Smell and Emotion
It seems like in our world; smell is the downplayed sense. Our senses of Sight, hearing, and tactile stimulation are on high alert. The radio blares, media images flash on our screens, enticing us to buy the next thing. We see pictures of a mouth-wateringly juicy hamburger of unctuous delight, and it makes us hungry. But, one of the few things that media can not do is represent scent. Or specifically scent memory. It is nigh impossible for a hamburger commercial to evoke the sense memory of our favorite uncle’s BBQ when we were 11 years old and how that makes us feel.
Advertising tries, but it is not quite the same.
However, scent memory is the strongest and most emotive sense that human beings have. From an evolutionary standpoint, smell was significant. Danger! Or Delectable! Our noses told us. This piece of food is rotten, while this apple is good and healthy. It helps us find partners through pheromones, and it helps us smell a storm and take cover. Even though those needs are not as critical with our modern lives as humans, the sense still exists. That is only some of what we know. The sense of smell is somewhat baffling to scientists even to this day.
Smell and Memory
In addition to being highly relevant evolutionarily, there is an essential link between scent and memory. Perfumeries seek to market the connection. What feeling is conveyed when you smell this specific type of musk. Do you feel desire or power? Does the scent of gardenia make you feel calm and relaxed? It is all a very personal experience. But generally, individuals have a connection to familiar odors, and an association governs our emotional responses. The way I feel about mint might not be the way another person feels about mint due to my personal experiences with it.
Scent and Reading
When reading a story, many readers are so engrossed, so enveloped in a story that they create the entire world in their heads. They know what a character looks like because they have seen that character a thousand times. I mainly consider this valid when it comes to authors who are particularly evocative in their storytelling. Any fan of Stephen King has a general idea of what The Gunslinger looks like. With that idea in mind, they might come associated with scent memories due to their own experiences. For instance, to me, The Gunslinger has an air of muskiness about him. Of dark leather, dust, and the smell of metals. If you have any experience with shooting pistols, the smell of gunpowder, and smoke, is that what he smells like? Obviously, I will never know because he is a fictional character. However, I have been so engrossed in the Gunslinger that frequently, it is as real as if he was standing in front of me. That experience is probably different for you. Maybe The Gunslinger smells like roses and blood. Or tangerines and rain. I have no idea because scent memory is a wholly personal experience.
Let's Talk about the Book American Gods.
Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god, and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, while all around them, a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping, and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there…
American Gods exist inside of our world and outside of it. It is the story of Gods brought to lands only to be forsaken and replaced by new Gods of worship. At its core, it is compelling storytelling and how stories have power and magic to them. So much so that Neil Gaiman, the writer of American Gods, took that idea a step further. What if belief can manifest something? The sheer act of believing something gives life to that creature. And, the fading and disbelief pull power from that creature or idea, and it fades. American is a melting pot of many different cultures. It has been the haven and refuge of many who seek to escape religious persecution. Beliefs that people had that were so strong and so unable to be forsaken that they set out for a new world and life completely uprooting their families and who they are.
There is power in that. And, it doesn’t matter where the power came from. Whether it was the power that manifested or the manifestation of Gods brought for a greater belief and more ability. It exists.
All you must do is believe.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
What happens to the Gods of America when they lose believers? Where do they go? What about the new gods, the Internet, media, and drugs. What do they look like? What kind of air do they have about them? How do they smell?
American Gods is an epic tale that spans many parts of the US, as well as many belief systems. It has dozens upon dozens of gods and manifestations represented and fleshed out in the story. Most of it, however, centers on the Nordic belief system.
Specifically, American Gods’ star is the God Odin, or as he is known in the story, Mr. Wednesday.
In my mind, Odin is a person quick to anger. Violent, bloody, oozing massive amount of charm and malice. He exudes confidence in power in ways that make men want to follow him. You will follow him through agony and pain and blood only to be rewarded at the tables of Valhalla. Gaiman describes Odin like this, “Do you have faith, Shadow? Do you know me? Do you know what I am? Do you want to know my name? This is what I am called. I am called Glad-O-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-eyed. I am also called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and the Hooded One. I am All-Father, Gondlir, Wand-bearer. I have as many names as there are winds as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn. Thought and Memory. My wolves are Freki and Geri. My horse is the gallowed. I am Odin!” As a reader, you get an overall feel of who Odin is? I posit that this creates a sense of memory of a sort. It reminds you of the character of Mr. Wednesday or Odin.
