Wednesday, November 9, 2016


People used to eat mummies, back in the 1800’s. Image source: wikimedia

The mysterious always has a way of wiggling past our common sense. When mummies were first discovered by the West, they were the height of public wonder. To preserve a body forever, and in such a way, was a shock to the imagination. The powerful aromatics used in mummification enticed curious people with lots of money to buy the craziest thing out there – mummy meat.

Eventually, with the initial mother lode of mummies exhausted, and the market still demanding more, opportunists arrived – entrepreneurs, perhaps. They impregnated recent cadavers with aromatic substances, wrapped them up, and aged them until the time was right, when they would be passed-off as authentic Egyptian mummy meat. People devoured its wonderment all the same. It was claimed to have special effects on those who ate it. But what was more intoxicating, the meat, or its mystery?

One thing is for sure – the smell of spice, incense, the eternal, and the foreign gave tangible credibility to such claims.

This story is taken from Annick Le Guérer’s Scent, the Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell, written in 1988, translated from French in 1994.

Excerpt from Hidden Scents:
Odors only stimulate memory; they do not cause any other reactions by themselves. When one feels sick in the presence of an odor, it is not because of the odor itself but because of its association with previous sickness. Automobile exhaust smells and is deadly, but it is not deadly because it smells. The odor sensorium has no capacity for discriminating toxic from nontoxic substances. Odors are epiphenomenal, without any direct biological effect other than that on the olfactory system. Still, the powerful illusion that they cause pleasure and pain persists. Even when one knows that it was drinking too much whiskey that made one sick, the smell of it remains aversive as though it were the cause.* Because smell-response is learned, it only makes sense that upon repeated exposure to a smell, noxious or not, its alarming effect would wear off over time. Why else would you still be in its presence – “it mustn’t be dangerous” – and is therefore turned off, like a smoke alarm, disabled upon accidentally burning breakfast. Cognition is practically defined by its ability to move beyond this reliance on false alarms – it generates methods of identification completely unattainable in the detail and at the distance (both spatial and temporal) than that which is offered by olfaction.

*This is not to be confused with a “smell” that is trigeminally noxious. Mustard gas stimulates trigeminal nerves, not olfactory nerves. In fact, a good way to disambiguate smell from trigeminality is to determine whether it physically hurts. Smells do not hurt, they remind us of pain, but they do not physically cause pain.

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