Perfumes to Honour the Dead

October 31st marks a special time of the year, from astronomic point of view: Tonight marks the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the entrance to the darkest part of the year. It is the night when the barriers between this world and the world of the dead or the spirit world are very thin, allowing passage from one realm to the other. 

Even if you don't celebrate Samhain, Hallowe'en or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - this night is a befitting time to remember our ancestors, far and near. Light a candle to those we don't remember because they died before we were born, or we were too young when they passed. And for those who were near and dear - this can be done joyfully by preparing their favourite food, or wearing their perfume. 
Incense and scents in general, for their invisible presence, have historically been the gateway for the underworld, the spirit realm and divinity. Many cultures still use incense in their rituals related to death, funerals and memorials. 

The Egyptians were especially elaborate about their preparations for the last journey: They would pack their dead's chambers with all their belongings, including vials of perfumes and cosmetics, and most famously - ensured the body stays as true to form as possible through a meticulous process of mummification, which involved many fragrant aromatics, such as myrrh, pine resin, cedar, cinnamon, juniper and later also frankincense (in the Roman era). 

In both China and Japan, incense is burnt daily in domestic altars, to honour the ancestors. In China it is mostly a sandalwood based incense, and in Japan incense sticks of many complex aromatics. In India, incense is burnt on the funeral pyres, to help elevate the spirits of the dead to higher realms, and also to mask the intense smell of burning flesh. Of course, the wealthier the deceased is, the more incense can be burnt. I've even read of using sandalwood as the fuel for pyres of the richest people. 

Tobacco is used by the First Nations to communicate with the spirits - almost as a key to their world.  It is also believed that offering tobacco will tell other plants that we're seeking their help and guidance. The Cree people would bury their dead holding tobacco and sweetgrass incense, and also personal belonging that would be considered as an extension of themselves, such as their pipe. 

The Mexicans use copal incense to show the ancestors' spirits the way back into our world for their annual visit, so that they won't get lost. Marigold flowers adorn the graves and portals through which these spirits are expected to enter. This tradition is rooted in the Aztec customs of giving the Gods offerings of maize (corn), or else - copal moulded to the shape of maize foods, such as grains or ears of corn, and even tamales and tortillas. They also buried the dead with pieces of "jade" - copal resin painted in green, as food for their last journey. 

Some of the practices are kept alive today, and others faded away while others disappeared because they seemed to have very little hold in our current reason-obsessed culture. However, one thing is for certain: when you bring forth a scent or an aroma associated with a beloved person who has passed away, you're making that person alive, even if just in your memories. 

Tonight I will slice a red grapefruit and uncork a bottle of Old Spice in memory of my grandfather. These fond memories and the love our ancestors poured into us are eternal. 

Masquerade Secret Supper

Masquerade Secret Supper

Yesterday I attended a Samhain dinner party titled Masquerade Secret Supper hosted by my friend Charlotte and her roommate Ada. It was oh so lovely and delicious, and I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did!

It was a fundraiser dinner hosted at their home, and I could have not imagined that they would have transformed their living room into an intimate, restaurant-like dining room! It was so beautifully decorated - fall leaves and maple seed "helicopters" on the table, with tiny carved pumpkin lamps, a mobile of paper-cut houses with flickering candle within each; and a fabric collage of animal-shaped shadows spread on the wall (Charlotte is a textile artist among her many talents).

It was very dimly lit, so I could not take any photos whatsoever of the food (which is a shame, but also was a very nice break from taking photos of every piece of amazing food I experience, which can be not only tiresome, but also take away from the experience). So instead, I stole the hand-written menu from my table and you can use your vivid imagination to picture yourself how each course looked and tasted!

Hors D'euvres
- edible artichoke centrepiece with tappenades and fresh-baked bread

- Butternut squash soup with pear, blue cheese cream and red wine reduction drizzle

- Roasted root pie with herbed chevre a la mode
- Braised tender lamb in pomegranate sauce
- Massaged kale, beet and pumpkin seed salad with lemon-tahini dressing

- Chocolate pumpkin cheesecake
- Assorted choux a la creme (chai spice, chocolate hazelnut, rosemary salted caramel) with apple fennel croquettes

- Crisp Autumn Night: a purifying potion of rosemary, peppercorn and vanilla infused gin, with tonic and simple syrup poured over a caramelized pear.
- Red wine
- Virgin cocktails available

The appetizers were flavourful and appetizing, the soup of butternut squash and pear delicate, flavourful and something I definitely want to try at home (I got all the ingredients!) and by the time I finished the main course of harvest root pie and kale salad, I felt lucky the choux a la creme (cream puffs) were tiny and delicate - because I barely had any room left. These three tasted amazing, but my palate was even more tantalized by the little bites of fennel & apple croquettes (which were slices of fennel and apple atop buttery and soggy sable). My favourite of the three was the hazelnut & chocolate creme one. And I am glad I got a couple of bites of the pumpkin & chocolate cheesecake, which was more of a cream layer cake, with chocolate wafer base, pumpkin and creamy cheese filling, and a fudgy chocolate icing decorated with pomegranate seeds.

