Sense of smell

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A human nose
The nose of a dog

Smelling, or the sense of smell, which is functionally based on the olfactory system, is one of the twelve physical senses Rudolf Steiner spoke of in his theory of the senses. It mediates olfactory perception, the perception of odours, with the help of the nose. The specific smell of certain substances or mixtures of substances is also called aroma (Greekἄρωμα ároma "spice, fragrance, perfume"). Like sounds and colours, odours, also called odor (Latin: "smell, stench, fragrance"), have their soul reality in the soul world in the so-called region of region of mobile sensitivity and spiritual beings live and work in them. The World Aroma is a revelation of the first Logos.

„The first Logos flows forth as a world-aroma, as a clearly perceptible odour. In every odour dwells a spiritual being of a higher or lower nature. Very high good entities dwell in frankincense; they draw us directly upwards to God. Beings of the lowest nature are incarnate in the odour of musk. In earlier times, when people understood more about these things, they used musk for lower sensual stimulation.“ (Lit.:GA 266a, p. 198)

Patchouli, for example, is also regarded as an odour in which lower spirits incarnate[1].

„That sublime being who is creative for our world as the second Logos, that is the creative light. That which passes through the universe as the highest revelation, that is the world-aroma. This is a still higher principle of creation than world tone and world light. World-sound is the third Logos. World light is the second Logos, and world aroma is the first Logos. This is the highest. When the highest creating turns into the opposite, then it is the destroying. Here we have the opposite of the world's aroma; when in folk tales the devil is given the bad smell, this is meant to indicate that the destructive nature of the world is being referred to.“ (Lit.:GA 266a, p. 210)

Rudolf Steiner associates the "diabolical" smells in particular with the Asuras, who did not reach their full goal of development on Old Saturn and thus became dangerous adversaries. They are also the cause of today's sunspots.

„Now, while all the beings that were on the Sun were luminous, as everything that is fixed star is today, the Old Saturn realm of those beings that remained behind acted like a dark enclosure, like dark places opposite the light, like dull caves within the body of the Sun that disturbed its harmony. Particularly with regard to the world's aroma, sensations mingled in from the beings that had remained behind, spreading all kinds of bad smells. Our myth has retained this, saying that the devil stinks and leaves behind an evil odour. With the progress of the Sun, a dark inclusion has really also been left behind, and the sunspots of today are really the stragglers of the Old Saturn Empire on the Sun. For this reason, however, they are hypothetically to be explained exactly as they are today; all this is true.“ (Lit.:GA 100, p. 115)

The sense of smell is closely related to the consciousness soul:

„But what happens with the sense of smell? Something takes hold of the human organism that is already closer to our consciousness, namely the consciousness soul itself. What is called the consciousness soul in spiritual science comes into action when we smell. At a certain point in the organism it causes not only expansion and dilution, but the astral body sends its effect outwards, and this effect therefore goes beyond the organism. While in smelling the aeriform substance penetrates the mucous membrane of the nose, the astral substance pushes itself outwards to the same extent. When smelling, this astral substance always leaves the organism, dives into the thing and experiences something not only in itself, but in this thing, which we name and experience as a fragrance, odour, stench or the like. It is like a feeler of the astral body, what arises through the consciousness soul.

The sense of taste works in its own way because in it the etheric body is worked upon by the intellectual or mind soul. This soul pours out the astral currents through the organ of taste and sends them towards the substances on the tongue. - What goes on in the astral body when we smell is of a very special nature. What then flows out of the astral body when one smells? It is nothing other than of a volitional nature. What we feel inwardly as an impulse of will, swells towards the inflowing matter when we smell. The process of smelling is a fighting back, a wanting to push back the inflowing substance. Spiritual research can say that this inflowing substance is not only an air-like substance - that is only maya, deception - but that it is will flowing in from outside. A play of will forces takes place in smelling. The consequence of this is, as someone once suspected, that here will from within and will from without fight and inhibit each other. That person - Schopenhauer - founded a philosophy of the will on this suspicion. But that is a false metaphysics. What Schopenhauer says about these forces of will actually only applies to smelling; everything else is simply interpreted into it.“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 41f)

Olfactory system

The olfactory system
1: Olfactory bulb 2: Mitral cells 3: Bone 4: Nasal epithelium 5: Glomerulus 6: Olfactory receptor cells

The olfactory pathways comprise the neuroanatomical pathways of olfactory perception from the olfactory sensors in the nose, or more precisely the olfactory mucosa, to the olfactory cortex of the end brain. The sensory stimuli are tranducted to the olfactory cortex by the olfactory nerve. The olfactory cortex, also known as the rhinencephalon (Latin) or olfactory brain, contains the structures of the cerebrum that serve to perceive and centrally process odours. The olfactory system is one of the oldest sensory systems of vertebrates and is structured completely differently from the other receptive fields. Here, the cerebral cortex is extended forward like a cord and forms the olfactory bulb (bulbus olfactorius) and the pedunculus olfactorius. In humans, these two have largely lost their cortical character due to a considerable reduction in the number of cells. Not least for this reason (but mainly because of its elongated shape), the olfactory cortex was misinterpreted as a nerve by the old anatomists. Medical nomenclature retains this error in the counting of cranial nerves and lists these structures as the first cranial nerve (nervus olfactorius). In non-primates, the olfactory bulb is much more pronounced in proportion to the rest of the cerebrum and protrudes forward.

The olfactory pathway consists of three nerve cells (neurons) connected in series.

The peripheral olfactory system consists mainly of the nostrils, ethmoid bone, nasal cavity, and the olfactory epithelium. Bipolar olfactory receptor neurons (primary sensory cells) are located in the olfactory mucosa (regio olfactoria) of the upper nasal concha. Their peripheral extension (dendrite) draws towards the surface of the mucosa, the central axon passes through the sieve plate (lamina cribrosa) of the ethmoid bone to the olfactory bulb (bulbus olfactorius) in the form of the olfactory filaments (fila olfactoria). The entirety of the olfactory filaments, although not neuroanatomically exact, is called the first cranial nerve (nervus olfactorius).

In the olfactory bulb, the first switching takes place to the mitral cells, whose axons run via the olfactory tract (tractus olfactorius) to the stria olfactoria medialis et lateralis. The glomeruli form spherical structures in the olfactory bulb where synapses form between the terminals of the olfactory nerve and the dendrites of the mitral, periglomerular and tufted cells.

From the stria olfactoria medialis, the third neuron runs to the olfactory tubercle (tuberculum olfactorium) and from there to the nuclei septales and the parahippocampal gyrus, thus reaching the limbic system. This is where unconscious olfactory perception takes place.

From the stria olfactoria lateralis, the third neuron travels to the area periamygdalaris/praepiriformis to the frontal lobe. This is the pathway for conscious olfactory perception.

The olfactory brain has two special features. Firstly, as in the hippocampus, new nerve cells are constantly being formed here. Secondly, parts of the amygdala (Greekἀμυγδαλή amygdalē "almond, tonsil") also belong to the olfactory brain on the one hand and to the limbic system on the other, which is significantly involved in the processing of feelings and emotions. In contrast to other sensory perceptions, smelling is therefore always accompanied by an emotional tone. (Lit.: H. Beck, p. 89f.)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English (by Steiner Online Library).
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. cf. Weltenäther - Elementarwesen - Naturreiche, Texte aus der Geisteswissenschaft Rudolf Steiners, edited by Dr. Ernst Hagemann, Oratio Vlg., Schaffhausen 2000, p. 159