Aromatherapy, Fragrance Oils, Pure Essential Oils

History of Aromatherapy

History of Aromatherapy

History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy implies the therapeutic use of fragrances by inhalation and are defined as a branch of phytomedicine or pseudoscience based on the usage of aromatic materials, including essential oils, and other aroma compounds, with claims for improving psychological or physical well-being. It’s defined as “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing by NAHA.”

In aromatherapy, essential oils that contains the pure essence found in flowers, berries, grasses, roots, seeds, bark, fruits and herbs, are inhaled i.e. through the sense of smell for therapeutic benefits. Each oil has its own unique character, aroma and therapeutic properties and consists of very small aromatic natural chemicals. The oils are highly concentrated and can be used for health, beauty and hygiene.

While the term ‘aromatherapy’ was only coined in the 1930s by French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé from the French word ‘aromatherapie’, the use of aromatic plants have been used since antiquity. Through the history of aromatherapy, we can better understand the role of essential oils, aromatic plants and scent throughout the history of humanity and how they were used.

The History of Aromatics

Scents can have an impact on mood, stress reduction, sleep enhancement, self-confidence, and physical and cognitive performance. While modern academic research in psychology of fragrance use only started at the end of the 1970s, the use of essential oils for therapeutic, spiritual, hygienic and ritualistic purposes goes back to ancient civilizations including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who used them in cosmetics, perfumes and drugs. Oils were then used for aesthetic pleasure and in the beauty industry. In many traditional cultures, pleasant aromas were often associated with good food and health, virtuous people and divine presence while bad smells carried negative connotations, representing illness, disorder, decay and divine disapproval or destruction.

The Egyptians

Egypt was the cradle of sciences, including medicine, perfumery and cosmetology and famous for the use of aromatic substances as early as 4500 B.C.E. Egyptians achieved such a high level of civilization that the secrets of the pyramds and their construction have ye to be fully explained. The most famous of their herbal preparations “Kyphi” was a mixture of 16 ingredients that could be used as incense, perfume or medicine. According to Greek historian Plutarch, kyphi had the ability to relieve anxiety, brighten dreams and heal the soul.

Its said that Kyphi was burned to appease the Gods, as they began their journey to the underworld, and to ensure the safe return of the sun God, Ra, next morning. There is even a ‘perfume room’ at Edfu, in Egypt (the best-preserved temple after Karnak), where hieroglyphics depict recipes for ointments and inhalations.

As distillation had not yet been discovered then, the main method of extracting the essential oils was by enfleurage and maceration. This was done by steeping the resins, flowers or splinters of wood in oil. The materials were placed in a cloth which was wrung until every last drop of fragrance had been retrieved. Alternatively, maceration involved boiling of the aromatic substances in the oil.

We know now that Egyptian temples were laboratories for the high priest. At the height of Egypt’s power, priests were the only authorities allowed to use aromatic oils, as they were regarded as necessary to be at one with the Gods. Specific fragrances were dedicated to each deity and their statues were anointed with these oils by their followers. Pharaohs had their own special blends for meditation, love, war and so on. Throughout the ancient world, the Egyptians were famous for their scents and perfumes.

The Ebers Papyrus, a comprehensive document that dates back to about 1550 BC, was discovered in 1874 by German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, and contains extensive information about surgery and internal medicine. It also lists some 800 medicinal and aromatic plants that are still used today such as aniseed, caraway, cassia, coriander, fennel, cardamom, onions, garlic, thyme, mustard, sesame, fenugreek, saffron and poopy seed. The Egyptians used these herbs and spices in medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, aromatic oils, cooking, fumigation and embalming.

The Greeks & Romans

After Alexander’s invasion of Egypt in the 3rd century BC, the Egyptian Empire crumbled into decline and use of aromatics, herbs and perfumes became much more popular in Greece prompting great interest in all things fragrant and new methods were steadily evolved into a more scientifically based system of healing.

