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Pallas Athena

I've always admired the Greek Goddess Pallas Athena, since I first read about her as a young child in the Argonautica. Her wisdom, strength and poise impressed upon me that women can also be heroes. She always appears in warrior regalia: helmet and a spear. Her other symbols are the owl, the snake and she is often depicted with a symbol of the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa's head, either held in her hands, or placed upon her sash or shield. Pallas Athena is the one who have sent Perseus to bring Medusa's her to her, with full instructions on how to do so without turning into stone, which is the fate of anyone who gazes upon her terrible face. 

If one looks deeper into the mythology, it is told that Medusa is who she is (meaning: so terrifying that whomever gazes upon her becomes frozen or dead-like) because of a curse Pallas Athena herself cast on her, after Poseidon have raped Medusa in Pallas Athena's temple. So Pallas Athena is not only a warrior but also associated with rage and revenge. 

At the same time this makes one wonder “on which side” was Pallas Athena? Was she siding with the Patriarchal rapist god, or the woman who was raped? Was she commemorating her rage in response to the rape, and giving her the means to protect herself? Or was she enraged that a woman would allow such a thing to happen in the holy temple to the Goddess? Or is the temple actually symbolic of the woman's body - her personal intimate temple? I have a few reasons to believe this is all of the above. Medusa has become a part of Pallas Athena, either because she represents her more innocent side that was betrayed and raped; or because she was Pallas Athena's victim. And victims and their perpetrators are forever connected in an embrace that is at the same time a curse, and at the same time the key to their respective healing and redemption. 

Is Pallas Athena in a sense is a very Patriarchal female-goddess, a female goddess who is trying to navigate through the new realms of Patriarchy, using masculine tools such as weapons and revenge? Or is she giving women the tools to redeem their frozen, traumatized selves and transform them into powerful magical beings such as Pegasus (the winged-horse that was born out of Medusa after she was beheaded)?

The story echoes an ancient story: The Descend of Innana to the Underworld, a Sumerian myth that is the most ancient written myth we ever found, written in cuneiform on clay slates some 6,000 years ago. In this myth we can peek into the Sacred Feminine and its power before it was tainted with fear, hatred and oppression. Inanna was the Goddess of Fertility and War, just like Pallas Athena reconciles within her Wisdom and War. Some say that Venus or Aphrodite was Innana's later form, being the tame goddess of love, beauty and fertility. But I think that Innana held within her all Sacred Feminine -  Pallas Athena and Aphrodite. She was both powerful, just and wise, as well as sensual, sexual and seductive. She is portrayed in that ancient myth as the master of her own self, body, soul, mind, spirit. She has conquered the world on all of its layers - the heavenly and spiritual (the sky or heaven), the earthy and sensual (earth), and lastly the underworld which is the shadow aspect of the world, the unseen, and hidden, the ugly. She is no frozen Medusa when she chooses on her own terms  to bring her own death upon her, because a lifeless body and yet she has a plan and she is able to come back to life, buy her way out of the underworld and even seek revenge at those too weak to support her sacred journey. Innana exemplifies a deity that is both dark and light, sensuous and clever, enjoys her body, smart and cunning, and can face her own death and conceive her own rebirth and redemption. She shows us how to be authentic and connected to our entire being on all its levels: light and dark, shadow and self, passive and active, spiritual and earthy and even beyond and underneath this world. And to me this is what I peel away when I look at the myths of Pallas Athena as well. 

In her own way, Pallas Athena integrates Medusa, her frozen and frightened self, her lower existence in the shadows, by wearing her as a brooch or perhaps even a trophy on her regalia. But this integration is symbolic and not internalized. Medusa is seen as an enemy; while Innana's descend into the underworld is considered her greatest achievement, after which her lower self and higher self become one and whole; and her decaying carcass, her shadow is embraced and returned back to life and back into the land of the living, to continue leading a life, making mistakes and continuing to learn and evolve. Pallas Athena, without knowing, is forever frozen just as much as her trophy, for not embracing her fully. For not allowing her weaker aspects the space they need to be felt and there for to heal and become whole. 

Palas Atena perfume is one of my first creations (2001) and is an Oriental-Spicy perfume with champaca flowers, lavender, neroli and cinnamon over a base of amber, patchouli and sandalwood. It brings me a bit of synenthetic response, seeing the colours of crimson and gold which I imagine the goddess to be wearing. I hope wearing this will enable you to reconcile all those aspects of yourself. When I wear it I feel powerful and smart and sensual. I hope it will do the same to you, and maybe even other things that I can't even imagine.

The image is of Pallas Athena Attic red-figure kylix painting from c. 480-470 BC showing Athena observing as the Colchian dragon disgorges the hero Jason.

