Bioethics Blogs

Web Roundup: Something Rotten – Scent, Morality, Good and Evil by Sara M Bergstresser

A well-known quote from Hamlet is “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This, of course, refers to the illegitimate and immoral reign of the fictional King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. So, while there is plenty of current relevance related to the political and social turmoil hinted at by this line, instead let’s talk about another aspect that I find particularly fascinating — the connection of scent and odor to ideas of morality, good, and evil.

In an odd turn of events, I recently found myself trying to explain to some chemistry students why a quote saying that someone “smells of sulfur” means that they are diabolical, hellish, or somehow antichrist-like. Why sulfur? No, there is really no connection to sulfur’s having an identical number of valence electrons to oxygen, though that would make an interesting story. Some explanation of the history of sulphurous scent as diabolical can be found here: The Smell of Hell: Does Satan Smell of Rotten Eggs?   Connections between scent and good and evil actually abound. Fragrantica has a number of excellent articles about the historical and cultural meanings of scent, including Elena Vosnaki’s A Diabolical Whiff: Scents of Hell:

It was sorcerers during the Middle Ages who, suspected to be in cahoots with the devil, were considered to be sulphurous smelling themselves. Given that these were often “wise women” dealing in pharmacopoeia, of which sulphurous materials did make a part, wouldn’t it be evident that handling them would lend them that odor? Try to prove it to the ecclesiastical courts!

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.