The Centuries-Long Quest For The Scent Of God

The precise odor of the divine has eluded humans for millennia, but that hasn’t stopped us from seeking it in the oddest places.

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John Last is a freelance journalist based in Padua, Italy.

In Padre Pio, the Catholic Church had a problem. Since the autumn of 1918, when he developed mysterious marks called stigmata that resembled the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, a budding cult of personality had surrounded the Capuchin monk in the small Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo. So fervent were his supporters that when the Church, fearing his growing prominence, attempted to replace him with another priest, fans of the monk, including armed squadristi, broke into the convent with a battering ram to keep him in the pulpit.

From the beginning, the Church had been somewhat suspicious of Pio’s stigmata claims. Church authorities over the years sent a litany of doctors and priests to investigate his claims and his character. Their conclusions were far from uniform. Some saw evidence of “a phenomenon that cannot be explained by human science alone,” others of a “self-harming psychopath.”

By 1921, an array of legendary acts surrounded the Capuchin: healings, bilocation, psychic reading. As these reports grew more frequent, the Church sent Bishop Raffaele Carlo Rossi of Volterra to conduct an official series of interrogations and find some acceptable conclusion for Pio’s supposed miracles. To the end, Rossi maintained an attitude of skepticism toward Pio’s claims. None could sway him. “I am not a … convert, an admirer of the Padre,” he wrote in his report that fall. “Certainly not; I feel complete indifference.”

Yet there was something the bishop could not deny: Pio’s smell. Wherever he went, he carried with him an intense aroma of violet. Priests and laypeople alike reported being met with waves of the pleasant odor during the Sanctus, a triumphal moment of the Catholic mass. So powerful was the scent it could cause some to faint. “If you wanted to know where Padre Pio was,” a contemporary said, “it was enough to follow the wake of the perfume.”

Pio would never see sainthood in his lifetime; indeed, after the bishop’s visit, he would be banned from saying mass in public for several years. But in 2002, after a lengthy process of review, his devotees finally got their wish: Padre Pio was canonized. And among the evidence of his saintliness was his inescapable smell — the “odor of sanctity,” the proof of saints.

Today, votive candles bearing Padre Pio’s image are sold in grocery store aisles across Italy alongside those of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. One survey found that he’s the saint most prayed to for intercession in Italy, of the 10,000 or more that number among the elect. 

“Yet there was something the bishop could not deny: Pio’s smell.”

Unusual smells have been a distinguishing mark of holiness since the earliest days of Christian worship. When the 2nd-century martyr St. Polycarp of Smyrna went to his death on the pyre, his burning flesh reportedly smelled “like frankincense or some such precious spices.” Around three centuries later, St. Simeon Stylites, a Syrian ascetic who lived 37 years on top of a pillar, would exude a heavenly scent even when his flesh was rotting and filled with worms. “Neither spices nor sweet herbs and pleasant smells, which are in the world, can be compared to the fragrance,” read one account.

Christians in late antiquity were so obsessed with the smell of martyrs that they developed a reputation for hanging around graveyards, exhuming bodies and sniffing at their remains. The bones of St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th-century bishop and namesake of Santa Claus, became an object of pilgrimage for the sweet smell they produced. The fragrant oil (now known to have been water) that dripped off them was used as a cure-all and became an early Christian collector’s item. Distinctive 7th-century flasks that carried a similar oil from the tomb of the Egyptian St. Menas have been found as far away as Britain and modern-day Uzbekistan.

When a flask of oil wouldn’t do, medieval Christians would sometimes try to steal whole remains — but the relics’ distinctive smell would often give them away. The theft of St. Nicholas’ bones from Myra was revealed when ships three miles distant reportedly caught his trademark smell. When Venetian merchants smuggled the remains of St. Mark out of Alexandria, they were reputedly forced to mask the pungent odor with the smell of pork to fool Muslim customs officials.

By the late Middle Ages, the odor of sanctity became one of the simplest ways to prove one’s saintliness. Advocates would spread stories of a would-be saint’s heavenly scent from the moment of their death, as with the 16th-century Carmelite nun, St. Theresa of Ávila, who reportedly filled her convent with the smell of roses. Some, like Pio, cultivated this reputation while still living. St. Lydwine of the Netherlands (1380-1433) produced a smell of ginger, cloves and cinnamon strong enough to taste, despite constant vomiting and bleeding from an undiagnosed illness.

This faith in smell as a marker of saintliness may strike people today as odd, if only because it challenges much of the modern world’s inherited understanding of the nature of God. Since Plato first situated “the good” beyond the realm of forms, an influential vein of theology has asserted God’s immateriality and ineffability, radically distinct from the world we experience. It’s this impulse that drove ascetics like St. Simeon Stylites and generations of monks and nuns to reject the worldly sphere and spend a lifetime in contemplation of “higher things.” If God doesn’t have a body, then he certainly doesn’t have a smell.

