Scent & Spirit: Shamanism and Scent


“Everything—form, color, number, perfume—in the spiritual as well as in the natural world is meaningful, reciprocal, converse, and correspondent...”

– Charles Baudelaire


Perhaps it is the incessant machine-driven hum of our modern era that makes us yearn for nature. We denizens of the urban jungle must make due with parks, window box gardens, and if we’re lucky enough, trees lining the street outside of our apartments, whose flowering blossoms grace us with aroma once a season. Concrete lies beneath our feet, billboards and skyscrapers interrupt our star gazing, and gas emissions, smoke, and tar overpower the air. It is no wonder we long for flowers and grass; the delicate aroma of a spring field, the salt and brine of the ocean or the intoxicating scent of a forest in the early morning. We revel in our technology and industry, are never far from our illuminated computer screens, yet we come from the Earth, air and the effluvia of oceans. It is in the wildness of nature that we finally turn our heads away from the lure of media and towards that which is sacred.

Shamans for thousands of years embraced the resources of earth to do their sacred work. As we burn away more of our forests, drill away our ocean bed, drive our animals from their habitats, and through our hubris, change the very face of the planet; we must look back into our own collective past, and towards the shamans who walked in the underworld and healed our ancestors with flowers, herbs, roots, and deep belief in the power of Earth’s gifts.

In La Trois Fere, France, a figure was painted upon a cave wall 15,000 years ago. The Sorcerer, as he is known, has thrilled modern humanity with glimpses into early shamanic practice. Gazing at this piece, a remarkably sophisticated work of a horned animal-human hybrid, one is struck with the artistry. It is questioned whether the figure represents the shaman’s vision as he was guided to the spirit realm by inhaling aromatic woods, which facilitated his otherworldly journey. This reading of the cave painting links aroma to art – the interpretation of a vision symbolized in the realistic mark-making, while marking the beginning of the human response to perfume and art; relying on scent to transport, and art to communicate. The piece speaks of aromatic and artistic immortality, as the image of the Sorcerer reaches out through history to capture our imaginations, leading us to question not only the part fragrance played in ancient spiritual practice, but it’s continued aromatic embrace on contemporary culture.

The Nine Songs, Quan Qu’s 4th century BC transcriptions of shamanic poetry from the Ch’u Tz’u, portray ancient stories of shaman as magical beings who are able to lift the veil of the spirit realm and commune with gods. The shaman would perform the Nine Songs, poems detailing their trysts with various gods with dance, song, recitation and fragrance. Scent was the calling card of the shaman, and the Nine Songs describes shamans adorned in garlands of fragrant flowers sailing on cassia bark boats adorned in blossoms, precious oils and incense burning on the bows, or walking to the peak of mountains, their robes heavily scented and arms laden with flowers to meet the god. The aroma, song and dance would lure the gods to the human realm, where they would make love to the shaman, and in doing so, allow the shaman to walk in the spirit realm where they would commune with ancestors and gain favor from the deities. These shaman were “experts in exorcism, prophesy, fortune telling, rain-making and interpretation of dreams…They were also magic healers…one of their methods of doctoring was to go as Siberian shaman do to the underworld and find out how the powers of death could be propitiated.”2

The Nine Songs is a love affair of fragrance and mysticism, enchanting in its hopeful romanticism. It is a book of magic as well; a shamanic work of spirit calling, healing and divination. In the Nine Song’s verses, flowers are inexorably linked to the shaman’s practice, each song attesting to the power of scent to lure the desired God, and ability to transport one to the spirit realm. Poetry, art, dance, music and scent made for an immersive experience that in modern culture would be deemed performance art.

In The Lord Amid The Clouds, Song II, the Shaman chants,

“I have washed in a brew of orchid, bathed in sweet scent,

Many-colored are my garments; I am like a flower.” 3

The Princess of The Hsiang, Song III is perhaps a metaphor for the coming of spring. In the verse, the shaman sets sail to meet the Princess of Hsiang under an awning of fig creeper bound in basil, paddles of sweet flag and banners of orchid. While he sees his beloved goddess, she will not meet him for a tryst. He is left longing bitterly for her; sailing aimlessly with cassia oars and a steering plank of magnolia, watching snow and ice pile upon the ship while he wonders if he should gather water lilies as she flies away on her dragons.4

What is so compelling about the Nine Songs is the extraordinary reverence for flowers and their link to divinity. Fragrance is truly sacred; powerful enough to reveal a pathway to the spirit realm and entice celestial beings. The balance of power between Gods and shaman is challenged in the moment of union, scent binding the deity to humanity—immortality to mortality—in an aromatic embrace.

In Indonesia, there is the belief in animism, where spirits reside in all living things. This is a testament to a sacredness in all matter; a shimmering of life throughout nature. A shamanic ritual filmed in the late 1960’s revealed the practice of two young girls chosen to be possessed by flower nymphs. We see the girls put in a trance with aromatic smoke soon rendered helpless as the spirits enter their bodies. Eyes closed, they begin a vigorous, choreographed dance as the nymph flower spirits. “And now the women chant… Quickly come the nymphs, two together they dance, like lilies with pollen in the center, blown by the wind and swayed, the water lily seeks the flower, they fall, and as they fall the heavenly nymphs bend over backwards.” 5 The children, still in a trance, draped with garlands of flowers, dance barefoot into a fire of coconut husks while holding flower offerings, fans and silks. A Hindu priest then prays over them, chanting, pulling them into consciousness by sprinkling them with a flower dipped in holy water, which releases them from the spirit’s thrall.

The hold of shamanism on Indonesia continues today, and sent this writer on a quest of sorts, traversing the internet to find Indonesian online stores selling healing potions created by shaman, known as Dukun.

