I recently had the chance to interview a rather interesting fellow, indie perfumer Marcus McCoy from the House of Orpheus. Marcus has a style unlike any other’s. One based in the old world pursuit of Alchemy, and his scents do more than speak for themselves. Each one is altogether unique and and anciently beautiful in their own way. They are captivating, original, quality alchemical pursuits. I love them. So with that, I’m very pleased to have the honor of introducing my fellow fragrance aficionados too the House of Orpheus.
The following interview took place on a rainy, cold dark night of a rising waxing moon.
Aldous: Marcus, can you tell me a little about yourself? I have seen you post some interesting distillation on your Facebook wall. I also see that you add some Alchemical elements to your perfumes. Can you tell me about that?
Marcus: Well, I’ve always been a fan of helping people. I was a counselor at hospital for over ten years. For a long time it has also been my passion to dabble in alchemical arts. Eventually my passion for scent won out over my regular job and I decided to to create perfumes. At first I had a boutique essential oil distilling business, and then I worked with Rosarium Blends. A small niche fragrance company.
As far as alchemy goes… I am a novice alchemist. Through my early forays into distillation I found out about the old world alchemical traditions and became fascinated. It’s basically the history of scent within both the western and eastern cultures.
One definition of alchemy I like is “the process of transforming something common into something special.”
I feel this is what I do with perfume, however in all due respect to the art and science of alchemy there is much more to learn. It’s amazing really. Alchemy is a philosophical tradition with its roots in hermetic science that is profoundly amazing, enlightening, beautiful and mysterious.
I choose to use alchemical metallic oils in my perfumes because as a distiller of essential oils metallic oils fascinated me. They are taken internally for spiritual, magical, and medicinal purposes. The first time I ingested oil of gold its effects blew me away and I realized this was something I needed to add to my perfumes. It needed to be in the perfume to empower and exalt the oils and other additives within the perfume.
I work from a hermetic science standpoint. The point is to design perfumes that work within a more holistic and spirit based perspective of relating to the world.. This is why we make talismans traditionally, objects that contain great meaning and mystery. My partner Catamara Rosarium coined the term talismanic perfume, and that’s something she and I strive to produce as a type of high art.
Aldous: I hear you studied with a shaman for awhile?
Marcus: Yes, I studied with a shaman with the name Vegetalista for six years, but that was just inspiration and guidance. I have been studying and practicing spiritual shamanism since I was very young.I suppose you could say I was born sort of, intune with the world around me if you believe in that sort of concept. Actually, firstly, the study of South American Shamanry is the genesis of my interest in perfume. Within Vegetalismo and Curanderismo there is a specialization called Perfumerismo. My first experiences with perfume made in this tradition completely blew my mind. The plants spoke through the perfume. They had powers that effected change in the world via the perfume…I had never seen anything like it and I had to learn more. I was totally infatuated with this practice. And that’s really what started it all.
I prefer these days to refer to myself from a Western European term instead of the more academically gray term Shaman. Cunning man seems more appropriate, or wort (as in plant) cunner. If you want to get really technical.
Aldous: I always like asking people about philosophy so forgive me for this question but I believe it is important. What is your philosophy on life, and how do you apply that to your line of fragrances?
Marcus: My philosophy on life? Well, I have a degree in Transpersonal Psychology with an emphasis on Ethnobotany and Traditional Peoples Animist Practices. I wrote my own philosophical practice and taught it for years called Bioregional Animism. Over the years I’ve started to grow out my past puristic Animist philosophy and I’ve seen how that can blend into Hermetic philosophy and Transpersonal thought. Ultimately I’m a radical Pan-Psychist. Haha!
Aldous: Wow man. I don’t know what any of that means!
Marcus: What all that mumbo jumbo equates to in my perfume work is something I think that’s new and really beautiful in the modern perfume world.
Perfume for many people has a lot to do with identity. It’s evolutionarily hardwired into us. We used to read scent like we read emails and books today. Our noses used to do so much more than they do now. Scent had meaning with it’s own language. If you’ve seen an animal mask their scent you are essentially seeing the origin of perfuming in its most base and animalistic way.
Humans are also hardwired to seek depth of meaning, like Jung’s use of symbology, or archetypes. There’s a part to all of us that seeks to create symbols.
In my perfuming I take that same hard wired relationship I mentioned above; of masking our scent to alter our perception of self, and others perception of ourselves and combine that with depth of meaning in a way I call “Liminal perfuming”. The perfume acts as a bridge that allows us to phase between being our limited expression of self and another expression of self that correspond through the ingredients of the perfume to expand upon larger, natural physiological forces.
