So usually when I host an event there are a couple of scents that ‘go down well’ with audiences. I’m horribly bad at predicting what these might be, eg. that time a room full of women voted Brut as the perfume they’d most like to wear was…a surprise.
Sometimes there’s a crowd psychology at play, but also the particular atmospherics of the day: the weather, temperature, the feel in the room, what people are thinking about, whether there is a heightened sense of drama to encourage them to be receptive to something.
Recently this happened big time. I was at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, which is one of my favourite museums not least because it has a totem pole in its middle.
I was there to host an event called The Scent of Sacrifice, an evening extravaganza all about scent in Mesoamerica – from copal resins burnt for divination, to cacao-drinking, right through to the use of entheogenic plants in human sacrifice. A JOLLY EVENING. No it really was, as we were sipping mezcal and sniffing some gorgeous scents as a volunteer offered to have his heart ‘removed’ and held up, blazing and still beating, to the sun god. This photo – from a similar event of mine on aromatics in ancient culture – shows the vibe. Excuse the star. The model at that event was naked and so for modesty’s sake, let’s cover that up. That’s not his real heart but a model made from papier mache.
One of the plants closely associated with Mesoamerican sacrifice is the Datura (particularly Datura inoxia, known as Toloache), which contains topan alkaloids to produce a delerious state (and make the heart race). Here’s a pic of a datura which you’ll no doubt recognise. It’s almost willing you to fall inside, like something from Little Shop of Horrors.
There is all sorts of speculation, probably including a good deal of nonsense, about exactly how particular plants were administered to induce altered states. eg. that Datura highs would help the willing victims climb up steep, towering altars to get to the priests with their obsidian blades, without panicking and falling off.
I think what is as interesting is our modern fascination with scented plants as drugs and the the idea that certain smells – particularly night-blooming flowers – might just induce some sort of wooziness (the same applies to the blue lotus of Ancient Egypt, distilled into wines to induce a psychotropic state, and now incorporated into perfumery maintaining that illicit persona).
This cultural trope is something I wrote about in my book, particularly the adoption of honeyed jasmine or honeysuckle perfumes by femmes fatales in noir fiction, as part of their befuddling weaponry.
In any case, it is more likely that such plants as Datura were ingested, or made their way into the bloodstream by being rubbed in resin form onto wounds. They weren’t smelled to induce a high. That’s not to say that the scent of flowers wasn’t important in various Mesoamerican cultures – they represented the soul in the form of the breath and the dead were given flowers to eat and wear about them, to help steer them towards the paradisical garden of birds, gem stones and more flowers.
So anyway, after all that, and after having our victim climb to the altar, we had to smell some Datura, right? Except you can’t create a perfume out of Datura flowers. Not least because they’re rather dangerous to handle. Instead, we smelt an heliotropey fragrance called Datura Noir by Serge Lutens, which to me smells like a night in a tropical port.
In the audience someone said it reminded them of Lamington cakes, possibly because of the coconut scent. We also got cherry almond slices. Blackforest gâteaux. Kirsch. Plasticine. The thing was, people got obsessed with it and at the end were desperate to put some on. They said ‘it’s addictive! I want to gnaw my wrist! Help me! Where can I get this!’ with fervour. I don’t know if it was the copal incense we’d all been smelling earlier in the evening, but I’ve never seen such enthusiasm for a perfume before. As I type I’m wearing some. London’s in a heatwave, which for us means 32 degrees, and the idea of eating cherry chocolate cake is not appealing. But somehow this perfume makes the heft of the heat more pleasant, as we all surrender to the syrupy air.
If you want to try Datura Noir you can find it in Liberty where it’s £75. Just don’t stage a sacrificial ceremony on the shop floor.Read More