The history of aromatherapy is a long and varied record. Dozens of civilizations relied on it for medical and religious practices. They also used it for hygienic, ritualistic, spiritual, and therapeutic practices. Some cultures viewed it as a luxury beauty item only available to the wealthy.
Aromatherapy originated in 3500 B.C.E. Ancient civilizations relied on aromatic medicine to treat ailments of the time. It was also commonly used alongside magic, mysticism, and religion.
Scientists didn’t start questioning the effectiveness of aromatherapy until the early 20th century.
Here’s a brief history of aromatherapy as used in specific ancient civilizations.
Historians believe the Chinese ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’ was written around 2600 B.C.E.
This book contains information on the medical uses and properties of more than 300 different plants. This comes long before the Egyptian knowledge of plant-based medicines. This text is also the most complete ancient record we have of how our ancestors used aromatherapy in their lives.
China was also part of the herbs and spices trade. Frankincense and myrrh were the most sought-after plants of the time. Because of the high demand and the limited supply, they were as valuable as gems and precious metals.
Between 2650-2575 B.C.E., Egyptians developed a process of embalming and mummification as part of their search for immortality. They commonly used cedarwood, frankincense, galbanum, juniper berry, and myrrh to preserve the bodies of royalty and esteemed members of society to prepare them for the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians also burned aromatic incense created from herbs, spices, and woods to honor and worship their gods.
However, the Egyptians loved to use pleasant aromas whenever possible. During celebrations, women would wear perfumed headdresses that would melt under the heat and release the fragrance. After bathing, they would use oil to protect them from drying in the sun and also to help rejuvenate their skin.
As the Egyptian empire crumbled in 300 B.C.E., the Greeks would develop new methods that would lead to a more scientific system of healing. Many of our current aromatherapy practices come from Greek discoveries in the field.
One of the earliest known Greek physicians, Asclepius, used a combination of herbs and surgery to treat his patients. His reputation and skill were so unparalleled that after he died, the Greeks made him into their god of healing.
Hippocrates was one of the first physicians to dispel the Egyptian belief that illness came from supernatural forces. He encouraged doctors to find natural explanations for disease by observing their patients and reserving judgment after they had considered the symptoms.
Some say had studied and used more than 200 different herbs throughout his life. He used herb infused baths and massages to treat his patients.
Some of the most influential texts on botany, and by extension aromatherapy, came from Greek authors. Theophrastus was so engrossed in the study of plants that he became known as the grandfather of botany. His studies also included how scents affected emotions.
Greek military physician Roman armies to study herbs and record his discoveries. He published his results in a several volume work called De Materia Medica, which became the cornerstone of botanical medicine for the next 1500 years. The publication included 1000 different botanical remedies and descriptions of around 600 different aromatics and plants.
Some of the most significant contributions from Persia came from a man named Avicenna. He was considered one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden age. Many. His prolific contributions to the field of medicine have given him the title of the father of early modern medicine.
More than half of the 450 works he is a written, around half of them were on the subject of plant-based medicine. One of his most significant publications was ‘The Canon of Medicine,’ which was used as a standard medical textbook in Europe until the 18th century, influencing many later aroma based therapies.
In the 11th century, he would go on to isolate essential oils through the process of steam distillation. Up until this point, most people relied on incense and burning aromatic plants to practice aromatherapy.
Anglo-Saxons and Europeans
The Saxon ‘Leech Book of Bald’ is the oldest surviving text on botanical medicine. This text includes a combination of herbalism, Shaman’s own, entry bore. It describes the properties of 500 plants as well as their application in amulets and baths. It also explains the best ways to take them internally.
Aromatic medicines would become more widely available in the following centuries. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard published the now herbal classic “Herball, or General Historie of Plantes.” After its publication, apothecaries started the practice of compounding medicines custom to patient’s needs.
French chemist René Maurice Gattefosse coined the term ‘aromatherapie’. He studied various medicinal applications of essential oils while working for his family perfume business. His passion study of essential oils led to him writing ‘Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales’.
Gattefosse’s work would go on to influence French Doctor Jean Valnet. During World War II, he became one of the first physicians of his time to use essential oils to aid in surgical procedures. Valnet also relied on the antibiotic nature of many essential oils to treat a number of other infections.
Valnet wrote ‘Aromathérapie – Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes’ in 1964. The book was translated into English in 1980 as ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy’, bringing the concept into the English awareness for the first time.
Both of these texts inspired one of the current experts in the field, Robert Tisserand, to write ‘The Art of Aromatherapy’ in 1977. This book would inspire and inform almost every author on aromatherapy for the next two decades.
Nowadays, aromatherapy compliments fields like massage, natural medicine, beauty products, and all aspects of holistic living.