“… I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”
This passage in literature is so famous it has its own name: the Proustian moment — a sensory experience that triggers a rush of memories often long past, or even seemingly forgotten. For French author Marcel Proust, who penned the legendary lines in his 1913 novel, “À la recherche du temps perdu,” it was the combination of cake in tea that sent his mind reeling. But according to a biologist and an olfactory branding specialist, it was the nose that was really at work.
This episode is delving into the fascinating world of scent and memory. Together, we explore the scientific research behind how our brain processes smells and the powerful connection it has with our memories, and how to utilize certain scents that evoke memories in rituals and practices to help establish a stronger connection with your ancestors. With anything, there are positive and negative memories associated with scent depending on your personal experience, and ancestral veneration will look different for everybody depending on their relationship with their ancestors and loved ones, that they know or don’t know. So wherever you are at in your ancestral veneration journey, take steps to do so in your own stride. Oftentimes, it is the ancestors who caused us the most pain who need the most help and healing. To me, death is a transformative experience for our spirit and I sometimes start there with a troubling ancestor of mine if I didn’t have a great relationship with them in life. If you can, I recommend checking out the following podcast episode:
“The Science Witch Podcast Episode 34: Epigenetics and Ancestral Healing” (warning: mentions of suicide. Suicide ideation, genocide, cultural erasure, ancestral trauma)/ Día de los Muertos)
Even if you do not know who your ancestors are but would like to honor them, there are ways to do so which we will also be discussing later in this episode.
How Does Smell Work? Excerpt from: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013, September). Smell disorders. National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smell-disorders#:~:text=Your%20sense%20of%20smell%E2%80%94like,connect%20directly%20to%20the%20brain.
“Your sense of smell—like your sense of taste—is part of your chemosensory system, or the chemical senses.
Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor. Microscopic molecules released by substances around us—whether it’s coffee brewing or pine trees in a forest—stimulate these receptors. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.
Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. The first pathway is through your nostrils. The second pathway is through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the second channel. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can’t reach the sensory cells that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of your ability to enjoy a food’s flavor. In this way, your senses of smell and taste work closely together.
Without the olfactory sensory neurons, familiar flavors such as chocolate or oranges would be hard to distinguish. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Some people who go to the doctor because they think they’ve lost their sense of taste are surprised to learn that they’ve lost their sense of smell instead.
Your sense of smell is also influenced by something called the common chemical sense. This sense involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings help you sense irritating substances—such as the tear-inducing power of an onion—or the refreshing coolness of menthol.” (NIDCD, 2013)
We encounter well over hundreds of thousands of individual odors daily, “your morning cup of coffee alone can contain more than 800 different types of odor molecules” (NIH, 2020). To this day, it is unclear how the olfactory system works when multiple odors are mixed together (NIH, 2020).
Memories linked to smells are oftentimes stronger and more vivid than if you were to remember something visually. Your sense of sight, sound, taste and touch are routed through the thalamus which is a part of the brain that acts like an operator, directing the sensory input to the place it needs to go. Smell, however, bypasses this process. The olfactory bulbs are directly connected to your amygdala and hippocampus, two regions of the brain directly related to processing emotions and memory (Arshamian et al., 2013). As much as smell can trigger positive memories like grandma's cookies or a hike in the forest, they can also trigger negative memories like those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Jordan Lewis Ph.D, 2015).
Smells tend to evoke early perceptive memories rather than just concepts, so “odors are better recognized after elaborative processing (verbal definition, association with a life episode) than [just] pure odor perceptual processing… [so] the importance of semantic processing in odor recognition must be taken into account” which is recall of words, numbers, concepts, etc. (Anne-Lise Saive et al., 2014). It has been found that memories evoked by odor tend to be from when you were about 10 years old or younger, but again this can depend on the person because some experience memories sparked by odor from their teens and early 20s. These memories are called odor evoked autobiographical memory (OEAMs) since they generally are “older, more emotional, less thought of and induce stronger time traveling characteristics than autobiographical memories (AMs) evoked by other modalities” (Arshamian et al., 2013).
