A history of Aromatherapy

The exact roots of aromatherapy may never be known but hints of it’s existence pop up throughout history going back over 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. The ancient Egyptians first burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices to honor their gods. It was believed the rising smoke would reach the heavens and carry their prayers and wishes directly to their chosen deities. As the healing elements of the aromatics was more investigated medicinal aromatherapy developed.
Aromatherapy in the Afterlife
The Egyptians were very into the afterlife and considered the physical body had to be preserved for eternity. During the period from 2650-2575 BC the process of embalming and mummification was developed. The preservation recipes could include Frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniper berry and spikenard to preserve the bodies of their royalty in preparation of the after-life.
Nothing was to good or too hard for the royals and the valuable herbs and spices they needed were transported across the deserts by Arab merchants for distribution to Assyria, Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia. The hardest to get were frankincense and myrrh, which could have a value equal to that of gems and precious metals.
Aromatherapy just for the smell of it
Aromatherapy was an integral part of Egyptian life and simple fragrances were used in their daily lives as well as celebrations. During festivals and celebrations women wore perfumed cones on their heads which would melt under the heat, releasing a continual fragrance during the event. They would anoint their bodies with oil after bathing to protect them from the drying effects of the sun and to rejuvenate their parched skin.
From 1539-657 BC the Egyptians continued to refine their use of aromatics in incense, medicine, cosmetics, and eventually perfumes. The Egyptian perfumery industry was celebrated as the finest in the whole of the Middle East up to several centuries BC. Julius Caesar on returning home with Cleopatra after conquering Egypt around 48 BC threw perfume bottles into the crowds to demonstrate his total domination over the power of Egypt.
Aromatic Greek
The Egyptian botanical knowledege was used by many other cultures for centuries. The Assyrians, Babylonians and Hebrews had all used the vast knowledge of aromatic medicine of the Egyptians. The Egyptian Empire began to crumble around 300 BC, so Europe became the heart of empirical medicine which used a more scientifically based system of healing.
The Greeks had been using herbs for centuries and the earliest known Greek physician, Asclepius around 1200 BC combined the use of herbs and surgery to a new level. His reputation was so great in life, 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.
Aromatic Science
Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BC) is recognized as the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. He believed the physcian should try to discover natural explanations for disease by observing the patient carefully, and make a judgment only after careful consideration of the symptoms.
His treatments would employ mild physical therapies, baths, massage with infusions, or the internal use of herbs such as fennel, parsley, hypericum or valerian. Hippocrates is believed to have studied and documented over 200 different herbs during his lifetime. He believed that surgery should be used only as a last resort and was among the first to regard the entire body as an organism.
Aromatherapy Giants
After Egypts invasion by Alexander in the 3rd century BC, aromatics, herbs and perfumes became much more popular in Greece prompting interest in many things fragrant. The student of Aristotle, Theophrastus of Athens investigated everything on plants and even how scents affected human emotions. He wrote several volumes on botany including ‘The History of Plants’, which became one of the most important botanical science references for centuries to come. Many refer to him as the Founder of Botany.
The Greek military physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD) who served in Nero’s army marched with Roman armies to Greece, Germany, Italy and Spain, to record everything he could discover. He gave descriptions on plant habitats, how to prepare and store, and even described full accounts of its healing properties. He published a comprehensive 5 volume work called ‘De Materia Medica’, also known as ‘Herbarius’.
His publication was the first systematic pharmacopoeia and contained over a thousand different botanical medications, plus descriptions and illustrations of around 600 different plants and aromatics. His work was so influential he was named the Father of Pharmacology.
Aromatic Wounds
Like most technologies, aromatherapy developed through warfare. The Greek physician, Claudius Galen, who lived from 129-199 AD and studied medicine from the age of seventeen began his medical career aged 28 under Roman employ treating the wounds of gladiators with medicinal herbs. This provided him with the opportunity to study wounds of all kinds, and it is rumored that not a single gladiator died of battle wounds while under the care of Galen.
This phenomenal success led to fast career advancement and eventually the personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Rome was a thriving academic center during the lifetime of Galen it was the ideal place for him to conduct further research. Galen was the last of the great Greco-Roman physicians, and within 100 years of his death the Roman Empire was declining, and Europe would sink into the dark ages.
With the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain, much of their medical knowledge was discarded or lost and all progress in the Western tradition of medicine came to a halt for centuries to come. During this period, Europe sank into it’s lowest ebb in recorded in history.
Persia had one of the greatest experts on aromatics and medicine. He was Al-Razi (865-925) and was also one of Persia’s finest physicians writing 237 books and articles covering several fields of science, half of them being on medicine. Born in the town of Rayy near Tehran, Al-Razi was known to the West as Rhazes and had a huge influence on the science and medicine of Europe .
His most famous work was a medical encyclopedia of 25 books called ‘AI Kitab al Hawi’ (The Comprehensive Work), which was later translated into Latin and other European languages. His medical accomplishments were amazing with the development of tools such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials which were used in pharmacies until early last century.
