History of Aromatherapy

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history of aromatherapy

Anthropologists believe the beginning of perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense, and smudging with plant material. After aromatic and essential oils were discovered they have been used around the world for centuries. Their uses varied between cultures for religious purposes, perfumery and helping with different ailments. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when essential oils gained popularity for medicinal benefits, but eventually it caught on and has been an important part of healing for many cultures around the world.

Evidence and recorded history have shown that the Egyptians used aromatic oils as early as 2000 B.C. The Egyptians became renowned for their knowledge of plants for medicinal benefits, beauty care and spiritual enhancement.

At the height of Egypt’s power, Egyptian temple priests used a variety of balsams, perfumed oils, scented barks, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars in everyday life deeming it necessary in order to be one with the Gods. Many pictorials on temple walls show images of Egyptian royalty using essential oils as well as the most prized recipes.

Historians have found that 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 other occasions.  Aromatic gums such as cedar, frankincense and myrrh were used in the embalming process. Historians have found traces of these resins on mummies. They also found 35 jars of scented oils in the tomb of the young King Tutankhamun.

chinese herbalism
The use of aromatic oils was first recorded in China between 2697-2597 B.C.E during the reign of Huang Ti.  The oldest known medicinal text in China is known as Shennong’s Herbal (Shennong Ben Cao Jing) that dates back to around 2700 BC.  This book contains information on 365 plants.  Shennong is known as the originator of Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.

Traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda, has been incorporating essential oils into their healing traditions for at least 3000 years.  Ancient Ayurvedic literature includes over 700 medicinal plants including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood as effective for healing. The purpose of aromatic plants and oils were not only for medicinal purposes, but were honored as a part of nature and played role to the spiritual and philosophical outlook in this part of the world.

Greeks first known knowledge of essential oils were recorded around 400-500 BCE.  Much of their knowledge about plants was adopted from the Egyptians.

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.E.), known to us as the “Father of Medicine” documented the effects of some 300 plants including thyme, saffron, marjoram, cumin and peppermint.

Hippocrates had extensive knowledge of plants due to his encounters with Ayurvedic medicine in India during his travels with Alexander the Great. Hippocrates once wrote “a perfumed bath and a scented massage every day is the way to good health.” He also believed in fumigation of herbs in Athens to help protect people against the plague.

Another Greek named Galen, was also very knowledgeable about plants and their medicinal uses. He began as a surgeon at a school for gladiators then was promoted to personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius due to his reputation of saving lives.

roman bath
The Romans took the use of essential oils to an a whole new level. Rome was known as the bathing capital of Europe, with 1,000 fragrant spas in the city. The Romans also applied perfumed oil to their bodies, bedding and clothes. Due to the wide spread use of oils it was known that many of the plants that were used to produce the oils became scarce.

Ali-Ibn Sana (980 -1037 A.D.) became a well-educated physician by the age of 12. Ali-Ibn wrote books on the properties of 800 plants and their effects on the human body. He has also is also credited for being the first person to discover and record the method of distilling essential oils. He created a system of coiled pipes, which allowed plant vapors and steam to cool down more effectively, enabling the concentration of essential oil to be extracted. His methods are still in use.

During the Crusades, the European armies learned about the knowledge of herbal medicines during their travels in the Middle East and throughout Western Europe.

It is known that frankincense and pine were burned in the streets during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century. It was noted that less people died of the plague in the areas where this was done.  It was also known that the farm workers that grew aromatic plants were not getting sick either.  Events such as these influenced scientists to begin studying plants and aromatherapy for medicinal uses.

During the 16th century, Germany was known to be the center of a European aromatherapy renaissance. A German physician, Hieronymus Braunschweig, wrote several books on essential oil distillation.  One of his books, published in 1597 referenced 25 essential oils included rosemary, lavender, clove, cinnamon, myrrh, and nutmeg.

In 1817, French physicians first recorded laboratory results on the anti-bacterial properties of essential oils.  These physicians also noticed that there were low amounts of people contracting tuberculosis in the flower growing districts of southern France.

In 1888 a publication showed that the micro-organisms of yellow fever were killed by the use of oregano, cinnamon, angelica and geranium essential oils.

In 1928, French Chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé coined the term and wrote the book “Aromatherapie” were he describes the healing properties of essential oils. This book was influential in medical practices in France.

Today we are grateful to be able to use historical and scientific evidence to prove the benefits of essential oils and their effects on the body, mind and spirit.  Essential oils are labor intensive, hard to extract, and require a lot of material. They should be cherished as a beautiful gift from our mother nature. Stay tuned for more education information provided by Providence Apothecary and Holistic Center.

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