I’m Smelling Your Soul
Put this post on the list of interesting aspects of Kazakh culture I’ve meant to post about but never gotten around to.
I remember when I first arrived in Kazakhstan being very surprised to occasionally see adults sniffing their children. I remember seeing a grandfather lean down to his 5 year-old grandson put his nose close to his forehead and inhale quickly before moving his head away, much as you might kiss a child on the forehead. When I asked about it, I was told that it was a widespread habit and no one really knew why, just a tradition. One person told me that they felt that kissing small girls was okay but it was better to sniff small boys, that it was more masculine than being kissed. And the gesture is not limited only to children. It wouldn’t be uncommon for parents to sniff their older children or for lovers to sniff each other.
Interestingly, this comes up in The Secret History of the Mongols, an account of the life of Chinghis Khan allegedly written by a contemporary, possibly a close family member or member of the court. In section 55, when the mother of Chinghis Khan is about to be stolen from her husband by Tatars, she gives her blouse to her husband and says he can keep her smell. According to Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World where he comments on this action, the Mongols believed that the smell of a person was a part of their soul. So sniffing a person was like feeling their soul, a deeply intimate gesture.
Personally I’ve grown to sort of like the idea of smelling as an alternative to kissing or hugging, not that it can’t be done in conjunction with hugging or kissing. Presuming the person has bathed recently!