But running alongside that tradition is a different historic quest to understand God’s nature, not by withdrawing from the world, but by embracing our sensual experience of it. Within this tradition, smell has long been a method of interacting with the divine and attempting to understand it. “Christianity emerged in a world where smells mattered,” the historian Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes in her seminal work on sacred smells in the ancient world, “Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. “A common understanding prevailed that sensory experiences carried effective power for good and for ill.”

“By the late Middle Ages, the odor of sanctity became one of the simplest ways to prove one’s saintliness.”

The association of pleasant smells and good things is innate to human nature. But for as long as we have recorded history, people have gone out of their way to cultivate strange and exotic odors specifically for their use in worship, searching to capture a scent both pleasing to and reflective of God.

The earliest written example of this phenomenon may be in the Vedas, proto-Hindu ritual manuals and works of divine philosophy from around the 2nd millennium B.C.E., where aromatic plants are suggested as offerings and described as “prana” — breath, the spirit of life. In this period, aromatics were often burned as a sacrifice, their smoke a method of feeding the gods. 

The creation myth of the Babylonians, dating from around the same period as the Vedas, describes its hero presenting the gods with scented offerings in the wake of a catastrophic flood. “I heaped up calamus [cane], cedarwood and rig-gir [myrtle],” the narrator relates. “The gods smelt the sweet savour … [and] gathered like flies about him that offered the sacrifice.” Some 1,500 years later, the author of Genesis would repeat the same story. The quality of Noah’s own burned offerings would convince God to “never again destroy … all living creatures, as I have done.”

Many of the scents attributed to saints at their death and still used today to capture the odor of heaven have uses that date back to the beginning of recorded history. Incense harvesters in the Horn of Africa and around the Gulf of Oman have scaled the gnarled branches of the Boswellia tree for thousands of years to harvest its resinous sap, from which frankincense, a common incense, is made. Ancient Egyptians called this place the “divine land” and worshiped the goats whose beards became caked in incense while wandering among its trees.

For Egyptians and many others in the ancient world, the smell of incense was not merely an accent to worship, but a sign of (and prerequisite for) a deity’s presence. Specific scents were associated with attributes of specific gods — the eye of Re, the cloak of Dionysus, the menstrual blood of the mother goddess. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans alike doused temples and dead bodies in incense to purify them, and carry souls and prayers upwards in smoke to the gods.

Among Christians, it was once believed the use of incense in worship began with Moses, who in the Book of Exodus is given a specific recipe for exclusive use in the temple. Its smoke was supposed to be used to shield the high priest from the appearance of God on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, in the holiest place in creation. “If that recipe is used for anything else, you die,” Harvey explained to me. “You’re going to know when you’re in the temple and its grounds, because it’s not going to smell like anything else.”

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“As in the graves of would-be saints, the smell of sanctity often mingled with the stench of decay and death.”

Christians initially balked at the use of smells in worship, associating it with the pagan cults that preceded their revelation and were direct competitors in the Mediterranean world. In the first centuries C.E., Harvey said, “incense-burner” became a synonym for apostate — someone who sacrificed to the Roman emperor instead of facing the glory of martyrdom.

Instead, Christians tried to interpret the biblical directives that guided Jewish observances allegorically. Origen, one of the earliest Christian theologians, said “prayers from a pure heart” would produce the “pleasing odor” so often mentioned in the Bible. He seemed to have been as much disturbed by the economy of incense as by its theology. According to Pliny, around the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was importing as much as 10,000 camel loads of frankincense a year, equivalent to about 1,700 tons. “Do not think that the omnipotent God commanded this,” Origen wrote, “and consecrated … in the Law that incense be brought from Arabia.”

But in 313 C.E., everything changed. Christianity was legalized under Emperor Constantine, and incense quickly became a fundamental part of its increasingly public worship. Already by the next century, Harvey writes, Christianity had developed a “lavishly olfactory piety,” where incense “drenched every form of Christian ceremonial.” 

Distinctive smells came to be associated with earthly sanctity after death. An odor of sanctity about a martyr’s bones “confirms [their] location between heaven and Earth,” the historian Mary Thurkill wrote. “The corporal form [is] still bound to this world, while the spirit is present in Paradise.”

Sacred odors then were notably complex. As in the graves of would-be saints, the smell of sanctity often mingled with the stench of decay and death. Ancient cities, Thurkill wrote, were characterized by “the stench of human excrement, refuse and disease, accompanied with soothing floral scents and perfumes.” Sacred smells like frankincense and myrrh were used over the centuries to demarcate sacred space — but also to disinfect and disguise putrid areas. As Wendy Wauters, a historian and author of the forthcoming book “The Smells of the Cathedral,” told me, the 16th-century Antwerp cathedral, today a pristine sanctuary, was once a place where the incense of scores of concurrent altars mixed with “an incredible stench of dead bodies,” as tombs of the faithful within were constantly exhumed for the addition of new corpses.

This gave holy smells a fundamentally paradoxical nature. In a world where breathing foul-smelling air was seen as the cause of many diseases, incense was seen as a barrier against illness, and, with its holy associations, against demonic possession. But equally, powerful scents could be used to disguise a deeper decay, or to tempt the pious with worldly delights and bodies. Even bad smells had an ambiguous quality. After all, the rotting stench of a starved ascetic’s mouth was simply more proof of his profound holiness.

