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image of Numen

Scent has long been associated with the world of the gods. Many of the Greek gods were noted not only for having a powerful smell themselves but also for having sensitive noses and taking great joy in the smell of an altar well-stocked by a faithful follower. The Christian tradition is full of stories of martyrs and subsequently saints who had the aroma of sanctity about them. These stories became part of a larger olfactory understanding of the relationship between humans and the divine. Islam also has significant stories of fragrant martyrs set within a tradition which has an appreciation for scent and its ability to communicate the closeness of purity and Paradise. The aroma of sanctity is often described as an incomparably beautiful perfume, but sometimes the description is more specific: florals such as roses, lilies and violets; spices, including cinnamon, cloves, ginger and myrrh; and food such as apples and bread. Tales describing the aroma of sanctity exist from ancient to modern times and are often explained as deriving from the use of incense and perfumes in funerary rites. This explanation however, does not capture the strength of the symbol and its inherent value of joy in overcoming death and sharing in divine immortality. This study considers how scent acts as a form of communication in martyrologies and conforms with their role to spread the message of the value of the faith, overcoming the barriers of illiteracy, different languages and the passage of time.


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