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Reflection 2: Sensual purgatory September 26, 2011

Posted by HSDC in Uncategorized.

The association of smell with breath, spirits, sanctity and other “supernatural” elements was a connection that I personally never made. I do not know exactly why I never thought of it as such, maybe it is the technological culture that we live  in or maybe it’s my non-religious nature but whatever the reason the articles did a wonderful job of displaying how people in the past and even today still draw this connection. The Classen article discussed the connection of scents with sanctity and sainthood in western culture, while the Parkin article took a more general look at what different cultures consider smell, wind and air.

Classen did a wonderful job of giving examples of how smell in western culture, particularly with a Christian focus, has connected fragrance and divine sanctity. Many examples were given of how people that were in a state of pain and discomfort gave off a pleasant fragrance due to their connection with god; in fact he even connects sainthood with the notion of sweet smells. I found it particularly interesting how evil spirits are connected with foul smells and thus fearing sweet odours as the bishop of Tournai wrote “…fragrant with a wondrous odour of sweetness…and I know by experience that demons dread it exceedingly” ( Classen 1998:39). These sweet odours were thought to somehow embody some kind of divine power, so far so that people even thought that they possessed healing abilities , as the story of an anosmia  nun notes “On kissing the saint’s foot, however, she recovered her lost sense and was able to experience the same fragrance…”( Classen 1998:40). I find this particularly interesting in that the sense of smell was returned not by smelling the fragrance of the divine person but buy kissing, or in other words through touching. As in many of the examples the fragrance of the three women was noted but in many cases a need to touch the person was also implied, such as touching the hands of Lydwine or kissing Teresa’s foot, as if smell and touch somehow play a dualistic role in the sanctity experience. Whatever the case the article works well displaying the connection that smell bears with ones spirit and soul.

Furthermore the second article discusses how other cultures view smell as an agent of wind and air carrying spiritual properties. Breath in this article is discussed with great detail, in that it is not simply used for the uptake of oxygen but instead is a divine property “The movement of wind and breath is in all such cases brought by divine inspiration” (Parkin 2007:540). The most fascinating aspect of this article is how it draws upon the importance of smell in connecting the tangible and intangible, therefore since odours can enter the body through breath, they in turn embody this spiritual connection. To elaborate smell becomes this medium to make the invisible visible by being able to sense spirits in the form of smell and colour (smoke). Another important thing to note was how smells are able to give wind and spirits very human properties “…smells also waft on winds independently of human intervention, they do indeed escape human control. Like wind, smell resembles and partakes of spirit and of life itself” (Parkin 2007:551). I find this notion to be very interesting since it is a very unique way to describe the properties of smell in a religious fashion as opposed to the scientific one that would be present in western culture describing particle movement. In short the articles both discussed the importance of smell and all the connotations it can hold due to its almost intangible nature “The common association of odour with the breath and with the life-force makes smell a source of elemental power” (Classen 1998:60).



1. sensingsensations - September 28, 2011

I chose to comment on your reflection because I found that you really touched upon some interesting aspects of the texts by Classen and Parkin. I like you was greatly surprised by the extensive use of smell through history. We are in modern society used to an ocularcentric worldview, where the sense of smell has been put in a corner. I also think that we sometimes are blinded to our other senses because of our lifestyle in the technological age. But as your reflection shows smell has been a precious asset even in the western tradition, we just forgot about it. As you point out Classens text lays out the notion of smell in the early Christian tradition and how important it was in the understanding of holiness. That you also noticed the sense of touch was a new facet to the discussion. The importance of touch and smell together in experiencing the saints and their relation to God was a good point.

2. My Comments « sensingsensations - October 24, 2011

[…] Reflection 2: Sensual purgatory by Anthropology of the Senses […]

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