One of the most unique oils promising love to those who wear it is the Minyak Air-Mata Duyung, and hails from the tears of mermaids. In reality, the oil is a product of watery eye secretions from the Dugong or sea cow when the creatures are caught in fishermen’s nets. Before releasing the mermaids (Dugong), sailors will dab their eyes with cotton balls which are then collected in a vial and pressed for their gentle fragrance. Another source tells of the secretions being collected by traditional healers. On certain nights according to spiritual almanacs, and through the encouragement of rituals, the Dugong will come to shore, their delicate eyes tearing and crystallizing in the coastal winds. The sanctifying of the oil takes fourteen days before the full moon; the ritual imbuing the naturally aromatic oil with magical properties, leading to immediate amorous inclinations when inhaled.6

In a site devoted to Dukuna creations, vials of oils are seen as powerful amulets as well as vehicles for ritual magic or healing. One oil known only as Charming Oil Extracted from Ritual Flower Offerings, is composed of flowers from traditional Javanese and Balinese ritual offerings: white jasmine, yellow magnolia, tuberose, and an assortment of herbs picked by the Dukun. The oil is imbued with occult powers by way of incantations of the Dukun, who literally breathes magic into the potion with each sacred word. The oil promises luck in love and business, fortune and fate, and is to be anointed on the forehead, eyebrows and hair.

The site takes a haunting turn with a rather sculptural bottle bound in white chords, the Ghostly Spirit Wrapped in Sacred Prayer Thread. This object is not only filled with an herbaceous oil created by the shaman, it is filled with a spirit as well. The Dukun who specializes in necromancy calls forth a ghost to inhabit the bottle, then binds the spirit to the amulet so that it may aid its owner in divination and empower the wearable amulet to attract love.

There are bottles of natural rose oil to attract love brewed in ”an ancient copper bowl placed under the open sky from midnight till dawn in order to have the potion imbued with the metaphysical energy of the moon and the stars,” and a white jasmine oil used for ritual cleaning of magical objects. A saffron oil promises sexual stamina, while a vial of fossilized amber oil from a magical tree that has withstood time, and has inherent magical properties is used to anoint magical objects and to empower one’s magical practice.

Flowers, herbs, roots and resins go well beyond aromatic experience, and are embedded in the culture; one rich with Animistic belief that each of these elements is sacred, and made magical with the assistance of a spirit intermediary – the shaman.

Present day New York City shaman Hillary Webb conducts private rituals, harnessing elements of nature to reveal inner spiritualism and working with K’Intu leaves that symbolize love and beauty, by encouraging her guests to breath into them, pray into them, and whisper their intentions and thanks to the Earth. “Bring the leaf to your mouth, breath into them, and the breath is part of them, energy and prayer transmitting out of your own body and into the leaves… so it can then be shared with the spirits and shared with the rest of the community.”7

Katya Fedotova is a Russian-born artist who defines her shamanic-artistic practice through art and scent. Fedotava connects with the sacred in nature by visiting parks in New York City and upstate New York all year round at dawn to collect dew off flowers and leaves. The liquid is carefully funneled into bottles, each containing the ephemeral scent of morning in winter, spring, summer and fall. Not unlike the spirit bottles, the scent of the dew is in its own way imbued with magic, as it is a fragrance captured in nature at that one illusive moment, and would be different a moment later, when the sun rises to erase the moisture.

The concept of the artist as shaman was introduced to a NYC audience of gallery enthusiasts in 2017, in curator Stephen Romano of Stephen Romano Gallery’s exhibition, Materia Prima: The Artist as a Shamanic Presence, where artists involved in esoteric and occult imagery presented work which in concert with each other, created a charged environment. The room was filled with art, droning music, and the faint scent of melting wax from a burning effigy candle, “Remembering Blossom,” by Linnea Strid, and a smoke laden fragrance which clung to one’s clothing. Artist’s work resonated with visions of ancestral ritual and sacred symbology in a volley of mediums. William Barry Hale, an artist devoted to creating sigils, and whose work embodies a mesmerizing pulse of self-designed symbols for ceremonial magic, conjured in his “Legion 49 Sculptural Series”three-dimensional objects depicting a line of shaman dancing below sigils which seemed to glow of their own accord on printed plastic; contemporary- meets-ancient imagery spanning centuries.

Romano explained in an article in Lexicon Magazine, that the exhibit presented the “esoteric nature of the artist as shaman, a producer of artworks that serve as social healing devices, to make well again our collective consciousness. To re-inject the forces of hope, optimism and belief of magic into our declining culture. The true artist…the art they make is a primary experience in and of itself. The creation is an act of magic, a conjuring or a protective spell. It is where the artist makes a stand: socially, politically and spiritually.”8

New York City’s famed art- installation meditation space, Dream House, was conceived in the 1970’s as a forum for meditation and ambient music; the ongoing installation drawing crowds of New Yorkers weary of urban life and ready to be immersed in scent, sound and vision. The dim main room glows by the light of a psychedelic film while a smoky mist of Azure Green’s Earth incense fills the air, as does a throbbing, dark-ambient drone. The space provides a plush carpet and plusher reclining pillows to better experience the environment. It is in a place like this, where one can almost forget the rumble of subways and 12 million people rushing about on the street below. Dream House calls to the shaman within each of us, asks us to go inward and find the sacred in an environment that can be called loud-quiet. For lying upon the pillows, gazing at the hypnotic film, eardrums buzzing with drone and nose filled with the intoxicating scent of dirt, leaves flowers and smoke, there is something of La Trois Frere’s shaman. He lurks in our collective memory-magical, rare, beautiful and formidable…immortal, as is the art, scent and ritual he inspires still.

More in Trends