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Classen, Constance - Howes, David - Synnott, Anthony -Aroma_ The Cultural History of Smell (1994)

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Ongee believe that the spirits of their dead are reincarnated as
children. Infants are said to be like the odourless, boneless spirits
because their bones are soft and they lack teeth. Ongee children, in
fact, are not considered fully human until their teeth appear. (Due
to their recent experience of being a spirit, however, children are
deemed to have more knowledge of the spirit world than their
elders. The latter will therefore reply when perplexed by a difficult
question: ‘The elders cannot answer this question, ask somebody
The Ongee associate the onset of death with the loss of teeth, the
loss of condensed odour-force. Elderly Ongee will say, for
example, ‘Our teeth are falling, we grow old and die.’95 The Ongee
bury their dead in the earth. On the first night of the full moon
following the burial, the body is dug up and the lower jawbone is
recovered along with other bones. A lower jawbone with teeth is
called ibeedange—dangerous smell body—by the Ongee. This is
because chewing meat, like killing a human or animal, is thought
to release dangerous odours. By removing the jawbone from a
body the Ongee ensure that the deceased’s spirit will be unable to
chew, and thus be less aggressive in hunting and more willing to
cooperate with humans.96
Bringing the bones back to the Ongee camp signals the end of
the period of mourning. The close relatives of the deceased tie dry
The rites of smell 153
plants around the bones to cool them and keep their smell in, and
paint them with red clay so that the bones will not be too cold and
will continue to emit odour. Finally, string is tied to the bones so
they can be worn on the body. The bones are kept in a basket by the
family and provide a means of maintaining ties with one’s
ancestral spirits through smell. On occasions of great need, such as
when a family member is ill, they are taken out and worn on the
body. The odour of the jawbone, mingled with that of the wearer’s
body, would serve to alert the ancestral spirit of the need for his or
her intervention.97
The Ongee imagine the spirits of the dead to be odourless. The
inhabitants of certain Melanesian islands, such as New Caledonia,
however, assign a putrid odour to the spirits of their dead. It is said
that none can enter the land of the dead who do not manifest this
scent. A living human who wishes to visit there, consequently,
must first anoint himself or herself with the decaying remains of a
dead animal. In New Caledonia it is thought that the recently dead
still smell of life when they enter the underworld. This alien odour
disturbs the spirits already there. They throw the newcomer a bit
of their food to eat, an action which causes all of his or her
offensive odour of life to disappear. Thus, whereas the food of the
living is life-giving, the food of the dead confers the state of
In New Caledonia the dead are said to spend their time in
rhythmic activities, playing ball with an orange, changing their
body colour in unison—from white to red to black and other
colours—and dancing over arid plains and mountains with trees
and rocks, which also provide them with temporary abodes. The
living imitate this dance of the dead when they celebrate the end
of the mourning period, three or four years after a person has
died. The leader convokes the participants: ‘Rise all of you, come
for the dance of our rotted men, smelling of rancid fat, who live
in the holes in rocks and the trunks of trees.’99 The women and
men dance around a pole all night, heavily, rhythmically, as the
dead do.100
In nearby Northern New Ireland, funeral rites involve a careful
transference and dispersal of odour. Life force is said to manifest
itself in humans as smell and to increase with age. At death this
odour of life slowly leaves the body. The odour of life is thought to
be dangerous when not contained within a body, however, so the
New Irelanders create a sculpture in order to capture the smell
154 Explorations in olfactory difference
emanating from the corpse. The type of material used—wood,
fibre or clay—depends on the amount of smell the deceased is
believed to have accumulated. An elderly man, for example, is
considered to have the greatest store of life-smell and will
therefore, according to custom, be represented by a sculpture
made of wood when he dies.101
As it takes on the odour emanating from the deceased the
sculpture is said to grow alive. When the sculpture is displayed
publicly its particular design is carefully memorized by certain
individuals. The sculpture itself is then left to ‘die’ and disperse
its now devitalized odour. A wooden sculpture is left to rot and
exude its odour through decay. A fibre sculpture is burnt,
releasing its odour in the smoke. A clay sculpture is deprived of its
acquired odour by being taken apart. The funeral rite is now
The various olfactory practices and beliefs surrounding death
presented here reveal the different means by which societies try
to make cultural order out of the disorder of death. In the
modern West the odour of the corpse is suppressed through
techniques of embalming in order to reduce the trauma of death
for the survivors. For the inhabitants of the UAE, perfumes make
the deceased presentable, both to the mourners and to God.
Once the perfumed spirit has departed for heaven, however, the
decaying buried remains become a site of danger, to be avoided
by the living. The Batek Negrito believe that incense aids the
spirit to depart from the body. The spirit then becomes a fragrant
superhuman, while the decomposing body attracts dangerous
tigers by its odour. The inhabitants of New Caledonia, in
contrast, believe that the spirits of the dead smell of their
decaying corpses. In this case, the odour of death is also the
odour of the gods.103
While the odour of the corpse is identified with death in many
cultures, it can, interestingly, also be identified with life. The
Bororo, who hold that the life force has a putrid smell, can readily
conceive of life as departing from the body in olfactory form as the
corpse decomposes. Like the Batek Negrito, the Bororo believe in
an olfactory separation of body and soul at death: the soul is said
to become a fragrant wind after the body has released all of its
stench of life through putrefaction.
For the Ongee, the spirits, divested of the odour of life, are
inodorate. With regard to their human remains, it is not the odour
The rites of smell 155
of decaying flesh that the Ongee emphasize, but rather the odour
of bones. These bones, as sources of condensed smell and
condensed life energy, are kept and utilized by the Ongee in order
to transmit olfactory messages to their ancestral spirits.
Finally, the people of Northern New Ireland channel the odour
of life departing from the corpse into a specially designed
sculpture. Once the design of the sculpture is committed to
memory, the sculpture itself is destroyed, its transformative
function fulfilled. In this way, the New Irelanders are able to
convert the transient smell of life and of the deceased into a fixed
visual image, a sort of olfactory ‘photograph’, to be preserved
In many cultures odours play a ritual role in the production of
dreams or visions. Among the Umeda of Papua New Guinea the
word for dream (yinugwi) is very similar to that for smell (nugwi).
Perhaps due to this perceived similarity, an Umeda man always
sleeps with a sachet of ginger by his side or under his head. It is
believed that the scent of ginger will stimulate dreams which will
augur well for hunting. Just as the word for dream is similar to that
for smell in the Umeda language, so is the word for ginger (sap),
the pre-eminent magical herb, a synonym for magic. Thus, in the
context of the dream, the magical odour of ginger acts upon the
imagination of the dreamer to produce a prophetic vision which
will alter the world in favour of the dreamer.105
Among the Ongee the role of odour