The Phoenix, an Anglo-Saxon poem, tells the story of the Phoenix’s migration across exotic lands to find its special island, where it builds a nest out of exotic spices with loving and tender care, only to immolate itself in this fragrant nest/bier.
The poetry is very beautiful. You can hear it being read out loud in Old English here.
Bið him neod micel
þæt he þa yldu ofestum mote
þurh gewittes wylm wendan to life,
feorg geong onfon. þonne feor ond neah
þa swetestan somnað ond gædrað
wyrta wynsume ond wudubleda
to þam eardstede, æþelstenca gehwone,
wyrta wynsumra, þe wuldorcyning,
fæder frymða gehwæs, ofer foldan gescop
to indryhtum ælda cynne,
swetes under swegle. þær he sylf biereð
in þam leafsceade lic ond feþre
on healfa gehware halgum stencum
ond þam æþelestum eorþan bledum.
(OE from Georgetown’s A-Z index of Anglo-Saxon poetry)
The modern English translation of this passage by Bradley (plus a little more):
When the wind lies low and the weather is fair and the holy clear gem of heaven shines, when the clouds are cleared away and the torrent of the waters remains stilled and every storm is lulled beneath the firmament, when from the south the warm ethereal candle sweetly sheds its light, then he begins to build in the branches, to prepare a nest. A great compulsion is upon him, through an upsurge of awareness, that he must urgently turn that senility to life and take on a new being. Then far and near he garners and gathers in to that dwelling-place the most fragrant and delightsome herbs that the King of glory, Father of each created thing, created to the honour of mankind, the most fragrant beneath the firmament. There he himself bears the splendid treasure into the tree where in the wasteland the wild bird builds a house at the top of the tall tree, lovely and delightsome, and there in that solarium he installs himself and in that leafy obscurity surrounds himself body and wings on every side with sanctifying odours and the noblest flowers of the earth. He settles down, eagerly anticipating his destiny.
When in the season of summer the sun at its hottest, gem of the firmament, shines upon the gloom and fulfils its appointed task and scans the world, then his house becomes heated by virtue of the clear firmament. The herbs grow warm; the abode of his choosing exhales fragrant odours. Then in the heat the bird burns along with his nest in the grip of the fire.The pyre is kindled. The flame engulfs the house of the bloodied creature; fierce, it races on; yellow flame devours and burns the phoenix, old with years long gone. Then fire devours the ephemeral body; the life, the spirit of the dying bird is on its way when the flame of the funeral pyre incinerates flesh and bone.
The phoenix is a symbol of Christ's death—to Christians at least—but it is also a sign for the divine, the unknowable, and fragrance’s role in reaching the Gods. The phoenix’s death is beautiful because it is fragrant—he suffers death on pile of incense.
I am especially moved by the phoenix’s oddly maternal creation of a nest for his own aged body to burn upon—he is a completely sterile creature, one who creates himself again and again in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, with no parents, and no children, besides his own lonely self. His existence leads to very interesting questions: how do we define life? What is divinity? Is there a liminal space between the two categories—divinity and organic life—which the phoenix inhabits? And most importantly, can we come closer to defining an aesthetics of death, in which scent plays a very important part?
I think of the phoenix often when I smell incense-based perfumes, think of the deep and ancient connection between divinity, death, and fragrance—one of the oldest forms of worship throughout the world, after all, is pro fumis—fragrant offerings to the gods through smoke. Thus, an incense-oriented perfume must respect its ancient origins. I do not expect it to be too reverent, too churchy, although at times such a thing is very enjoyable. But I do expect it to be ever so rich, and as beautiful as possible, made with great care out of a clutch of fragrant material, like a jewel-like nest of frankincense, myrrh, and fragrant herbs and flowers.
Andy Tauer’s Incense Rosé opens with a spicy blast of cardamom—flanked by citrus and pepper, then pushes into rose territory. But since this is Tauer, this is not a rose perfume by any means—the rose simple lends the rather stark incense and spice composition a certain round floral heart. The cardamom stays strong and lovely for quite a long time, and I would say it is the dominant note of the first part of the fragrance’s evolution. Something about it strikes me as bitter, and ever so slightly sharp.
The incense aspect of the perfume opens up a little bit as it wears, but I found myself wanting more…
this is the least intense of the Tauers I have smelled, perhaps the most ‘refined’ and well-behaved, but I must say I find myself wanting a little more of that heavy oomph that I go to Tauer perfumes looking for…
That said, there is something special about the way the woody-spicy cardamom interacts with the resinous incense—a feeling that is both ancient and powerful, and in keeping with my mythological expectations—I just wish there were more of it..
IN fact, that’s the feeling I take away from both of Tauer’s well-crafted incense fragrances—this and Incense Extrême--they are lovely and interesting, and I want more of them—more scent, more longevity, a bit more sillage. These are lovely, almost minimalist creations, but I want something a little more operatic here.
images of the phoenix from the Aberdeen bestiary