 

 

Magnificent Magnolia

Magnolia grandiflora
Magnolia grandiflora, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
White magnolias are now in season, and with my Floriental week came students from different cultural background, including a Southern native who loves magnolias even more than I do! I also learned that the red seeds of magnolia have a resinous-sweet, spicy and fruity odour of their own (which I'll be following closely in the next couple of weeks).

Magnolias deserve far more attention in the perfume world than they do. This glorious flower has such a unique persona, with a light yet complex floralcy underlined with the robust fruitiness of peach and fresh apricot, delicate citrus-like freshness, and a certain almost leafy-herbaceous quality. Some magnolias (as the Magnolia grandiflora pictured above) may even smell aldehydic-oily-skin like.

Michelia Alba by Ayala Moriel
Michelia Alba, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.

Where Arctander lacks, Poucher fills in much more detail about magnolia speices and history, as well as the odour of their flowers: "the perfume of the majority of species of the Magnolia is exotic, and the fragrance resembles that of a ylang-lily complex, with a shading of clove and a top note of lemon" (W.A. Poucher, "Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps Vol. 2, 1959, p. 165). In his compounding notes, he suggests using a muguet-like base, substituting nerol for rhodinol; and using high quality citral for the lemony effect.

Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is an iconic flower of its native American Southeastern states of Virginia, Florida,  eastern Texas and Oklahoma. According to wikipedia "M. grandiflora contains phenolic constituents shown to possess significant antimicrobial activity. Magnolol, honokiol and 3,5′-diallyl-2′-hydroxy-4-methoxybiphenyl exhibited significant activity against Gram-positive and acid-fast bacteria and fungi. The leaves contain coumarins and sesquiterpene lactones. The sesquiterpenes are known to be costunolide, parthenolide, costunolide diepoxide, santamarine and reynosin".

As it turns out, white magnolia headspace scent primarily owes its characteristic balance to three different molecules: verbenone (18%), isopinocamphone (9%), and (Z)-jasmone (27%). While the first two are green and camphoreous-medicinal, together with the (Z)-jasmone creates a completely new and utterly floral harmony that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Magnolia

Michelia champaca is a whole other story though related closely to the magnolias we are familiar with in North America. I've discussed champaca at great length at a previous chapter of the Decoding Obscure Notes series. However, I'd like to add here comments on the chemical constituents - which are quite different and explain quite well some of its complexities. Champaca's headspace contains methyl benzoate, phenethyl alcohol (a light rose alcohol), phenylacetonitrile, indole (accounting for its animalic undertones) and methyl anthranilate (which creates its similarity to heady orange blossom and ylang ylang), along with sesquiterpenes, e.i. (E,E)-alpha-farnesene, ionones, e.i. dihydro-beta-ionone, (Z)-methyl-epi-jasmonate, and other aromatic esters.

White magnolia (Michelia alba) is in fact a hybrid between Michelia champaca and Michelia montana - both of which originate in Indomalaya ecozone (South Asia, Southeast Asia and parts of China). Most of it today is produced in China, either as an essential oil or a CO2, a rather mobile liquid with a light amber-orange colour and an intensely fruity yet fresh, peach-like aroma and slight green and clean notes and hints of fresh gardenia. It neither has the typical "white floral" quality (methyl antrhanilate), nor any animalic qualities, which is unusual for flower essences, and is refreshing departure from all the jasminey indole, paracresyls and the like.

Magnolia is Maurice Roucel's signature note, which discerning noses might notice in many of his perfumes, i.e. Tocade, l'Instand de Guerlain). Some of my favourite perfumes contain magnolia - such as Opium Fleur de Shanghai. White magnolia is one of my absolute favourite notes, ever.  I've incorporated it into numerous perfumes and compositions (including the now-defunct Magnolia Petal, a magnolia soliflore): from the heavy and sultry Razala, to the light-as-sea-breeze of New Orleans. It's a supporting note in The Purple Dress, which is centred around her east Indian relative, champaca; it is part of the fantasy notes of Hanami and l'Écume des Jours; and gives a balance to rosewater and vanilla in Cabaret; and in a custom-scent with osmanthus and Japanese incense for my dear friend Noriko and her jewelry line Dancing Leaf Designs. 

Vetiver Rouge OOAK Perfume

Lipstick by 96dpi
Lipstick, a photo by 96dpi on Flickr.

And while we are on the theme of red, I want to announce a new One-Of-A-Kind perfume I recently added online. Back in 2007, I was on a vetiver roll and created several vetiver-centered fragrances. Out of these, my favourite, Vetiver Racinettes, was added to my permanent collection of natural perfumes.

