Cheers to Tapputi

800px-Myths_and_legends_of_Babylonia_and_Assyria_(1916)_(14801964123)I have a lame excuse that tends to keep me from following through on ideas: someone has already done this thing, and surely much better than I.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people find themselves in the thralls of similar thought processes. Especially in today’s society, with social media providing potentially distorted and incomplete stories, it’s easier than ever the compare oneself to others and their accomplishments.

In the same vein, though, it’s easy to find inspiration and ideas by looking at people who have gone through the trial and error to develop a skill or accomplishment that you admire.

No one can really be the first at anything anyway—at least, not for certain. The best we can point to is the first record of something.

Like the first perfumer, for instance. Who could it have been?

The first record of a perfumer is one of a chemist named Tapputi who was mixing up scents around 1200 BC. This, anyway, is when a certain cuneiform tablet from Babylonian Mesopotamia was written, mentioning her role as a perfumer and overseer of the Royal Palace. The tablet describes Tapputi and an assistant as being perfumers who used methods like distillation to extract the essences of various materials.

Not only is Tapputi the first perfumer on record, but she is the first known chemist, too.

To those websites I found who referred to Tapputi as a “he”—I scoff at you and am saddened by your assumptions. There are entire books dedicated to shining light on non-male scientists who have had a huge influence on the field throughout history. Check out the aptly-named “Women of Science: Righting the Record,” a collection of essays written by female scientists about female scientists. Or look at “Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, ” by Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham. Both mention Tapputi as the first chemist and perfumer. Let us give credit where credit is due.

In the latter publication, the two authors speculate that perfumery would have come naturally to women because so many of the materials and tools would have been tools also used with culinary endeavors in the kitchen. Cooking and baking in particular are definitely their own forms of chemistry. I remember fondly my first day of chemistry class in high school when my teacher brought in cookies made of three different recipes and had us compare their recipes with their tastes. You could have a similar type of fun with three different perfumes which, like cookies, each have their own specific recipes.

Was Tapputi a good cook? I don’t know. What did her perfumers smell like? I don’t know that either. What I do know is that Tapputi did the thing—and probably well, if people were making records of her work. Perhaps she had some unknown mentor that taught her about distillation and mixing essences. Or maybe she taught herself everything on her own. One thing is certain—she didn’t let any ideas about unoriginality stop her. She experimented, discovered, and produced perfumes that people could enjoy.

by Katrina Eresman