Essential oils have a rich and expansive history in early beauty, culinary and medicinal sciences. However, the initial usage of aromatherapy oils is not confined to a set period or place. Instead, it is spread out across continents and millennia, dating back as early as 2,000 years. Since essential oils remain inextricably tied to world history, it is worth taking a closer look at what they are and what they do.

What Counts As an ‘Essential Oil’?

Put simply; essential oils are concentrated extracts from various types of plants. The compounds extracted contain the ‘essence’ of whatever plant used – its scent, taste and health benefits.

Essential oils are made by taking the aromatic plant or flower and condensing it into a small, potent mix. This mixture is achieved either through the process of steam and water distillation or by the mechanical grinding down the plant.

The essential oil is then either applied to the skin or inhaled.

What Are Some Essential Oil Health Benefits?

Though health studies have not been entirely conclusive, there is plenty of positive evidence linking the use of essential oils to good health. Here are some of the more popular health benefits:

  • They can help relieve depression and stress
  • They decrease pain associated with headaches and migraines
  • They reduce inflammation
  • They fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • They can help individuals who have insomnia

In addition to these benefits, aromatherapy from essential oils benefits from being one of the first established forms of medicine. Here are some examples of how the history of essential oils spans across many different cultures.

Early Usage of Essential Oils

Essential oils go back quite a bit. Let’s take a look at some of their origins.

Egypt

The history of essential oils starts with Ancient Egypt was not an isolated kingdom; its reach extended across a vast and complex trade system. As such, they incorporated a variety of indigenous and nonindigenous crops into their culture.

Since beauty was vital to the Egyptian ruling class, perfumes derived from essential oils became popular in Egypt from as early as 2000 BC. Tinctures, embalming oils, ointments, and salves took on the everyday beauty and religious routines of the upper class.

Visual evidence, in the form of a detailed carving, shows Egyptians extracting fragrances from plants and flowers. The discovered over 2000 different species of flowering plants and aromatic plants have in the tombs around Egypt. The most popular types include:

  • Ami
  • Anise
  • Caper
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Fenugreek
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Mustard
  • Rosemary
  • Safflower
  • Thyme
  • Pomegranate Root

Greece

The ancient Greeks used scented perfumes derived from essential oils for religious, beauty and medicinal purposes. Fragrances were used to worship the goddess Aphrodite in holy temples. Intensive aromatherapy was also employed to help combat plague and sickness. 

The main difference between ancient Greek perfumes and new modern sprays is the carrier medium. Contemporary scents mix alcohol with essential oils, preservatives, and other agents. Greeks, on the other hand, used widely available olive oil as a carrier medium. The result was a subtler perfume — intoxicating only to those physically close.

The Greeks created their essential oils from both animal and plant-derived scents. The most popular ingredients for these types of perfumes were,

  • Musk
  • Civet
  • Ambergris
  • Frankincense
  • Myrrh
  • Labdoman

Greece recorded and tested much of the aromatic knowledge established by the ancient Egyptians. Notably, Hippocrates — a renowned 4th century BC physician — experimented with fragrant perfumes for medicinal benefits. Hippocrates wrote that applying essential oils to the skin could affect the inner organs of the body. This idea became a founding tenet for current studies in aromatherapy

India

The history of essential oils continues in India. Though the exact dates are unknown, archaeologists estimate that India first used essential oils roughly 5,000 years ago. Thanks to the Ayurvedic system of medicine, the health benefits of essential oils are still widely used today.

Ayurveda is a healing system tied closely to the cultural spirituality of India. The system combines the application of essential oils with asana yoga. This combination is believed to naturally unblock the body’s chakras, which in turn releases energy. The most popular essential oils still used today are,

  • Basil
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Myrrh
  • Coriander
  • Spikenard
  • Sandalwood

While this list contains the most popular essential oils, it is by no means exhaustive. The Vedas, a sacred Indian religious text, lists over 700 documented herbs, and flowers. Each of these entries contains a different religious and therapeutic purpose.

Rome

Rome’s usage of essential oils mirrors ancient Greek culture heavily. However, a Roman general named Pedanius Dioscorides wrote an expansive herbal medical text. The five-volume work contained over 600 different applications for essential oils. For example, it lists marjoram as a natural sedative. Other uses include juniper as a diuretic, cypress for upset stomachs, and myrrh for gum infections.

China

The last part of the history of essential oils occurs in China. Ancient China incorporated essential oils into its folk medicine since before Christ. However, the real advances in essential oil science came with two influential leaders.

The first, Shen Nung wrote a seminal herbal medicine text dating from around 2700 BC. The book contains the usages of 365 different plants. Shen Nung was a ruler fascinated by the healing properties of agriculture. He also introduced China to tea.

The second is the emperor Huángdì, more popularly known as the Yellow Emperor. His book on internal medicine references the usage of many essential oils. It is still widely read today.

The Last Word

As you can see, essential oils are anything but a recent craze. The history of these therapeutic oils pre-date us by quite a margin. To this day, we are still discovering exciting new uses and benefits of these oils, which has contributed to their recent surge in popularity.

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