Basics of (My) Ancestral Veneration
As the nights grow longer, the air colder, and our yearning for warmth inside our shelter grows stronger, the veil continues to thin. I mean, the veil is already always thin, it’s a veil, but this time of year makes it easier for us to notice spirits. Some people have suggested the use of the term “the fog is thinning” rather than “the veil is thinning” because of my point above, veils are already thin and you can see through them, but fog carries a variety of transparency. Generally, this term refers to the blurred separation of the physical and spirit realms around this time of year when the leaves are falling, and the land is experiencing a transitional state from summer to winter. It has most of us thinking about our mortality, and those who have passed into the spirit world(s) depending on what you believe.
For me, since I am Mixed-Indigenous Mexican-American, I practice ancestral veneration this time of year through Día de los Muertos which takes place November 1st through November 2nd. I practice ancestral veneration throughout the year in little ways, but for this episode I will be focusing on what I do around this time of year specifically in this section of the episode and how it ties into the role of scent. I do want to mention I do not celebrate Samhain in the traditional sense, but I do celebrate Halloween.
I set up my ofrenda on Halloween morning, although some people celebrate as early as October 28th with each day representing different kinds of death such as those in accidents, before being baptized, etc. It depends on how families and individuals prefer to venerate their ancestors. I celebrate for two nights, the night of November 1st for children, and the night of November 2nd for adults.
For those who do not know what an ofrenda is, ofrenda is Spanish for "offering” and is an altar during the annual and traditionally Mexican Día de los Muertos celebration, usually to venerate ancestors and loved ones. Traditionally it has three tiers to represent heaven, earth, and the underworld and photos are placed on them alongside the favorite foods of those passed and much more. I thrifted a small, moveable wooden table that has shelves underneath that I use for my ofrenda. The rest of the year it is used to hold my witchy and spiritual books and incense. So each year I remove everything from the table and wipe it down with Pledge or a hydrating wood oil as a way of cleansing the table of any stagnant, negative, and unwanted energy to get it ready to welcome my loved ones.
After the table dries for about a day, I then put a white table cloth over it and begin to decorate. Now, I do not have a three-tiered ofrenda right now, it is something I am working towards, so I have a large light blue wooden empty picture frame, just the frame, and it has twine strung across one side to the other so I can clip on photos of my loved ones using mini-clothespins. Since the frame can’t stand on its own I have to place the table against the wall so the frame can lean against it as it sits on the table. I then add mini papel picado draped across the top of the frame and around the table, a small bowl of salt, a cup of water, Our Lady of Guadalupe novena candle that I light during the day/ when I can see it, a fireproof ceramic bowl with ashes at the bottom that I use to place charcoal in for copal (resin) or cinnamon incense sticks, cempasúchil (Pronunciation: sem-pa-soo-cheel; aka mexican marigolds) on either side of the wooden frame containing the photos, and an electric candle that remains on throughout the night or when I leave the house and need to extinguish the flame from the novena candle. Lastly, the food placed on the ofrenda are the favorites of my deceased loved ones. Some also put a white cross beneath or at the base of their ofrenda as well, along with favorite items of loved ones.
If you didn’t notice, all five elements are represented on the ofrenda:
Earth: Food to nourish the soul and represent crops of the earth/ aroma of the food; pan de muerto; sugar skulls
Wind: Papel picado to indicate when spirits have arrived
Fire: The flame of the candle, electric or not-electric; additional candles can represent those forgotten and the cardinal directions to light a path for the spirits
Water: The cup of water placed to refresh the spirits after their long journey to the altar
Spirit: Cempasúchil to help guide the spirits back (scent); salt to purify the spirits and season food offered; to ward off negative and unwanted spirits as well; copal/ resin or incense to guide spirits back and ward off unwanted energies/spirits
Now, the spirits don’t actually physically eat the food set out for them right, they consume the essence of them though scent. The fragrant flowers, the incense, and favorite foods and drinks all help welcome them back home and to nourish their spirit.
