The name comes from the Sanskrit word for “testicle.” It is not a single chemical compound, but rather a single scent that can be produced by many different chemical structures and many different plants and animals. But the scent we call “musk” gained favor with humans with one little Asian deer, a shy and humble creature that touched off a revolution in human sexuality.
“Shy and humble” aren’t adjectives generally used to describe animals that look like vampires. But though the primitive musk deer makes up for its lack of antlers with freaky fangs, or tusks, used for defending itself against predators and rivals, it is otherwise quite peaceful. The musk deer belongs to an older class of deer than your modern white-tail, and the enlarged canines and absence of antlers are only the most obvious indicators. Others include the presence of a gallbladder; the absence of facial glands; the possession of only one pair of nipples; and, in males, a sexual musk gland located on its belly, near the genitals. For this gland, the otherwise gentle, leaf-browsing musk deer has been chased by hunters through the forests of the southern Himalayas for thousands of years, almost all the way to extinction.
How did humans acquire a lust for the scent of a tiny organ in a small, reclusive deer found only in montane South Asia?
The first reference we have to musk is from the Talmud in the 5th century. It was known to come from India, where the early parfumeurs knew how to extract the walnut-sized “musk pod” from a hunted deer, heat it until desiccation, and dilute the black “musk grain” in alcohol until it smelled fragrant. (Undiluted, it smells like deer balls.) It quickly spread to the Middle East, where the caliphs and popes of Baghdad and Byzantium used it in no tasteful quantity. The prophet Mohammed himself said, “The Seal of Musk. For this let those pant who pant for bliss.” And while Napoleon favored the feminine scent of violets, his wife Josephine used so much musk that the scent lasted in her boudoir for sixty years after her death.
Perfume has been used for at least 4,000 years — the first known chemist was a Mesopotamian woman called Tapputi, who was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet as a maker of perfumes. (That frankincense and myrrh were considered as worthy a gift as gold should give you some estimation as to how much body deodorant meant to early peoples.) But finding a fragrance that lasts without quickly evaporating has always been a challenge for chemists. Most pleasant plant smells, such “top notes” as jasmine and lily, tend to fade immediately after spritzing. In musk deer, they found a fragrance that not only lasted a long time, but was attractive rather than a distraction from one’s body odor. It conjured carnal thoughts. It was earthy, woody, animal.
Because it came from an animal.
Not just one animal. Because Himalayan vampire deer were hard to procure (and it took about 40 deer to produce one gram of muscone), parfumeurs searched the world over for a worthy substitute. It turned out that the scent of musk isn’t unique to deer, or even mammals. Here’s a short list of animals that have been used to produce that gamiest of aromas:
The Muskrat: a semiaquatic North American mammal good for fur coats, hillbilly stew, and perfumes. A means of extracting the oil from their sebaceous skin glands was discovered in the 1940′s, but wasn’t cost-efficient. (Though the anal glands of its cousin, the beaver, are still harvested to create Castoreum, a perfume additive with leather notes.)
The Abyssinian Civet. Civets, a family of animals to which mongooses belong, produce civetone from the glands around their anus, a substance also known as “civet musk.” Though civetone has a slightly different scent than muscone, its properties are much the same. It is still harvested by some Ethiopians, who scrape the civetone from the cat-like animal’s ass.
The wattled Musk Duck of Australia.
The Musk Turtle of North America. It’s the only turtle that can breathe underwater, using a tongue that has evolved to exchange oxygen with water the way gills do.
The alligator’s musk glands are located behind the jaw and at the cloaca. With the exception of the tongue, these are exactly the two last places on an alligator someone would want to poke. Hence, alligator musk fell out of favor, commercially.
The Musk Beetle of Europe and Asia. People were not too fond of the idea of Eau de Crushed Bug behind their ears, so this has never been a highly popular alternative to vampire deer.
The Muskox really deserves its own post. It is the northernmost-living ungulate (and more closely related to goats than oxen), dwelling only north of the Arctic circle. Prized for both their cashmere-soft wool and their beef-like meat, the muskox was briefly prized by parfumeurs for its stink. The best muskox musk is produced by the males’s genitals during rutting season, but because the animal is endangered, chemists have settled for using muskox urine as a perfume fixative.
Mammals. Reptiles. Birds. Insects. All produce musk for the same reason we do. Oh yes, when guys who haven’t showered brag about their “natural musk,” they’re not kidding. It’s the scent associated with scentless pheromones. You know about pheromones already, I presume, but here’s a brief summary of the properties of sex pheromones, narrated by Mr. Molecule:
Men produce a sex pheromone called androstenone through apocrine glands in their armpits, nipples, genitals, and top of the head. Women produce copulin through vaginal sass, which spurs an increase in male testosterone, which spurs an increase in androstenone, which leads to a whole vicious cycle until ka-blam. The problem is: underwear. And modern standards of personal hygiene. Clothes and cleanliness filter pheromones; we cover up all our apocrine glands with shirts and pants and hats and deodorant and soap. So we often replace it with the scent of musk, which is what usually carries pheromones. In other words, the conscious smell subconsciously conjures the subconscious smell. The musk of a musk deer has no pheromones that will attract a human female, though it will attract horny deer. The synthetic stuff, which is found in Brut and Old Spice deodorant (and pretty much all “musk” perfumes and colognes nowadays), even less so. But the scent of the medium of pheromones — that is, armpit and grundle sweat — is enough to illicit the desired reaction.
Does he look like me? No. But can he smell like me? No, but he can smell like deer balls.
“Pheromone” colognes are all the rage these days, but let me be clear, men: If a cologne is advertised as using real honey badger pheromones, the only thing it will attract is honey badgers. And you don’t want that. My opinion? Musk alone is the bottle without the message: attractive, until you open it and it’s empty. There is a complex, scentless chemical language going on between two people in the form of pheromones; why drown it out by blasting the olfactory suggestion of a real conversation? And besides, buying something your body naturally produces is like a cow buying milk. When going on a date, try letting your armpits do their job. If your natural pheromones don’t work, it wasn’t meant to be.
In the meantime, ponder this: the scent of a male musk deer might intrigue a female alligator. The scent of a male musk turtle could beguile the senses of a duck. Sure, the pheromones wouldn’t work across species, but there is something amazing about the fact that creatures of different classes — even kingdoms, if you include the musk-producing plants — have, by different chemical means, produced what is a nearly universal aphrodisiac. Invented and reinvented so many times along so many evolutionary pathways, it must be the perfect perfume, the base note of reproduction. Though we ourselves produce less of it and are exposed to less, we understand a common chemical language with the muskox and the civet, panting for bliss. Somewhere under all our conceits, our primitive ape-man brainstems still recognize the scent of desire.
60% of the time, it works every time.