off with a cardboard box attached to his posterior, the kid took off after the cat, and at long last I had a chance to study the contents. One of them in particular caught my eye – her recreation of “Kyphi”, the Greek name for an incense and perfume formula that the Egyptians called Kapet.

Given I’m the kind of ancient history and/or ancient perfume nutcase who reads Dioscurides and Theophrastus for fun, this was quite possibly the Best Belated Christmas Present ever.

In his “Travels”, Plutarch mentions that three types of incense were burned in Egyptian temples – frankincense at dawn, myrrh at midday, and kyphi at dusk. Kyphi was also used as a medicine and a perfume. The earliest extant recipe – and there are a few – dates to 1500 B.C.E. Kyphi recipes contain mastic, pine resin (or wood) camel grass, mint, sweet flag and cinnamon among them, and all recipes feature some variety of wine, raisins and honey.

Well, dear readers, it was time to take the plunge…and delve into the riddle that is “Kyphi”.

So I did, and in nothing flat, a drab, frosty and foggy late-December day disappeared in a flash, along with drooping Christmas decorations, a cat in a cardboard box and the boy trying to catch him.

Do you believe in ghosts, or in the ghostly auras the past can leave behind in certain locations? The centuries-old atmosphere of an old, old European church, the very walls breathing in devotion, exhaling calm. There is a very particular atmosphere associated with such places – not just churches, but stone circles and nemetons and even – coming from one of the world’s leading bog body locations – bogs and marshes and forest groves, a definite delineation of sacred space apart, of other…otherworldy, otherwise, non-mundane.

The Romans, not the least superstitious people in history, had a term reserved for that which is so sacred, it can’t be contained in an image or a statue or indeed anything manmade. The especially revered was called “numen”, which gives us our present word of numinous – that which inspires devotion and awe and an uneasy tinge of fear of the supernatural.

I visited one such numinous place, a place so powerful, it hit my consciousness like a bell being rung loud and clear, the stones, the thyme growing in clumps between the rocks, the very mountain – Mount Parnassus – behind me emanating sacred space. That was Delphi, famous for its oracle, its prophetess, famous as the location where the god Apollo slayed the monster Pytho and established his temple. With one spray of an atomizer, I was back there in an instant, standing at the spot in the Temple of Apollo above the crevasse in the rocks where the Pythia inhaled nebulous fumes and proclaimed her oracles to the listening priesthood who interpreted them for the pilgrims.

Doc Elly’s “Kyphi” smells like nothing else I have ever tried, and I’m getting slightly jaded by now. Not like “perfume”, not like incense, not like anything earthly, which makes it a howling success right there. It is time travel in an atomizer, taking me back to a different time and a different world, a world where there was less of a disconnect between the human and the divine, a world less sanitized and deodorized, when scent was the original hotline to the Gods and the original sacrifice. There is frankincense in there, certainly, and I’m guessing myrrh which adds a contemplative air, and something that reminds me of fresh laurel leaves – galbanum? A touch of pine or cedar? Cinnamon too, I think, but forget everything you know about cinnamon and pomanders – this is a dry, airy cinnamon that hints of desert and sand and time. Above all else, forget everything you know about perfume categories – this is not floral, not green, not resinous (although that likely comes closest) or aquatic. If I had to put a label on it, I’d say it smells human in the best sense of the word – toiling below time, but aspiring to the stars above. It put me in touch with memories I had all but forgotten, a place I remembered and times I surely never did, but there is some ancient soul memory in that little bottle, some golden, shimmering thread linking me to the best of my aspirations and abilities.

If this version of “Kyphi” had another name, it should be “Namaste”, which just to mix metaphors translates from Sanskrit as “I salute the divine within you”, and so it did.

In a mundane world that sometimes threatens to smother me in the ordinary and everyday, that is no small feat. Just as I treasured the trip through the warp and weft of time and space, I shall treasure this little bottle – for saluting what I had evidently forgotten.

Wow. Doc Elly blew me away and blew my mind today, and that happens not nearly enough any more. Such a talent should be appreciated, but don’t take my word for it. Get thee posthaste to Olympic Orchids, dear readers, and try them for yourselves! You won’t regret it, that I can promise you.

I shall be reviewing more of Doc Elly’s perfumes later – watch this space!

Image: Lord Frederick Leighton, ‘The Spirit Of the Summit’ (1894)

5 thoughts on “A Numinous Light

  1. Well, you sure know how to ignite desire with words…

    Twice today you've inspired a burning “must find and smell this” event in my head. Just when I thought I was getting under control, too. 😉

  2. Tarleisio, thank you so much for this wonderful review! I'm blown away by how eloquently you write. You've captured perfectly everything that I was aiming for in making Kyphi, and more.

    deeHowe, I made the Kyphi for a family member to use in meditation, so it is not for sale on my website (yet!). If you'd like a sample, you can send me an e-mail or leave a comment on my blog.

  3. Ah, Dee…I feel your pain – really, I do. This happens to me, too, this Have To Have It urge so perilous to the plastic! (Which is a good thing for my Amouage 'Ubar' lemming moments!)

    Doc Elly – welcome to my perfume blog of dubious distinction! I hope you enjoy what you read here, since I have plans, some of which are all to do with your creations! I can honestly say that your Kyphi is one of the most astounding things I have ever had the privilege to stick my proboscis into, astounding because it tapped into emotions I'm hardly even aware of most of the time. I'm not sure my review did it the justice it deserves, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I can't thank you enough for giving me the opportunity to try it – or the genius to create it!

  4. I was lucky to get to try Doc Elly's Kyphi although I still haven't had the time to write about it.
    This was not the first perfume I tried with the kyphi in name but it was the only one that actually transported me to ancient Egypt times. It really smells incredibly evocative.

  5. It is evocative, isn't it? Like you, I've come across several interpretations of Kyphi, and Doc Elly's beats all of them into a cocked hat of shame and ignominy. If it smelled like anything, then surely this is what it was!

    And it's like nothing else I've ever tried – time travel in a bottle, place travel in a bottle, atmosphere in a bottle.

    Which is what we perfumoholics are always on the lookout for, right? 😉

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