However, the road of vetiver was as fascinating and quirky as the finished result - 5 different mods, Wilde Vetyver, Vetiver Blanc, Vetiver Noir and a Vetiver Truffle - a solid perfume with black summer truffle oil that melds together the luxurious and the earthy. Six years later, I returned to the sketch book of the 4th in the series, Vetiver Rouge, and felt inspired to elaborate on the theme of red vetiver.

This time around, I've played with the meaning of the name, and took it to the complete opposite direction than my other vetiver scents. It is far more soft, round, sweet and feminine. While is still maintains the mysterious depth and complexity of the darkest of vetiver essences, it had the audacity and It has the red spectrum with notes that in my mind have deep reddish hues.

Complex and ambitious, the most tenacious vetiver notes from around the world are accompanied with the elusive, distinctive, intensely licorice-sweet and somewhat powdery - tarragon absolute. The red-copper tainted Ruh Khus from India is combined with a co-distillation of vetiver with Mitti attar (baked Indian earth) and juxtaposed with the earthy luxury of deep cacao liquor. Add to that a slice of juicy, raspberry-like blood orange, red rooibos red tea, geranium absolute from the tropics, red champaca absolute and exotic tomar seeds form India, and there is a concoction that is like a kiss of thick rouge and a sip of a deep red wine.

Notes: Attar Mitti, Blood Orange, Champaca, Cocoa Absolute, Davana, Geranium Absolute Ginger, Nutmeg, Rooibos (Red Tea) Ruh Khus, Tarragon Absolute, Tomar Seed, Vetiver Indonesia, Vetiver Sri-Lanka, Zantoxylum

Tea, Wine & Champaca Absolute



Nirmalya Originally uploaded by shubhangi athalye

Champaca absolute is one of the most complex natural essences, and despite its immense beauty, not an easy one to work with. Especially this is the case when the flower is intended as the star of the show. It’s density and potency sometimes get in the way of revealing its beauty. It also poses two additional challenges – from a commercial point of view: it is neither affordable nor particularly understood or favoured by the Western world. Champaca is a note that is much prized in its country of origian – India – but only recently has begun to cross the East/West border and be featured in select few Western perfumes. And even than, it doesn’t always receive justice.

My impression is still a bit divided when it comes to this new interpretation of champaca in the Tom Ford Private Blends collection. Like Linda Pilkington’s Champaca there is rice-steam and subtlety of tea to it underneath it all, which I find both very suitable and complementary for champaca absolute. Interestingly, from all the rice-steam fragrances I've experienced, this one delivers the feel the best despite the fact that it is not "supposed" to do so (judging by the list of "notes" released by the company); also, there is no synthetically musky dry down to get in the way of enjoying this unusual floral.

At the same time, it is way fruitier than champaca absolute is, which make the name a bit misleading. Perhaps the flower in full bloom portrays more of this fruitiness, typical of its sister the white magnolia; but the effect takes away from the rarity of this perfume as it brings to mind too many typical fruity florals. Thankfully, this common effect is not dominant and for most of its duration on the skin, Champaca Absolute delivers that rare thing – a subtle big floral. My first thought when wearing Champaca Absolute was - "this is how I would have wanted KenzoAmour to smell", which goes to show you how much of a prettified champaca this one is.

There is much of the exotic in here, from banana-leaf wrapped steamer rice and tea to the large golden petals of this admirable magnolia, dipping slowly in warm plum wine. The scent lasts well beyond expected, and is only a tad overbearing for a few minutes in the beginning (at the fruity-floral phase). While it does linger on clothes after it departs from the skin – it is actually a pleasant surprise to find it there, like a sweet memory of Malaysian food enjoyed the evening before in candle-light. It is just a little too pretty and little too simplified for champaca, but if that would make the West understand and appreciate champaca more - perhaps it is a good thing.

The notes include top notes of: Tokaji wine (something I’ve only heard about when reading about the Baron von Münchhausen’s adventures in Turkey), cognac, bergamot and davana

Heart notes of: champaca, broom, Phantomia orchid and night blooming jasmine

Base notes of: vanilla, amber, sandalwood and marron glacé (candied chestnut)

I would say it starts off like plum wine (perhaps the Tokaj and davana, which is a boozy smelling type of artemisia), continues into magnolified-fruity champaca with the addition of rice and tea like notes (perhaps this is the starchiness of the candied chestnuts) and boils down to vanilla and a woody amber. It is semi-linear though, as the changes are not that dramatic and it generally keeps its original shape throughout.

P.s. First it was Velvet Gardenia, and now the newest addition to Tom Ford’s Private Blends proves my lack of integrity. It just occurred to me yesterday that the ferocious ad
was really making fun of men who like porn, rather than being demeaning to woman. Isn’t that a convenient way to get around the bush?


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