Aromatherapies’ Child Prodigy
Another Persion named Ibn Sina (980-1037), was probably the most famous and influential of all the great Islamic. This amazing man was already studying medicine at the age of 16 and by 20 had been appointed a court physician, earning the title ‘Prince of physicians’. His prolific writing included 20 books covering theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philology, philosophy and poetry, and most influentially, 20 books and 100 treatises on medicine.
His 14 volume epic ‘Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb’, which means ‘The Canon of Medicine’ contained over one million words and was believed to have of all existing medical knowledge. It included the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, describing Syro-Arab and Indo-Persian practice with notes of his own observations, and became the definitive medical textbook, teaching guide and reference throughout Western Europe and the Islamic world for over seven hundred years.
The English re-discover Aromatic medicine
The oldest known English manuscript of botanical medicine is the Saxon ‘Leech Book of Bald’, written sometime between 900 and 950 by Bald, a friend of king Alfred the Great using a scribe named Cild. (‘Leech’ is an old English word meaning healer). The text contains herbalism, magic, shamanism and tree lore, describing 500 plants with their properties, and how they can be used in amulets, baths or taken internally.
On return from the Holy wars the Crusaders brought back rose water, perfumes, aromatics and remedies that were previously unknown in England. The fragrant plants became more popular, with aromatic herb garlands decorating peoples homes and rose water being used to wash the hands, if you could afford it. The availability and range of aromatic medicines increased over the next few centuries, but the real knowledge of the Eastern physicians had was still to come.
Medieval apocalypse
During the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe the Catholic Church dominated medicine considering illness and disease to be a punishment from God. Therefore the standard treatment was prayer from priests, with the occasional session of blood-letting. The ‘Black Death’ in 1347 wiped out almost 50% of London’s inhabitants within 12 months, and around 40% of the entire population of Europe within 3 years. The Anglo-Saxon treatment with botanical remedies of wearing sachets of dried lavender and amulets of thyme were useless.
John Gerard published ‘ Herball, in 1597 which became a herbal classic. For unknown reasons he makes no mention of the very first essential oils such as juniper, lavender, rosemary and sage which were in Britain at this time. Gerard’s book was very influential, and the apothecaries which only sold the medicines prescribed by doctors, started to prepare and compound their own mixtures. A new style of apothecary that attended to the patient and then dispensed slowly began appearing throughout England.
Black Death returned in 1603 killing thousands again, leading to every available aromatic being burned in houses and on the streets to keep it at bay. They tried Benzoin, styrax, frankincense and some types of spice oils, but as before all were useless. Some reports said workers involved in aromatics and perfumery had not been ill. We now know this was due to the high antiseptic properties of the essential oils.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) arguably the most famous herbalist and also the founder of astrological herbalism wrote ‘The English Physician’ in1652. His descriptions of herbs, oils and their uses were intermixed with astrology. Combined with herbalists such as Joseph Miller and John Parkinson, a rich botanical legacy was left to expand upon. This led to the essential oil industries throughout Europe to flourish providing oils for the pharmaceutical, flavor and fragrance industries.
Aromatherapy modernises
The term ‘aromatherapie’ was first used by a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé who lived from1881-1950 who had studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years whilst working in his families perfumery business. He proved his theories when an explosion in his laboratory caused a severe burn to his hand and he plunged his hand into a vessel of pure lavender oil which immediately reduced the swelling and helped accelerate the healing process. To everyone’s suprise he was left with no scar from the burn. He was a prolific writer in many subjects, but it was a passion for researching essential oils that eventually led to the publication in 1937 of his ground-breaking book, ‘Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales’.
A French doctor named Jean Valnet followed the work of Gattefossé, using essential oils of chamomile, clove, lemon and thyme to treat gangrene and battle wounds during WW2. He graduated as a surgeon by the end of the war continuing to use essential oils to treat illnesses, and was the first ever to use them to treat psychiatric conditions. His book, ‘Aromathérapie – Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes’ was released in 1964, and translated into English in 1980 as ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy’, letting aromatherapy be known to English speaking countries.
Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968), an Austrian born biochemist became interested in what later became aromatherapy, after reading a book written in 1838 by Dr Chabenes called, ‘Les Grandes Possibilités par les Matières Odoriferantes’. He was the man who taught Gattefossé. Madame Marguerite Maury wrote ‘Le Capital Jeunesse’ and published it in France in 1961 but it did not receive much acclaim until 1964 when it was released in Britain under the title of ‘The Secret of Life and Youth’ and received recognition for the great work it was.
Upon her death, the work continued through her protege, Danièle Ryman, who is now herself considered an authority on aromatherapy. The work of Valnet and Gattefossé stimulated Robert Tisserand of England to write the very first aromatherapy book in 1977 entitled, ‘The Art of Aromatherapy’. It became the inspiration and reference for virtually every future author on the subject in recent times.
The acceptance of aromatherapy in many western countries is still in it’s infancy but a growing number of writers and practitioners are gradually influencing the medical fraternity.


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