For example, my perfume Guru Deva.This perfume is named after the vedic name for Jupiter. In Greek mythology, Jupiter is Zeus, he is the King. Guru Deva is all the things a king represents, wealth, power, wisdom, and this I chose ingredients that reflect that. Many of which in traditional hermetic philosophy have traditional associations with Jupiter, or other associations that are important within the context of the individual perfume. Guru Deva was made to be worn so that the wearer could “phase shift” to borrow a transpersonal term, or relate to, or more simply said- transform their concept of self and identity with scent.
In a sense my perfumes are asking for more, more from the people who wear, make and love perfume, but also simply bringing perfume back to its origin, seeking perfumes depths and giving it the respect it deserves as a high art form.
Aldous: I like that concept a lot. Anyways, another question. Could you tell me about the process that you went through to learn how to make such beautiful perfumes?
Marcus: I learned perfuming via a fairly crooked road. Perfumers generally covet their knowledge. eventually I met other people who had the same passion of perfuming and we shared what we knew with each other. There are a few out there that relate to these perfumes in the same ways and work from similar traditions. I went as far as I could with tincturing. Then I explored distilling and then solvent distillation and extraction. I’ve no hard science background, thus I learned a lot of things through trial and error and piecing hints together from person to person. I learned distillation from Robert Sediel from the essential oil company in Portland. He’s a great guy and has been incredible at answering my questions and helping me along. Also- years back I led a online forum on Vegetalismo and we had several people there who were passionate about perfume and I learned much through our conversations during that time. No-one taught me, I had to learn on my own.
Aldous: Can you tell me about your ingredients? I see on your facebook that you personally distill a lot of your essential oils and absolutes. Can you tell me more about that?
I do some distillation of local plants. Previously built a 55 gallon stainless steel still with my old business partner and we harvested local plants and distilled them. During that time I learned soxhlet solvent distillation as well as many other methods; enflourage, super critical gas extraction. We made floral waxes, essential oils etc. Then I left that business to help my partner with her business we got even more deep in the work of hand crafting our stuff. We even made our own castorum essence! We met a beaver trapper who trapped beaver for the state (they have a bounty on beaver in this state and have to kill a certain amount each year), we cured the gland and tinctured it. Amazing process.
I plan on distilling high quality resins soon for several of my perfumes in a traditional copper alembic we use. I believe in artists that make their own paint… I’m kinda like that. But I do use some synthetics. It’s a big part of the color pallet so to speak these days, people have powerful scent associations with the natural isolates I work with. They love them and perfume just isn’t perfume to them without them. Its something I struggled a lot with but I’ve realized these scent chemicals trigger the same associations and tell people stories just the same. At the moment however I only work with my three favorite isolates.
Aldous: What kind of equipment do you use?
Marcus: My equipment runs from a 55 gallon still, to a 40 liter copper alembic still, to a 1000 mililiter soxhlet to a 20 liter glass still, to a 2000 mililiter vacuum filter… The list actually goes on a bit more hahah… We are running out of space in our apothecary!
Aldous: Do you locally source? Where do you get the ingredients? Do you do all the mixing by yourself?
Marcus: I’m in love with with the global apothecary. I can’t get away from agar woods and frankincense. But yes, I source locally as well. I love the local Douglas Fir and Cedar. I’ve even distilled the top notes from black poplar buds. To me it’s the quintessential scent of spring, I love it.
Most importantly are the Alchemical oils I use. I obtain those through Kymia Alchemical Arts. I made friends with the owner this last year and I trade for his oils. They are amazing. The entire process is amazing. They take gold or even liquid mercury then crystallize it. Then they dry distill the crystalline form condense the vapor into an oil. That oil is the transmuted spirit of the metal in alchemy and has medicinal properties that are determined using the logic of hermetic science. (They are of course tested and known to be non toxic.) All ferric material is removed during the process. The oil of lead and mercury for example are traditionally used as antidotes for lead and mercury poisoning. I take all of these internally and can honestly say the ancient alchemists were onto something amazing here. I’m very proud to add Kymia arts oils into my perfumes.
Marcus: Thanks Aldous! Inspiration, I find inspiration for my scents from transpersonal sources. Recurring synchronicities, dreams, visions, meditations, trances or from whatever spiritual works I’m practicing at the time.
My limited edition perfume is dedicated to saint Cyprian for example. He’s the saint of magicians, and sorcerers. There are many magical books and traditions influenced by him. In prayer to him on his day I felt him requesting a perfume be made. So I made one. In Peruvian curanderismo tradition they work with a perfume named after him, for cleansing and protection as well as to enhance the shamans powers. The perfume puts you in contact with him, allows you to be like him, its liminal, its a bridge that connects your identity to his. So I asked him how he wanted the perfume made and intuited he wanted an old traditional Iberian formula that had been used for hundreds of years as an anointing oil. So I took that and made it into a perfume. It came out amazing. People love it.