A company that I have the pleasure to be working with, and that is sponsoring this post named Black Phoenix Alchemy, was kind enough to provide me with samples of their American God’s line of oils so I can talk about scent memory and writing.
Mr. Wednesday is described as; “His hair was a reddish-gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes. The suit looked expensive and was the color of melted vanilla ice cream. His tie was dark gray silk, and the tie pin was a tree, worked in silver: trunk, branches, and deep roots.
He held his glass of Jack Daniels as they took off and did not spill a drop.”
What He Smells Like
When I smell this oil, I think of Mr. Wednesday’s character. It is dead on. Does it smell good? That depends entirely on what you, as a reader and a person, consider a good smell. I think it smells of dark things and charisma. It smells to me like the emotion of power would smell like. And that is what Mr. Wednesday is, he is power.
“How the hell did you find me here? He asked his dead wife.
She shook her head slowly, amused. You shine like a beacon in a dark world, she told him. It wasn’ that hard”
“Shadow Moon is an ex-convict who is caught up in the war between the Old Gods and the New Gods when Mr. Wednesday hires him as a bodyguard. As they journey across America, Shadow finds himself questioning a world where gods exist, and magic is real.”
He doesn’t know who he is or where he truly comes from, but he doesn’t take any shit.
What it Smells Like
I can imagine Shadow drinking rum. He is dark, in the corner of a bar and smells oaky and musky. A bit like leather and amber. He is a brawler made of snow and starlight. He is cold and warm at the same time, and I can imagine that.
“Coin tricks is it?” asked Sweeney, his chin raising, his scruffy beard bristling. “Why, if it’s coin tricks we’re doing, watch this.”
He took an empty glass from the table. Then he reached out and took a large coin, golden and shining, from the air. He dropped it into the glass. He took another gold coin from the air and tossed it into the glass, where it clinked against the first. He took a coin from the candle flame of a candle on the wall, another from his beard, a third from Shadow’s empty left hand, and dropped them, one by one, into the glass. Then he curled his fingrs over the glass, and blew hard, and several more golden coins dropped into the glass from his hand. He tipped the glass of sticky coins into his jacket pocket, and then tapped the pocket to show, unmistakably, that it was empty.
“There,” he said. “That’s a coin trick for you.”
What He Smells Like
“Mad Sweeney was originally King Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann who fought against the Fomorians, who were led by his grandfather, Balor. He threw a spear through Balor’s eye and beheaded him. He was the High King of Ireland from 1870–1830 BC.
He evolved into the Irish king Suibhne who was cursed by St. Ronan to madness and wandering. On the eve of the Battle of Moira in AD 637, he is transformed into a bird and flees in derangement.
He was brought to America by Essie MacGowan and others like her. He eventually lost his accent and many of his memories after living in America for so long.”
I think at one time Mad Sweeney smelt very green. Of the forest and of piles of gold. But over the years, time has changed Mad Sweeney. He is a brawler and a hustler. He smells of Whiskey but oak as well.
“There was something he wanted to say to Laura, and he was prepared to wait until he knew what it was. The world slowly began to lose light and color. Shadow’s feet were going numb, while his hands and face hurt from the cold. He burrowed his hands into his pockets for warmth, and his fingers closed about the gold coin.
He walked over to the grave.
“This is for you,” he said.
Several shovels of earth had been emptied onto the casket, but the hole was far from full. He threw the gold coin into the grave with Laura, then he pushed more earth into the hole, to hide the coin from acquisitive grave diggers. He brushed the earth from his hands and said, “Good night, Laura.” Then he said, “I’m sorry.”
