Women in Science

First Perfumer

Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim, The Oldest Perfumer on Record: If you Google who the first perfumer in history was, you will find Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim; most likely, her name will be shortened to Tapputi. Online sources cast her as a proto-girl-boss, a kind of corporate feminist before the conception of capitalism. However, today let’s dig past the hype to look at the source material and see Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim not as the patron saint of corporate perfumery, but as one of many Assyrian workers who helped develop the bedrock of olfactory culture.

What we know of the first perfumer in the historical record comes from one tablet. The tablet, KAR 220, is a scholarly concordance on perfumery and was housed alongside other chemical texts in the ancient library of Aššur. It is written in Middle Assyrian and currently resides in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. The scribe of KAR 220 conveniently dated his work. The tablet was made in the 5th year of the reign of King Tukultī-Ninurta I on the 20th of the month of Muhur-ilani. (May 1239 BCE). The text includes the line, “from the mouth of the muraqqītu Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim.”

This line is the totality of the written record about her, but that one line says so much. This is the oldest named perfumer in the historical record thus far. She was a woman. We know this because her name and her title, muraqqītu, are both in feminine form. Her work was reserved for the elites of society within a tightly controlled palace economy.

The tablet describes her perfume as, fit for the king. This language is important. From the perfumers’ guild of Mari, we know that only men usually made fragrances for the king. In Assyria, or at least under Tukultī-Ninurta I, women, too, made fragrances for the highest tier of society. Yet, she didn’t have the title of šangitû bit hilṣi (f. overseer of the perfumer’s workshop), so while her work was worthy of recording, she probably had a boss. It is unlikely she was at the top of the pecking order of the bit hilṣi; her title would reflect that.

The rest of this fascinating article  includes a translation of the formula for the salve, more of the history of the tablet and speculates on Tapputi’s origins as an Assyrian native, or perhaps a foreign worker, either a willing immigrant or perhaps one captured in battle.

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