“Olfaction in Mesoamerican cosmology had an ephemeral nature to it that transcended planes of existence and [became] a way to interact with and perhaps influence the spiritual world. This type of magic of olfaction was also used by the Sierra Popoluca people of Tehuantepec. The jawbone of a deer killed in a hunt was turned into a ritual object by smoking it with Copal. The transubstantial and transcendental qualities of the scent of copal were thought to tether the animal’s spirit to its remains thus allowing the community’s shaman to recall the deer-spirit back from the spectral world to its bones and by doing so harness that energy to bless the community’s hunters with a successful mission.
The great power of aromatic substances as ritual tools is that odour is both ear thly and otherworldly. It affects us emotionally and links us to our cultural and familial pasts. Copal is a tangible material, yet it creates a time and space separate from the day-to-day bustle of life. It represents the unseen world. It is there, you can smell it, but you can’t see or touch it, just as you can’t see your departed loved ones, but your love for them is still part of this world. So what better way to commune with spirits then through olfaction.” (McBride, 2021)
For more information about copal, I highly recommend checking out The Death Scent Project by Nuri McBride at: https://deathscent.com/2018/08/07/scented-prayers-copal-the-day-of-the-dead/
So, why did I share some of my Dia de los Muertos ancestral veneration with you? Well, it’s to demonstrate the importance of scent in my practice, and how to utilize scent in yours. If you do not celebrate Día de los Muertos and don’t already venerate your ancestors but would like to and don’t know where to start, start simple.
When looking into how to venerate your ancestors, I encourage you to do research on your ancestry, and be mindful of other cultural practices in order to not appropriate cultures. Every culture has their own unique way of honoring their ancestors, so learning about your roots will help you discover what your ancestors may have celebrated and practiced. Which, in turn, will provide an avenue for you to start connecting with them and to strengthen the bond between you and your passed familial loved ones. Another way to approach this is to talk to your living relatives, blood or bond, if you have any. Talking to a parent, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent, great grandparent, what have you can bring up some family lore you didn’t know about, and the stories shared may also answer some questions you didn’t know you had.
If you do not have or know of any relatives, by blood or bond, you can still connect with them, or you can even just connect with your spirit ancestors.
I also don’t hear Dia de Los Muertos talked about very much and honestly it wasn’t something I celebrated growing up, but coming from a Mexican-American household, it was my mom who began reconnecting with our roots and cultural practices and included me in the process which I am extremely grateful for. I don’t want this practice to be lost within my family, and I plan to celebrate this tradition with my children someday when I have children.
This is a theory of mine, but if you are familiar with Dia de Los Muertos, there is the land of the living, remembered, and forgotten. This day is to remember those that have passed on, because in the past, the only way to remember someone was through oral tradition. Stories, tales, and passing on the memory of them through remembrance. So, if someone didn’t share those stories or tales, that person will be lost to history forever. Now, with modern technology, social media, photography, etc. it is easier to find out who you ancestors were, so putting a photo of them on the ofrenda is quite amazing and helps put a face to the stories you tell to your family. Now, these people were just that, people. They made mistakes, they weren’t perfect, and it is important to also remember that side as well if you can hold space for that in your heart. If you aren’t ready to venerate certain ancestors of yours for whatever reason, that is okay, you don’t have to.
A simple way to start venerating your ancestors is to do the following:
You can set out a glass of water, use a 7 day white candle or any candle of your chosen intent, and a small bowl of salt. You can even add incense that you think your ancestors would like. If you have photos, feel free to add them but they are not needed. If you don’t know who your ancestors are that is okay, call upon your ancestors of your highest good both known and unknown of similar moral standing.
Now, this episode will not talk about an in depth look at ancestral veneration, but if this area is new to you I thought I’d briefly talk about how to get started. First, sit with them. Talk to them. Communicate to them through meditation, divination, and even dreams to establish a connection, a relationship. I find my ancestors often communicate with me through dreams, smells, sounds, and other random events throughout the day. Just like any relationship, you may not have a strong bond right away, and you may not feel them with you as you initially imagined it. It takes work and time. With anything, be careful when communicating with the spirit world(s). Always protect yourself and have wards established to keep out unwanted spirits and/or entities. I believe that not all ancestors are human because if you think back far enough, weren’t we all cells or microorganisms at some point? I also consider my animal companions/pets part of my family so I venerate them during this time of year as well. So my ancestral veneration will look different from yours because of what I believe. Again these are just common tips on how to get started with ancestral veneration.