“The rotting stench of a starved ascetic’s mouth was simply more proof of his profound holiness.”

It’s this ambiguity about smell, Harvey said, that gives scent its power as a theological tool. In addition to its flexible moral significance, the experience of an odor often reflects our understanding of divinity. Like God, smell can surround you from an indeterminate source, filling spaces with its invisible presence. But unlike sound, which might do the same, to experience a smell it must first be taken within, in an act — breathing — that is both life-giving and volitional.

The sense of smell also acts differently on the brain than others. Uniquely, olfactory neurons deliver their information directly to the limbic system, the part of our brain primarily responsible for memory and emotion. Smells can prompt certain moods and improve our retention. Some odors have even been shown to affect our perception of the world around us, slowing things down or speeding them up. Common varieties of incense, like frankincense, have long been known to have anti-depressive, relaxant and memory-enhancing effects.

This significance was understood well in the ancient world, perhaps better than today. In her analysis of the Bible, the Israeli scholar Yael Avrahami suggests that in the ancient Hebrew worldview, perception and cognition were a single act, something that is particularly true for our sense of smell. The ancient Greeks, Harvey said, similarly understood the way smell gave us a direct, unmediated and often ineffable experience of the world. “It’s so interesting, when you read the ancient science, they got smell right,” Harvey said. “Modern scientific work on olfaction still continues to cite Theophrastus.”

The subtle way smell affects memory and emotion is part of its power to construct a sense of religious awe. Joshua Cockayne, an Anglican priest in Leeds and a lecturer in divinity, suggested the use of incense during religious ceremonies helps build “spiritual memories” — experiences of God and worship that are “potentially more deeply rooted and emotionally attached than many other sensory or verbal engagements.”

Unlike some other religious experiences, smell is a communal one. “If you go to a church which uses a lot of incense, it’s undeniably a shared experience,” Cockayne told me. “It’s not about me and God — it’s part of the environment in the same way the other congregants are.”

In a moment of religious communion, congregants not only recall their own personal memories, but connect with the collective memory of the community. Wauters called medieval cathedrals a kind of “memory palace,” where the testaments and tombs of past generations are tied up with the relentless activity of the present, and smell provides a connection across the centuries. As the writer Suzanne Evans succinctly put it, “smell has the power to make an accordion of time.”

“There is an opportunity today to rethink and broaden our experience of the smell of God.”

After the Reformation, many Christian churches turned against the use of incense, flinging accusations of sensuousness, worldliness and magical thinking at confessors of rival sects. Smell became another weapon in the rhetorical arsenal: “The stench emanated by the adherents of other confessions was employed as a topos by both Catholics and Protestants,” Wauters wrote. Key reformation figures like Martin Luther and Erasmus eventually turned against the senses, associating holy smells and visible signs with Jews, Muslims and papists. The ceremonies of blessing and benediction that made the heaviest use of incense were gradually banned; in the words of historian Jacob Baum, they were effectively “desacralizing the sense of smell.”

Wauters, referencing Marcel Proust, said this left the medieval cathedrals of Protestant Europe “unintelligible monuments of a forgotten belief.” Their interiors painted white, cleared of their many altars, and freed of the crushing stench of humanity, “the cathedral [became] this empty place,” she said, “where you have this museum-like feel.” 

By the turn of the 20th century, those who believed in the supernatural power of sacred smells were confronted with rival explanations from budding new scientific fields. The scions of the new worldview would poke and prod at the old claims, as they would Padre Pio, to explain the once inexplicable in the new harsh light of science. Writing for the Paris Review in 1907, the French psychologist Georges Dumas would cross-reference the accounts of St. Theresa’s odor of sanctity with the smell given off by diabetics, and attribute her heavenly scent to diabetic ketoacidosis, even reducing it to a formula — C6H12O2, which smelled something like pineapples.

“We speak of retarded nutrition … of perspiration, of coma; they speak of the victory of eternal life over corruption and death,” Dumas wrote. “But it is the inevitable fate of all scientific explanations to appear dull and ugly beside the poetic imaginations of hagiography.”

Indeed, some scholars believe that the English language suffered from the “cultural repression and denigration of smell” during the Enlightenment, as improvements in hygiene and objections to “superstition” transformed the lived environment into one less sensorially confrontational. Though the theory is controversial, Asifa Majid, an Oxford cognitive scientist, found that today, the English language is relatively weak when it comes to words for smells. “There are few terms for odors, odor talk is infrequent, and naming odors is difficult,” she wrote. Smells have never been so ineffable.

But for Cockayne, it’s not all bad. There is an opportunity today to rethink and broaden our experience of the smell of God, he said. “Could the smell of freshly brewed coffee count as a religious experience?” he wondered. “If we are happy to think that experiencing a beautiful sunset or a piece of sacred music can be an experience of the divine, then there is no reason to exclude olfactory experiences from having such significance too.”

A waft of rich coffee. A whiff of incense. A sweet stench from a saintly corpse. The search for the odor of sanctity, the smell of God, goes ever on.