But my favourite of all was actually the "Crisp Autumn Night" cocktail - an imaginative brew that was accompanied by the instructions you see in the photograph. It was made of gin infused with vanilla, pepper and rosemary, served with tonic water, caramelized pear slice, and, lo and behold - two ice "stirring sticks" - one with a greenish hue (cucumber? rosemary??) and the other embedded with pomegranate seeds. It was such a treat and if the rest of my Celtic year is as complex and satisfying, I might just have to try to brew it myself next Halloween... If I can wait that long!

Crisp Autumn Night Cocktail
And if you can't view this image, here's what the little note said:
"In the Witches' wheel of the year, Samhain (pronounced "waawen"), which usually falls at the end of October, is the time when the veils between the world of the conscious and rational, and the unconscious and un-rational are thin. It is also the New Year - a timei to reflect on and let go of the old in order to make room for the burgeoning and new.
This potion was brewed with the magival intention to bring this symbolic reflection, release, and invitation into a drinkable form. This is a spell in a beverage. Its makers invite you to use it either as a delicious un-magical cocktail or as a cleansing and renewing elixir by following these steps:
1. Ground yourself by taking a deep breath.
2. Remember this previous year - from last Samhain up until now. Be gentle and forgiving in your review.
3. Recall the things you are ready to let go of, to do without, to interrupt, to be done with, and blow them into your drink. Literally.
4. The drink's magic is its ability to purify, cleanse, and transform your energies and offerings.
5. Now take a taste, and set your intention for the year to come - imagine abundance, friendship, self-love, dancing, brimming creativity, and the energy to see all your projects and ideas through.
Anything is possible when you start the New Year in the Enchanted Forest...

Night of Hallows

Halloween Special, originally uploaded by em`lia.

"Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children". (Richard Seltzer, "Why Bother to Save Halloween")

It took me no less than 11 years to start to slightly enjoy or even remotely appreciate Halloween. The notion of celebrating death is very foreign to me and how I grew up, and the scary and gruesome imagery of the modern incarnation of the holidays are off-putting to say the least. The Real Origins of Halloween make more sense of this special holiday and shed some light on the issues surrounding this holiday and how it is celebrated today. Perhaps we all need a little scare to bring us back to full life.

Death is really part of life. And because we live in such a sterile, generational-segregated society, death seems a lot more foreign and unknown and therefore even more frightening than it ever was before. Halloween seems to be an exceptional occasion where we can deal with our fears. But what is death is not scary at all? What if it is really part of life? What if we can communicate with the dead, our dearly departed ones who seemingly left our lives forever?

According to various pagan traditions around the world, it is possible to communicate and connect with the dead. For example, most people in Japan do this every day, burning incense in home shrines for the ancestors. And they are not the only ones. It is interesting that incense smoke or perfume is incorporated into different techniques of inviting the dead and the spirits to communicate.

Halloween is the best time of the year to do so, as the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead are thin and it is easier to travel in both directions. Spirits of the dead can visit our world and vice verse.

"And the clothes you left, they lie on the floor
And they smell just like you (...)" (Avril Lavigne, "When You're Gone")

We become greatly attached to the scent of our family members, friends and lovers. When we smell their favourite food or perfume or cologne, we immediately think of them or can even sense their presence. This is because the sense of smell has a direct connection to the part of the brain that processes emotions. Our smelling organ (the olfactory bulbs) are in fact part of the brain. And when a person leaves our life - because of death or other reason - it is usually their smell that we miss the most. With the absence of the person, their unique smell dissipates and there's no way to bring it back. Or is there?

People who were visited by the spirit or soul of a loved one have witnessed a familiar scent - a perfume or aroma that the person loved in their life in this world. The Mexicans, for example, burn copal resin as incense to attract the spirits of the dead, and also for protection. Rituals from around the world designed to invoke spirits of the dead often include burning incense. Incense has a powerful impact on the psyche - incense and agarwood, for example, both bring a person into a meditative state of mind. And also, the thick smoke from the incense served as a stage for the shaman/witches' imagination. Burnt incense, similarly to their essential oils, are mostly heavy "base notes". Resins and gums such as frankincense, galbanum, myrrh, opoponax and more. And since theyr contain a high percentage of essential oils, they really come out clearly over the embers or charcoal, even more so than the precious woods (sandalwood, agarwood). Considering that in ancient times, the alchemists believed essential oils to be the spirit of the plant, it is not surprising that these very same resins are to this day used for increasing spiritual awareness, and perhaps even communicates with other spirits than our own.


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