In the bottle there is a bay leaf that just floats there in it. On the bay leaf written in Latin is an old traditional prayer. When I write on the leaf and add it to the perfume the letters on the leaf become transparent. I had no idea that would happen. It was so magical the first time I made it, I just looked at it glowing for an hour.
“I love this work with all my soul.”- McCoy
Marcus: Haha, no, no ties to Morpheus. The name House of Orpheus was inspired by history, and my love for the Orphic Mysteries. The Orphic Mysteries were a Greek cult based around the hymns of the poet Orpheus. Orpheus was a shamanic figure, and he created hymns to the Gods and Daemons (nature beings that later got turned into demons with the advent of Christianity). Each hymn celebrated a facet of the mysteries of the natural world and used a specific incense. These incense’s are the origin of perfume today. I actually use many of these traditional incense’s in my perfumes.
Also the term Orphic seems to fit my perfume work perfectly.
Definition:Orphic- Having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding. It seemed to fit.
Aldous: Marcus, I see you take some beautiful and cool pictures on your facebook. Where are you located and does your location play a part in your scents?
Marcus: I’m actually located in the Pacific Northwest in the town of Olympia. I hide out in my cabin and study and create and venture out into the woods to harvest plants. The diversity of plant and fungi life is one of the reasons why I live here. Its what inspires and influences me in my work.
My partner and I are organizing a symposium on the study and practice of plants within magic called the Viridis Genii Symposium which translates to Green Spirit Symposium.
That’s what influences me the most. Living as close to nature as possible. The green spirit.
Aldous: Marcus, Can you give us a little sneak peek into your next release?
Marcus: I’m actually doing a collaborative piece that’s really exciting. My good friend Eric Purdue is a published translator of Agrippa’s books of occult sciences and is a renaissance astrologer. We are working a project along with artist Valerie Herron. It’s going to be amazing.
My newest perfume is called Verum, which means true. I’m really excited about it. It’s based off of a perfume/incense formula from the Trve grimoire. Its a classical musk, and uses a very rare muskrat musk that I acquire from a Canadian supplier.
Aldous: Marcus, one last question. Do you have any wisdom you could share?
Marcus: Hmm, a word of wisdom?
“Perpetuate the mystery at all costs.”-McCoy
Disclaimer: The following reviews were written for those in touch with something* more. If you are one of those people who enjoys dainty, ephemeral perfumes – move on to another review. You can’t handle this, turn back now.
I’m one of those weird people who enjoys the night more than day. I’m most happiest in the bright of a full moon with all the stars shining in the blackness. Day is beautiful as well, but it’s not where my soul feels free. Enodia is the scent of a pregnant full moon. She’s one of the most evocative scents I’ve come across in a long time. It’s made my heart wrench. I really do feel as if this was created for a Goddess of the Night. It feels ancient, sexual, mysterious. It’s beautiful.
I can smell the styrax, soft cinnamon, pale florals and amberish spice with the oud coming through faintly, hanging around like shadows and smoke. I really can believe with all of my heart that this is what perfume smelled like thousands of years ago. As I’m sitting here writing this review it’s playing with my head. One facet is the vanilla, here it is soft, then I swear there’s a powdery amber and vanillic oud, and then I smell again and I get cinnamony incense with florals. It’s styrax. And the oud, the oud is water clear yet medicinal. Piercing, but not as piercing as a Montale Aoud. Soft, but not as soft as Black Afghano. This is heady, heady stuff. It’s primal. There’s nothing french about it. I would never wear Enodia to a five star restaurant, for that would be ignorant of me. She was not made for that. She was made for nights of escape under the stars. She was made to evoke the passion inside. I honestly feel that. I’m not making it up. You know those rare times when scents speak to you? That’s Enodia. Enodia is almost fertile with emotion. Seriously.
I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not. When I put it on my heart beat faster, my mind felt clear of the worries of the day, a touch sacred, and transposed to a simpler time. Like it does when I go out on a clear night and gaze into the moon.
Notes: Styrax, Black Agarwood, Morrocan Myrhh, and Vanilla.
Vetiver. Soft tendrils of Vetiver smoke, Oud, and pure natural clear Honey. Wow.
