Dominican monks draft in perfumier to crack Bible code that reveals recipe for ancient perfume

Dominican friar Olivier Vernard with the perfumer Alexandre Helwani. They have found an actual recipe for perfume embedded in the Song’s verses.
Although other perfumers have created perfumes inspired by the Song of Songs, this one ‘is the perfume encoded 3,000 years ago and nobody has rediscovered it before’. - Magali Delporte

It sounds like the perfect mash-up plot for a blockbuster novel: The Da Vinci Code – about the discovery of a code revealing a religious secret – meets Perfume – involving the quest to find the ultimate scent. But the tale of Dominican friars, a perfumer and a Jewish rabbi finding the formula for a perfume hidden in the Bible’s Song of Songs goes one better – this is no fiction and the scent will be on sale from March.

The ancient Song of Songs has long intrigued historians and biblical scholars, with its erotic content being unlike any other book in the Bible. Verses from it, mentioning “your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate” and “let my beloved come to the garden…and eat its choicest fruits” have been used as marriage service readings, while some experts think the text was performed as part of fertility rituals when it was written around 3,000 years ago.

Song of Songs holds secret messages about perfume

While it is full of references to plants and flowers, until now nobody had worked out the Song of Songs – sometimes called the Song of Solomon – might hold a secret message about perfume. But after cracking its code, perfumer Alexandre Helwani has produced a perfume with fruity top notes from pomegranate, mandrake, apple and figs, and floral notes from lily and wine flowers – all brought together to evoke love.

The search for the formula began when the Dominican friars who run the prestigious French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem embarked on a new translation of the Bible. Keen to highlight cultural and artistic themes in the Bible, friar Olivier Vernard brought in perfumer Alexandre Helwani to help them study its plants and their uses. Helwani was recommended to Vernard because he had helped devise a perfume based on plants in Homer’s Odyssey, and Vernard thought he could do something similar for the Bible. It was then that Helwani turned his attention to the Song of Songs.

“As I read it, I instinctively knew that there was something there, that the authors knew what they were doing”, he said.

‘Told what to use and in what proportions’

Helwani then turned to a rabbi, Marc-Alain Ouaknin who had also been studying the Song of Songs and together they looked at it using gematria, a form of Jewish numerology. In this system, Hebrew letters correspond to numbers, and a decoder can find a message through it. Using it, the pair revealed which plants should be used in the perfume and in what amount. “As we studied the text we realised we were being told what to use and in what proportions”, said Helwani.

Helwani spent a year studying the text and in the lab working on the formula. As well as the fruits and flowers, the Song of Songs code included nard, myrhh and basalm, to create a balanced scent.

The question that Helwani and Ouaknin are trying to answer is why the unknown writers of the Song of Songs would have written the perfume formula in code. “It is a mystical text and I think the formula might have been used in a cultic way, and that this is linked to a divination ritual”, said Helwani. “But we need to find out a lot more to be sure”.

‘Nobody rediscovered it before’

Although other perfumers have created perfumes inspired by the Song of Songs, this one, said Helwani, “is the perfume encoded 3,000 years ago and nobody has rediscovered it before”.

While the perfume, marketed by Iconofly, goes on sale online and in selected stores in March, the Dominican friars have their sights on something else. “We think we might also develop an elixir”, said Fr Venard. “The Song of Songs is about all the senses, including smell and taste. We want to open up the Bible for readers to fully experience it”.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.