What She Smells Like
“There’s nothing to believe. Trust me. I’ve looked. I mean, my parents believed in everything. Father, Son, Holy Ghost, spirit-filled and full of the light of God. They taught me all of it, chapter and verse. I went to bed every night in a world full of magic where anything was possible. And then one day you find out that Santa’s not real, and then the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. And there’s no farm upstate for old dogs. Then I started reading history books and Jesus isn’t real. And it’s like everything that made the world anything more than what it is is just . . . is just stories. Just snake oil, but worse because snakes are real. I wanted to get that magic back so bad but one day I just accepted the fact that I couldn’t because life is just not that interesting.”
Laura is dead, but at the same time alive. She retains some of her vitality while being very obviously dead. Her scent would need to take that into account. Upturned earth, mothballs and strawberry daiquiris.
Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.
And then there was the carousel.
A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in Gothic profusion, and forbade anyone from climbing on it or from riding on the animals.
And such animals! Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different. He saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly colored and more than real: each rode the platform as the waltz came to an end and a new waltz began. The carousel did not even slow down.
“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no one ever rides it.”
“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”
What It Smells Like
A place of power and possibility, of gods diabolical and celestial: glowing amber and heady cinnamon, the green of growing things and the white of thunderclaps, sweet myrrh and sacred styrax, forest moss and blood-soaked battlefields, papyrus and clay, rose petals, wildflowers, abbatoirs, and honey.
The Carousel smells of anything that is power to you. Thunderclaps, or forest moss. Honey to abattoirs – it is all there.
“The taxi driver comes out of the shower, wet, with a towel wrapped around his midsection. He is not wearing his sunglasses, and in the dim room his eyes burn with scarlet flames.
Salim blinks back tears. “I wish you could see what I see,” he says.
“I do not grant wishes,” whispers the ifrit, dropping his towel and pushing Salim gently, but irresistibly, down onto the bed.”
What He Smells Like
If he could have a smell, I think it would smell of cinnamon and the desert sand.
The Blood Must Flow
“It is only a gesture,” he said, turning back to Shadow. “But gestures mean everything. The death of one dog symbolizes the death of all dogs. Nine men they gave to me, but they stood for all the men, all the blood, all the power. It just wasn’t enough. One day, the blood stopped flowing. Belief without blood only takes us so far. The blood must flow.”
“I saw you die,” said Shadow.
“In the god business,” said the figure—and now Shadow was certain it was Wednesday, nobody else had that rasp, that deep cynical joy in words, “it’s not the death that matters. It’s the opportunity for resurrection. And when the blood flows . . .”
What It Smells Like
This is a thought or a feeling than actual blood. Blood is a stand in for desperate belief. Something you would give your blood to protect. Hence “the blood must flow.”
The Buffalo Man
“Darkness; a sensation of falling—as if he were tumbling down a great hole, like Alice. He fell for a hundred years into darkness. Faces passed him, swimming out of the black, then each face was ripped up and away before he could touch it . . .
Abruptly, and without transition, he was not falling. Now he was in a cave, and he was no longer alone. Shadow stared into familiar eyes: huge, liquid black eyes. They blinked.
Under the earth: yes. He remembered this place. The stink of wet cow. Firelight flickered on the wet cave walls, illuminating the buffalo head, the man’s body, skin the color of brick clay.
“Can’t you people leave me be?” asked Shadow. “I just want to sleep.”
The buffalo man nodded, slowly. His lips did not move, but a voice in Shadow’s head said, “Where are you going, Shadow?”
“Where else have I got to go? It’s where Wednesday wants me to go. I drank his mead.” In Shadow’s dream, with the power of dream logic behind it, the obligation seemed unarguable: he drank Wednesday’s mead three times, and sealed the pact—what other choice of action did he have?
The buffalo-headed man reached a hand into the fire, stirring the embers and the broken branches into a blaze. “The storm is coming,” he said. Now there was ash on his hands, and he wiped it onto his hairless chest, leaving soot-black streaks.
“So you people keep telling me. Can I ask you a question?”
There was a pause. A fly settled on the furry forehead. The buffalo man flicked it away. “Ask.”
“Is this true? Are these people really gods? It’s all so . . .” He paused. Then he said, “impossible,” which was not exactly the word he had been going for but seemed to be the best he could do.
“What are gods?” asked the buffalo man.
“I don’t know,” said Shadow.”