So…I wasn’t expecting to be this blown away by these scents. Let’s get that straight. I expected quality. I expected beauty. I did not expect the ineffable. How did he get this honey note? It’s so realistic, just peeking through the creamy, smokey vetiver-oud that passes for a soft leather. It’s delicious. Djinn is truly amazing. Think Nasomatto quality, with less harshness, more smoothness. I would buy this before Black Afghano any day and I love B.A. I wore it last night, I guess that’s why i’m mentioning it. It was the perfect choice to wear before Marcus’ scents. It gave me a place to start from. I’ve got my nose to my wrist and I just don’t understand how he got this amazing honey note in here. It doesn’t feel like a scent. Djinn feels like a piece of me. Like I became it and it became of me. A second skin. I asked Marcus what was the deal withhis scents, why were the so evocative and after interviewing him, I understand a little more. Prayers are said, Alchemical metals are added, intention is put into each one. I asked him then as I’m wearing Djinn. “There’s something else to these scents but I can’t put my finger on it. What is it?” And he said to me, “You know how in tribal traditions people put on a mask, and they become the character, or get possessed by the spirit that that mask represents. These perfumes are made to be like those masks.” At which I said, “YES! I get that…do other people have that reaction as easily as me?” He goes, “They do.” (Marcus is a man of few words sometimes.) And I believe it. I’m feeling a little bit crazy here. Blown away.
So what’s a Djinn? I looked it up and its a being made of smokeless fire, a being that cannot be seen. They can be good, malevolent or neutral. They are spirits, that in the good stories happen to be a sort of spirit companion, and I get that from Djinn. The vetiver and oud are clear as shadowy water, and the honey makes you think of golden flame. It doesn’t feel dark, and it doesn’t feel light. It doesn’t feel anything, except for me. Weird….
Notes: Clear Vetiver and Oud smoke, Honey.
Sweet delicious dark oud.
Guru Deva smells of Montale’s medicinal oud, tamed down, softer whilst having a slightly sweet note of labdanum which lends a blackberry feel. It’s quite beautiful. As with all of Marcus’ creations it’s simple, yet complex in a zen way. Upon first application you get a lot of strong oud, and as it dries down you start to smell the multi faceted nature of the Labdanum. It’s almost edible. I’ve never smelled labdanum that does the things that Guru Deva does. It must be because it’s non synthetic. Rarities these days. I asked Marcus about his Oud’s and he told me that they are blended differently for each scent. He has a classic oud accord that we all know, but over these notes are several different ouds and agar woods. He said he chose a particularly animalistic oud that had to be tamed down, the animalism taken out. Guru Deva is a happy scent, a calming scent, unlike most ouds which tend to be rather serious and dark.
Notes: Sweet Saffron, Labdanum, Berries, Agarwood.
The Spirit of a Bear.
The animalic nature of Ambergris shines in Arktos tempered by Vanilla, Tonka, Amber and Oud. It’s a slightly musky scent, a little sweet, raw. You can smell the honey note faintly peeking through in the background. It’s strong, as are all scents from the House of Orpheus. Like Enodia, Arktos the Bear is not something I would wear on a date. I would wear it chopping wood, fixing a car; doing man things. It speaks of strength. Odd how these House of Orpheus scents speak so strongly. At first I wasn’t sure about this one, but as I wore it for a couple of hours today I noticed my nose become used to the naturalism inherent in the spirit of Arktos. To me, when it comes to scents, I try to let them talk to me, as one would listen to a lover. With some scents, it’s a simple message; M7 for instance. It smells amazing, like soft leather bondage. But that’s all M7 has to say. Like a beautiful woman, with no wits about her. It’s all on the outside. Yet, when I listen to Arktos it’s alive with strength. I seriously imagine bear fur, musky, sweet, dark. The bear is traveling over snow; cold, clean and dirty from the earth underneath it’s paws. This is a man’s scent, one for a modern warrior. If you are basic, don’t bother. You won’t get it. Stick to one of the easier from the House of Orpheus. Go with Djinn. However, if like me, you like “intoxicatingly heathenistic” scents, and you want to smell of strength, by all means, Arktos is your bear.
Notes: Soft Spices, Ambergris Musk, Vanilla, Tonka, Agarwood, slightly sweet Honey.
Musk, Musk, and more citrus-sweet Honey Musk, Oud.
Verum is a truly faceted musk. It’s one of the most alive musk I’ve ever smelled. Normally in musk, you get this powdery, biting heaviness. For instance the extremely animalic and dirty Muscs Koublai Khan. It hangs in the air like cloud cover. Verum is a musk that’s animalic whilst being clear. Supposedly there’s actual muskrat musk. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy on my nose, so clear. It has a citrus freshness to it right at the top, followed by semi dry and slightly sweet floral notes of musk over clear oud. For being such an animalic scent I thought it would be dirtier, tangier, but it’s not. Wait, wait, verum is shifting now…(I’ve got my nose on my wrist.) Orange rind over honey amber shines through over the oud under the florals. It’s neither a classic musk scent, nor a modern musk. Verum is a fresh earthy musk. I wonder though, if this one conjures anything to mind. So I sat and put my nose back to my wrist and thought.
It does. It conjures morning sunrise, water, earth, trees.
Notes: Musk, Florals, Citrus, Oud, Amber Honey.