Today marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. It is Ash Wednesday and with it comes quite a few arcane rituals involving unusual items, many of them scented. One of the most famous of all the Lenten perfumes is spikenard.
Spikenard became famous because Mary Magdalene brings an entire jar of it to Jesus and in front of all, she anoints his FEET with a small fortune of it! Spikenard was hideously expensive because it comes only from the Himalayas (Nepal in particular) so you can imagine how drawn-out and dangerous a trek it was to get it from the foot of Mount Everest to the Levant. It is distilled from the root of a valerian-like plant, much like vetiver.
That is all fine and well, but the question you might be more interested in is: how does it smell? I decided to find out what Spikenard was like, being a perfumer, and bought a small sample from one of my natural suppliers. Sure enough, it was from Nepal; and, as usual, I was in a tearing hurry and dabbed some on the back of my hand to make my snap judgment of it. “UR-BALL” was my disappointed conclusion. After running it under my nose I was utterly unimpressed. “Maybe it was wonderful back in the old days when no one could wash much, your clothes stuck to you, and everyone was pretty poor and could not afford anything but the cheapest perfumes. We are so much more sophisticated now, thank goodness,” I thought disparagingly. I put the little vial of herb smelling goo away.
Today, because it is Ash Wednesday, I thought I would give spikenard another try. I had opened my naturals cabinet and the vial was lying on its side waiting for me. I took off the top, put a small amount on the back of my hand, recorked it and thought,”There HAS to be something alluring about this stuff. It was just too expensive to be ho-hum herbal,” I sat at the keyboard waiting for some magic to happen.
Then I forgot about the spikenard and got busy answering my e-mails and trying to fix the usual little bugs which infest my software. And all of a sudden I got a whiff of something WONDERFUL. It was, well, divine. It was green, surely, but there was a particle of cumarin to it (a greenish vanilla), then there was a definite tinge of men’s very expensive hair pomade. There was something about it very masculine, and a stinky little backlash which some people find fetching, so it could go from: feet–>mint–>green vanilla—>green–>expensive pomade–>dense green boxwood bushes where a handsome man has just walked. To find all this beauty, one had to be quiet, one had to be aware, and the oil had to be rubbed on your skin and heat up to combine with your chemistry and then this fabulous fragrance would erupt, spread, and stay on you. It seems to be a base note, it lingers for hours. It is very mutable, it changes from the moment you breathe in, as the vapors fill your sinuses, as the apex of your breath occurs, on the start of the exhale, and the end of the exhale. This is pretty constant, each breath brought the change-wheel of spikenard.
I must say that now I am in love. I think it would make a wonderful companion with galbanum. I just have to tear myself away from this shimmering green jewel long enough to compose something.
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