The fragrances and scents of the flowers at this time of year are quite breathtaking. Time in the garden is always extended so that I can smell the feverfew leaves, and brush past the lavendar bush and be caught up in their perfume. And my walk by the river today was taken at a lingering pace, as I paused to smell the delicate aroma of the different rose bushes in people’s gardens – the purple and red ones being much stronger than the pale yellow roses – so delicately fragranced. Nearer to the river, many elderflower blossoms were bursting their creamy-white starlet flowers open, releasing a sweet bouquet into the breeze. Some late flowering lime trees, too, laced the air with delicate accents.
Earlier in the day I had been puzzling over the English translation of a Hebrew word I came across in that exquisite love poem, Song of Songs, so astonishing in its celebration of embodied love. It is a very sensuous poem in every way: sense is celebrated – sight, touch, smell, sound and taste. At the beginning of the poem, the Beloved declares boldly that her Lover smells good! The English translation says ‘You are fragrant’ but the Hebrew says ‘The smell of your oil is good’ (1:3). I was puzzling over that translation as I was mowing the grass in the garden: what was I missing? Why hadn’t the English included the word for oil? Another thing puzzled me: the Hebrew word for oil, shemen, also means ‘fat’. How did that fit in?
Then I thought, I need to find out how perfume was made in the ancient world. And sure enough oil was the basis of it, with various fragrances from plants, minerals and animals added to the oil. And of course, oil has a fat content – which, when exposed to oxygen can, over time, turn the fat rancid.
So what about ‘heavenly perfume’? I remembered a passage in the writing of the great Jewish prophet, Isaiah, that spoke about God giving a crown of beauty for ashes, with the theme of restoration continuing in the sentiment: ‘I will give you oil of joy instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair’. And I thought – it’s about being given a new perfume! The perfume (oil) this time, is not made up of plant or mineral scents – as lovely as they are – it is the perfume of joy!