The earliest known Greek physician was Asclepius who practiced around 1200 BC combining the use of herbs and surgery with previously unrivalled skill. His reputation was so great that after his death he was deified as the god of healing in Greek mythology, and thousands of lavish healing temples known as Asclepieion were erected in his honor throughout the Grecian world.

The Greeks, then the Romans, adapted heavily from the Egyptians and contact with the Indian culture in their use of aromatherapeutics, perfumes, scented oils and in their understanding of herbal medicine. Between 400-500 B.C.E. the Greeks recorded knowledge of essential oils adopted from the Egyptians and further advanced the use of aromatics. The Latin meaning of the word perfuma means “by smoke” and was originally applied to the burning of incense and the first commercial perfume marketed by the Greeks and Romans was a reproduction of the Egyptian recipe for Kyphi.

Greek medicine later developed by Hippocrates, a Greek physician (460-377 B.C.) and also known as the “Father of Medicine”, was based on the four elements – Air, Earth, Fire and water, and the four humours corresponding to the chief fluids in the body – choeric (yellow bile), sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm) and melancholic (black bile). The properties of the herbs corresponded to one or more of the four elements. He was the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. Instead, he believed the doctor should try to discover natural explanations for disease by observing the patient carefully, and make a judgment only after consideration of the symptoms.

The cornerstone of Greek medicine was the concept of mental, emotional and physical balance. Disease was a disturbance of this balance and it was the duty of the physician to restore and assist the patient’s own natural healing powers. Hippocratic teaching emphasized that a healthy body was one in which the four elements were equally balanced. Today, Hippocrates is probably better known for the Hippocratic Oath that all newly qualified doctors must swear allegiance to.

Many Greek physicians were also employed in Rome and so passed on their knowledge to yet another advanced civilisation. However, the Romans not only used aromatic plants for medicinal purposes, but also went on to increase their use in hygiene and beauty preparations. Aromatic oils and essences were used regularly in public baths, both in the water and in massage blends.

The Roman Empire became vast and, consequently, had access to a great variety of plants and herbs. As a result, they were excessive in their use of perfumes and aromatic oils. They used three kinds of perfume: ‘ladysmata’ which were solid unguents; ‘stymmata’, scented oils; and ‘diapasmata’, powdered perfumes. These were used to fragrance hair, bodies, clothes, bedding and for massage after bathing. It is reputed that Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony through the expert use of perfumed oils. And, apparently, Nero once burnt more incense than Arabia could produce in an entire year at his wife’s funeral. Interestingly, the word ‘perfume’ actually comes from the Latin ‘per fumum’ meaning “through the smoke” and relates to the burning of incense.

Perhaps the most brilliant and influential of all Roman physicians was Claudius Galen (of Greek ethnicity), who lived from 129-199 AD and studied medicine from the age of seventeen. He began his medical career aged 28 under Roman employ treating the wounds of gladiators with medicinal herbs. This unique experience provided him with the opportunity to study wounds of all kinds, and it is said that not a single gladiator died of battle wounds while under the care of Galen.

Due to his phenomenal success he quickly rose to become the personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and since Rome was a thriving academic center during the lifetime of Galen it was the ideal place for him to conduct further research. Galen wrote over 400 treatises, of which 83 are still in existence including ‘De Simplicibus’ which described the plant, its geographical location and medicinal uses. He also formulated plant remedies for a wide range of ailments and is credited with the invention of the first cosmetic cold cream containing beeswax, olive oil, rose petals, and water.

Over time, the Roman Empire spread to cover vast areas of the world and so did their knowledge of the healing effects of plants – it was Romans who introduced perfumery to the British Isles. Seeds and plants were collected from all over and some of them eventually made it to the shores of Britain to become naturalised over time – plants such as, fennel, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

However, at the fall of this massive empire, and with the coming of Christianity, many Roman physicians fled to Constantinople taking precious medical books with them which were eventually translated into a whole variety of other languages.

