Scent is one of our five senses, yet for many of us it takes a bit of a back seat to seeing, hearing or touch. Nevertheless, despite - or perhaps because of this, it is a powerful link with our subconscious. Just as the taste of a madeleine brought up many involuntary memories for the narrator of Proust's "À la Recherche du Temps Perdu", I'm sure many of us have experiences of aromas bringing forgotten memories and (perhaps more importantly) emotions flooding back. For example as an adult, just walking into a school and smelling that distinctive, familiar, yet long-unencountered complicated mixture that is 'school' brings back one's own schooldays with an almost shocking immediacy. The smell of an old-fashioned kitchen - gas stove, vanilla essence, cinnamon and just a dash of vinegar - instantly has me sitting at my Nanna's kitchen table watching her bake her famous fruitcake.
Sometimes, the link between scent and memory becomes so explicit and well known to us that we no longer need to smell something, just see or conjure up its image to recall all that the scent holds for us. There was a huge lavender bush just outside the kitchen door of my cousins' house in Dorset where we spent so many happy summer days in my childhood. The sent of lavender has always brought those days back to me, but now I only have to see a lavender bush, or the image of one, for the memories to come back just as clearly as they would from the aroma of lavender.
We use this connection between scent, memory and emotion in many ways. For example we choose different scents for the way they make us feel - a zesty citrus shower gel to wake us up in the morning and make us feel alert and energised, a floral scent such as jasmine or rose when we want to feel feminine or seductive, or a comforting smell like vanilla to turn our homes into a relaxing sanctuary. Of course, because smell is a very personal thing, if you hate vanilla it's not going to make you feel relaxed. So never mind what moods people tell you certain scents are supposed to evoke, go with what they mean to you.
Scent of course, can be used in so many magical ways. It is usual to light incense for example, when creating sacred space. This is partly to cleanse the area and create the right atmosphere for the intended working, and thus there are many commercial blends of incense available that are supposed to evoke the energy of a particular deity or Sabbat. But again, I would advise that if you want to invoke Gaia yet think the Gaia incense you bought for the occasion stinks, don't use it! Think instead about what Gaia means to you (abundance? nurturing? the green Earth?) and try to come up with scents that conjure up these ideas - you could try a berry, apple or peach fragranced oil for abundance for example; perhaps vanilla, cinnamon or your mother's favourite perfume from your childhood for nurturing; a patchouli or pine or grass scented joss stick for the green Earth. You get the picture. As always, use the books (or websites or blogs!) for inspiration, then toss them aside and use what works for you.
I would suggest another function of incense is to put us in the right mind for ritual and/or magic. Some incenses do actually have a measurable effect on our physiology. Frankincense for example is known to slow and deepen the breathing, putting one into a meditative state of mind which explains its popularity as an incense over the millennia. With other incenses, I would suggest that if you habitually burn, say, sandalwood incense for your rituals, the involuntary memory thing will eventually kick in so that whenever and wherever you smell sandalwood incense your mind will go into 'ritual mode'.
So why not use this scent-involuntary memory connection to help you 'change consciousness at will' (Dion Fortune's definition of what magic is)? The first summer I went to Witchcamp, I took a new perfume with me and wore it every day. When I got home, without thinking I reverted to my normal 'everyday' perfume. One day I picked up the bottle of Witchcamp perfume - as soon as I took a sniff I was transported back to Witchcamp! From then on I wore the perfume only for Witchcamp-related things: at subsequent Witchcamps, when meeting up with friends from Witchcamp, or (when I started to get involved with organising Avalon Witchcamp) at Witchcamp organising meetings. Later on, after a vision of community as a giant, sacred beehive, I found a honey scented shower gel from Lush that I used whenever I was doing anything community orientated or when I was trying to make connections or draw new friends into my life. I still use both scents when appropriate, and find they continue to stir my unconscious and help me achieve the state of mind I wish to be in.
I suggest you find a 'basic' scent that you use for your generic rituals and magical workings that will help you instantly get into 'ritual mind'. You can always vary things for specific purposes, but having a reliable standby scent can be a great shortcut! My two standby favourites are patchouli joss sticks or Starchild's 'Hecate' loose incense. If you don't like incense you could try fragrance oils or essential oils in a diffuser or rubbed onto the candles you are using. Or apply perfume to your pulse points, use scented candles, pot pourri, fresh flowers, herbs and spices, floral waters in spritzers, floorwashes... the possibilities are endless.
I was thinking that it would also be helpful to choose a series of emotion-linked scents that you could carry with you in small vials to give you a heping hand when you need it. You could choose your favourite soothing scent for stressful situations, a scent that speaks to you of confidence and self-esteem for challenging situations, perhaps something that makes you feel healthy and full of vitality for when you are lacking energy or feeling under the weather. You must be careful not to only sniff them in 'negative' situations though - remember to wear them on your skin when you know you are going to be feeling relaxed and happy, or full of self-assurance, or full of well-being. That way you will make the connection in your subconscious and can then bring them out in times of need. One of my favourite perfumes is Chanel's 'Cristalle', a light summery scent that I usually reserve for special occasions. A little sniff of it instantly brings so many happy memories flooding back and always lifts my mood.
I am also a great fan of essential oils which I use for first aid (tea tree for cuts, grazes etc, lavender for burns, a quick sniff of ginger as an instant cure for queasiness...), around the house for cleaning purposes and just because they smell nice. My next ThriftWitch post will cover the subject of making your own household cleaning products - they're cheap, safe, smell great and are really effective. In the meantime, have fun experimenting with the magical/emotional possibilities of scent...