Anyway, think about what associations you have with your ancestors. Did one of them love cookies? Is there a scent you associate with some of them? Is there a family recipe passed down generation from generation? If you don’t know your ancestors, what are your favorite foods that you would like to share with them? Thinking about these things helps you decide what to put on your ancestor altar if you have one or want one, and it also helps the thought of them with you throughout the year as you experience life. More than likely, they have been trying to communicate with you or have communicated with you even if you haven’t worked with them before.
If you have access to their grave, go visit them. Clean or wash their headstone, replace the flowers, sit with them and have a picnic and make a meal for them, just remember to clean up afterwards. Now, graveyard etiquette is another topic that we will not go into since this could be a topic for another episode, but remember to be respectful since this is where people are laid to rest and where some land spirits reside, remember to protect yourself before going into a graveyard and if needed do cleansing and protection work on yourself afterword.
Using Scent for Ancestral Veneration & Ritual
And to conclude this episode, I will be sharing ways to use scent for ancestral veneration throughout the year. First I’d like to ask, what are scents you have established a relationship with throughout your life? For me, if I smell a perfume or candle scented like jasmine, rose, and baby powder, I think of my grandmothers although each had and has slightly different aromas to them. Another is if I smell diesel mixed with cigarette smoke in crisp air, I think of time I spent in a city in Europe with my family. Sometimes I catch whiffs of things throughout my day that remind me of people or places, and if it is a random scent I use my intuition or divination to discern if it is one of my ancestors trying to communicate with me. Anyway, if you are walking somewhere and a pastry or food reminds you of someone in your life who has passed, or if you have a strong strong feeling that your ancestors would enjoy that item, purchase the treat if you have the funds or even try to make it at home, and place it on their altar.
For rituals or spells, utilize those moments of odor evoked memory. Say you live in a city and then smell something that reminds you of a relaxing moment you spent somewhere. Take a note of that scent, and try to replicate it or use it in your next spell related to serenity or tranquility whether it be in the form of incense, candles, or anything else you can think of. This even works for smell aversions.
A smell aversion example for me would be this: I very much do not like the scent of chamomile. We are frenemies through and through in the sense that we work well together and I can tolerate chamomile if I am using it in a spell or recipe for someone else, but it does not mix well with me personally. The scent, even taste, of chamomile especially when I am sick gives me a headache and I get nauseous. So when a spell calls for the use of chamomile even if it is for relaxation or calming, I leave it out or replace it with a herb or spice I have a closer relationship with that has similar if not the same associations.
I mean, incense and particular scents of incense are frequently used in spellwork and ritual for certain associations, deities, veneration practices, as an offering, and more so I encourage you to give your nose a little more attention if you haven’t been.
Now, olfaction can also be integrated during silent suppers. For those of you who don’t know, silent suppers are meals that are had at a table, and as the name suggests, are held without speaking. An empty seat is often left for your ancestors/spirits you welcome to feast with you. A plate of food is made for them as well, and placed at their seat.
Often, these can be done by candlelight with the rest of your house lights turned off.
When you are cooking the meal, the smell of food fills the home. So when you are thinking of what to make for the silient supper, consider your ancestors favorite foods if you can. If you do not know your ancestors or have limited access to food or certain foods, that is okay. Serve what you can within your means. Your intention and reverence for them will still shine.
That concludes this episode. As usual, thank you all so much for listening! If you’d like a transcript of this episode please visit the Amber & Amulets website at amberandamulets.com. Remember, there is magick in the everyday.
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013, September). Smell disorders. National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smell-disorders#:~:text=Your%20sense%20of%20smell%E2%80%94like,connect%20directly%20to%20the%20brain.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, May 19). How the nose decodes complex odors. National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-nose-decodes-complex-odors