The Jews and the Bible

At around 1240BC, the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt on a 40-year journey to Israel, taking with them a variety of precious gums and oils, together with the knowledge of how to use them.

The earliest mention in the Bible of aromatic substances being used is in Genesis 2:12. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the lord spoke to Moses on top of Mount Sinai and gave instruction to create a ‘holy anointing oil’ made from myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia and olive oil.

Within the Hebrew civilisation, purification of Hebrew women took place over the course of a year, and during the first six months this was accomplished by regular anointing with ‘oil of myrrh’, with other aromatics being used for the latter six months. During the exodus, and at other times, when bathing was impractical for Jewish women, a small linen bag containing myrrh and other aromatics was hung on a cord between the breasts to act as a deodorant.

Whereas, ancient Indian temples were built of sandalwood, King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was built of aromatic cedarwood (“cedars of Lebanon”). Perhaps they also recognised the need for a calming atmosphere when attending religious ceremonies.

Records show that Phoenician merchants brought precious cinnamon, frankincense, ginger and myrrh from the Orient. And it was two of these incredibly valuable gifts, frankincense and myrrh, that were given to Jesus at his birth. Symbolically, they represented his status as a deity (frankincense for a God) and his death (myrrh was used to embalm the dead). Gold, incidentally, was symbolic of his royal status (gold for a king).

Spikenard was reputed to have been imported from India and was used by Mary to anoint Jesus before his crucifixion and the sponge that was held up to him, whilst he hung on the cross, was a mixture of vinegar and myrrh (perhaps intended to ease the pain of crucifixion victims).

The Middle East

Scent played an important role in Arab medical manuals. An Arab physician and philosopher, called Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (AD 980-1037) was born in Bukhara, Persia. He began studying medicine at the age of 16 and by 20 had been appointed a court physician and was given the title ”Prince of Physicians”. He wrote many books describing the effects of various plants on the body. His 14 volume “Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb”, which means “The Canon of Medicine”, was a monumental medical encyclopedia and included the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions. It became the definitive medical textbook and teaching guide throughout Western Europe and the Islamic countries for over 700 years.

He is also thought to have refined the then very simple method of distillation by inventing the refrigerated coil, a process which involved extending the length of the cooling pipe and forming it into a coil, allowing the steam to cool more quickly and efficiently. His first major success in this improved distillation method was the production of Rosa centifolia essential oil. (Ultimately, it was Damascus in Syria that became a major producer of roses during the 13th century and, eventually gave its name to the Damask Rose.)

Another particularly interesting use to which the Arabs turned their essences, was that of perfuming the mortar used to build their mosques – an intriguing art which had been passed on to them by the ancient Babylonians.


Ancient India was one of the first civilisations that aimed at treating people holistically. Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurvedic (meaning ‘life knowledge’), is the oldest form of medical practice in the world, with plants and plant extracts being in continuous use there from at least 5000 years ago up to the present day.

Ayur Veda, the Traditional Indian medicine, has a 3000-year history of incorporating essential oils into their healing potions with Vedic literature listing over 700 substances including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood as effective for healing.

During the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, Ayur Veda was used successfully in replacing ineffective antibiotics. The purpose of aromatic plants and oils were not only for medicinal purposes, but were believed to be a Godly part of nature and played a integral role to the spiritual and philosophical outlook in Ayurvedic medicine.


From the sixth to the thirteenth century, China was considered the world’s greatest power and Chinese culture was considered the worlds greatest splendor. Science and technology were said to be much more advanced than in Europe at the time especially, ancient Chinese knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants.

The Chinese system of healing, involving medical treatments such as acupuncture, shiatsu and herbal remedies can be traced back to 2500BC, forming the basis of what we know today as “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM). The primary focus for health is the balance of Qi (energy), Yin and Yang (passive negative and positive active forces) and the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood).

The use of aromatic oils was first recorded in China between 2697-2597 B.C.E during the reign of Huang Ti, the legendary Yellow Emperor. His famous book “The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine” about the causes and treatment of disease, including within its pages details on many plants and their herbal remedies.

