Smells like witch spirit: How the ancient world’s scented sorceresses influence ideas about magic today

Most perfume ads suggest that the right scent can make you sexy, alluring and successful. A blend by Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs, meanwhile, offers to make you smell like Hecate, the three-faced Greek goddess of witchcraft.

As a classics scholar who studies both magic and the senses in the ancient world, this idea of a witch-inspired perfume fascinates me – and “Hecate” is just one of many magic-inspired fragrances available today.

What does a witch smell like, and why would you deliberately perfume yourself like one?

Smells are impossible to see or touch, yet they affect us emotionally and even physically. That’s similar to how many people think of magic, and cultures around the world have connected the two. My current research is focused on how magic and scent were linked in ancient Rome and Greece, ideas that continue to shape views of witches in the West today.

Greeks and Romans of all walks of life believed in magic and used spells ranging from curses to healing magic and garden charms. Magical handbooks from the time show that Greco-Egyptian magicians used fragrance extensively in their rituals, even scented inks, and doctors believed strong-smelling plant species to be more medically effective than others. The gods themselves were thought to smell sweet, and places they touched retained a pleasant odor, making scent a sign of contact with the divine.

Witches wielding perfumes …

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