About perfumes, herbs, temperaments

A while ago I had the opportunity of visiting in Rome a true  factory of perfumes of antiquity with its products: the factory of Pyrgos in the southern part of the island of Cyprus.

The myth tells us about Venus, the goddess of beauty and love: when she arose from the foam of the sea, the Graces- who were addicted to the care of her beauty – picked plants and flowers from the island of Cyprus in order to create her inimitable perfume.

Botticellis Venus - Uffizi
Botticelli’s Venus – Uffizi, Florence

The factory of Pyrgos- on which was based the exhibition  – was abandoned in 1850 B.C. after an earthquake, so it was preserved for us, we have an interest in traditional medicine.

The factory  was specialised in oil olive production, but a branch of it was used for the making of scents and perfumes; oil in fact was the main component for the production of perfumes, especially the one obtained from the first olives, the greener ones, the so called onfacium. Three methods were employed in Pyrgos:

1) the boiling for the stronger and more resistant parts of the plants, roots and barks;

2) the distillation for flowers,  a process where the flowers were boiled, while the steam obtained – full of small particles of essential oils – was channelled in a cold container where it was condensed in a pure liquid scent. Anyway the distillation as we know now is later: it was introduced by the Arabs, al-Kindi and Avicenna to mention some names.

3) in antiquity the most used method was maceration in oil and water, described in details by Theophrastus, Plinius the senior and Dioscorides. Flowers, water and olive or almond oil were put in the same proportion in  jugs and put in  at rest in a warmed hole until the water was completely evaporated and oil had absorbed the essential oils of the plants. Obviously oil and essential scents have a different weight so the condensed essential oils could be easily collected and the rest eliminated.

When the earthquake destroyed the factory, 14 different essences were being made in the scent factory, including: coriander, citrus tree, laurel, myrtle, lavender, sage, chamomile and rosemary, while were missing flowers as the rose, jasmine and iris, which scholars know they were well known to Greeks.
Maybe at the time of the earthquake- the archaeologists think- these scents were out of fashion.
Never out of fashion  the face powder which Italian women still call cipria (from Cyprus in fact) because in this island was produced the most refined of this scented powder; invented in Egypt because women desired to have an alabaster skin (a tanned skin implied poverty) , Plinius  mentions how the musk from Cyprus’ oaks was the most expensive and wanted for its special scent.
There is nothing new under the Sun 🙂
Flora_Museo nazionale romano in Naples
Flora – Museo Nazionale Romano in Naples

The method  used in the ancient Greek factory for perfumes’ production is the same method they still use nowadays for the making of the very famous Aleppo soap produced in Halab, Syria, in front of Cyprus shores.

Here in Italy it can be easily bought in ever herbs shop and at the moment I have a perfumed soap in my bathroom, a gentle student at my Latin course went there and bought it for all the women-students, while we were declining “rosa, rosae, rosae” in fact – strangely enough Latins did not use this word so much, and liked better other flowers.

Whatever they write in a commercial site, whoever has a mother or a grandmother who has experienced scarcity of the war times, knows  she had been obliged many times to  make soap at home.

The olive oil is boiled with the soda, and glycerine is eliminated. At the end of the process  laurel oil is added, water eliminated and the soap cut.  That’s all.

Aleppo soap has all the virtues of laurel and olive tree: it deeply cleans the skin and removes the peeled layer, sebum and sweat. It removes sebum  from hair too, and prevents infections. The laurel cleanses the skin while the olive nourishes it.

These virtues – as the ones of whatever herb- are connected with their temperament: in a peculiar way problems of the skin depend on humors clusters in the skin, or the underlying layers, which are perverted in quality or quantity, and should be treated in order to come back to the pristine equilibrium.

Oil, Herbario nuovo

Laurel, Herbario novo
Laurel, Herbario nuovo

The pictures says  us oil is hot in a temperate way and moist while laurel is  hot and dry in the third degree.

In fact in these kind of books, the DEGREE had a special importance, This is Avicenna, as mentioned by Giannelli, an Italian expert of traditional medicine.

“The degree depends on the presence of two different opposite virtues. If they are in the same degree the drug will be temperate, but if one has a greater strength, its degree will be higher, while its complementary degree will be lower:”

0° degree: the drug is temperate;

1° degree: the effectiveness depends on  long usage;

2° degree: action quite swift and moderate activity;

3° degree: strong action, generally used in case of illness;

4° degree: VERY strong action, it should be used with great caution.

The temperament of the herbs can be easily associated with their active principles – my teacher used to repeat during his lessons, an herb is more than the sum of its active principles- every principle to a specific element/temperament and without revealing too many secrets 🙂  the FIRE is associated  with essential oils like laurel: while essential oils are drier because they should cause a light shock to the skin which is needed in order to  repair the  illness, oil and wax are hot and moist.

In the same way every “active principle” as now they are called had a counterpart in the idea ancients called “temperament.”

Surfing a little in the net I found a couple of  recipes for ancient scents (as they are deduced by Pyrgos’ archaeological site) which I gladly translate for my English readers:

A) olive oil (onfacium), lavender, coriander, parsley, pine,  bitter almond,  cinnamon, sandalwood, incense, mint.

B) olive oil (onfacium), lavender, pine, coriander,  parsley, pine,  bitter almond,  cinnamon, sandalwood, sweet orange, incense, vanilla, musk (the one I mentioned above for the famous Cypre’s cipria).

If someone desire try it, I should mention that an essential oil should NEVER be taken by mouth because this active principle is very concentrated and isolated from the other ones, it’s very strong and can give dangerous side effects.

The way of mixing them is suggested us by Pietro Mattioli in 1597.

We should mix the onfacium oil with laurel trees,  cyperus, calamus, myrtle and then cooking it with laurel berries. It warms and makes tender the flesh, eliminates  lassitude of skin 🙂 It’s useful for all the illnesses of the cold.

Written by Margherita Fiorello @ year 2009



It’s necessary to underline the fact Nicholas Culpeper has not been into proper consideration because he does not mention olive tree, evidently because it is not so common in Great Britain, but the gentle author of this blog obviously lives in a place where there is plenty of it 🙂




Luigi Giannelli, Antica cosmesi mediterranea: proposte d’uso cosmetico e dermatologico desunte da antichi testi di materia medica (Montespertoli (Firenze): MIR, 2000).

Luigi. Giannelli, La Medicina tradizionale mediterranea (Tecniche Nuove, 2006).

Castore Durante, Herbario nuouo I. Bericchia & I. Tornierij, B. Bonfadino & T. Diani, 1585

Pietro Mattioli,  Il Dioscoride dell’ eccellente Dottor P. A. Matthioli co. i suoi discorsi, con l’aggiunta del sesto libro de i rimedi di tutti i veleni de lui nuovamente tradotto & con dottissimi discorsi per tutto (Felice Valgrisio, 1597). 

Matteo Plateario, Circa Instans, (XII century) edited and translated cura CieloeTerra.


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