It is one of the oldest books in the world, and can still be obtained in print today. However, China’s main contribution to the aromatherapy story lies within the citrus family, since it is believed that nearly all the citrus species originated from China, eventually reaching the Mediterranean world in the 10th century via the Arabs.

The camphor tree was also a very important part of Chinese civilization and was used extensively in perfumery, medical and building applications.

The Middle Ages

It was the Knights of Crusades that brought aromatic essences and waters back to Europe. These became so popular that perfumes began to be produced. However, the real value of these plants and herbs was only fully appreciated when the bubonic plague arrived in Europe during the 14th century. Orders were given for fires to be lit at night on street corners burning, amongst other things, frankincense, benzoin and pine. Indoors, the smell of death and the battle against infection was fought using incense and perfumed candles, together with aromatic “strewing” herbs which were scattered across floors to be trodden on, thereby releasing their own aromas in an attempt to stem infection and mask what must have been extremely unpleasant and unhealthy bodily odours. Therefore, aromatics were widely used to combat the Black Death at this time, people very often carried, or wore, aromatic plants in the form of pomanders, which consisted of an orange, stuffed with cloves, or wore herbal bouquets. These aromatic plants were the best antiseptic protection against the Plague at this time and people knew it. It is interesting to note that apothecaries and perfumers were thought to be immune to the Plague, due to their regular handling of aromatic plant material.

Doctors at this time often wore a nose-bag which contained aromatic herbs, such as cinnamon and cloves, in an attempt to filter the air they breathed, creating an antiseptic atmosphere which was thought to protect against the Bubonic Plague. They also waved in front of them as they walked a long stick with an openwork top, also containing aromatic herbs, in the hope of disinfecting further the air they breathed. Doctors continued to use these methods throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century.

However, it was the monasteries who became the main cultivators of aromatic plants at this time, some of which had found their way to these shores from Italy – thyme and melissa. These aromatic gardens were later continued by the universities of medicine when botany became part of the study of medicine, eventually developing into botanical gardens during the time of the Renaissance, or ‘physic’ gardens as they eventually became known. The first of these physic gardens to be established in Britain was in Oxford in 1621.

During the 12th century a German Abbess, called St Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) grew lavender for its therapeutic properties, also using its essential oil. She was well known for her healing powers involving the practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones.

During the Middle Ages, the main route of trade with Arab civilisations at the time was via Venice and it was here that the origins of a craze for perfumed leather gloves can be traced. It is possible that an Italian noblewoman, Catherine D’Medici introduced this fashion to the rest of Europe on the occasion of her marriage to the future French king, when she took her perfumer with her to France in 1533. Grasse, in France, at that time mainly produced leather, but when this fashion began to take off, the canny businessmen of Grasse began perfuming their leather with the aromatic plants that grew around the town – eventually using plants such as tuberose, acacia, violets, lavender and roses. As the fashion dwindled, Grasse’s leather industry was gradually replaced with perfume manufacture, which remains the case to this day.

At the end of the 15th century, in a town which is now in modern-day Switzerland, Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born (1493-1541). Commonly known as Paracelsus, he became a famous physician, astrologer, surgeon and an alchemist in the 16th century, revolutionising medicine and laying the foundations for both modern medicine and alternative medicine today. He was the first person to succeed in separating the gross part of plants from their more subtle components, ie isolating active chemical agents in plants, a process which is now routine in today’s pharmaceutical industry. In 1536, he wrote a book called the “Great Surgery Book” and made it clear that the main role of alchemy (the original word for modern-day chemistry – see under “Medieval Islam), was not to turn base metal into gold but to create healing medicines from certain plant extracts, which he named ‘quinta essentia’ ie quintessences or essential oils. Because of his emphasis on the importance of distillation for the release of the most important part of individual plants, certain oils such as cedarwood, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, rose, rosemary and sage became well known to pharmacists by 1600.



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