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The History of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy seems to be a buzzword for the 21st century, but uses a pure essential oils can be traced back to the 3rd century BC and the ancient Egyptians with the discovery of small tears of frankincense and myrrh found in excavations of the tombs in the valley of the Knights. Much later, the Bible tells us of the Magi bringing both of these precious extracts to a baby in the Manger: frankincense, more valuable than gold, and myrrh, the embalming oil of the kings. Never were more symbolic gifts ever given at birth.


The Egyptians began to experiment with the use of plant essences. Some of these perfumes, herbs and spices became the most sought after commodities and international trade, with caravans of camels carrying huge quantities of these prized and treasured essences across the deserts.


The ancient Egyptians understood how the plants separated themselves from their essence and explored ways to make this magic happen. During Cleopatra's reign (around 40 years before the birth of Christ) rose petals were strung along the waters of the Nile in preparation for the Queen's procession down the river. As the oils evaporated, a heavy aroma LED her people into a blissful ecstasy surrounding her beauty. Legend has it that the like of her beauty had never been seen before anywhere in the world. One wonders how much of the glory came from the magic of the essence from those rose petals.



Spikenard and Galbanum; lesser known oils today, but also mentioned frequently in the Bible are examples of the majesty of the temple of Solomon.


In AD 77 Pliny the Elder, a fame Dan Weld loved naturalist, completed his epic work Naturalis Historica. Of all of Pliny’s work, only Naturalis Historica survived his death during the eruption of the Vesuvius.


Throughout Naturalis Historica, Pliny alludes to the healing capabilities of many plants we know in recognized today with many encyclopedias subsequently taking their botanical references from Pliny’s own.


It is amazing to think of the clarity of medicine in the ancient world with the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all contributing to the great knowledge that we have today. In fact, the first recording we have a plants used in aromatherapy is at a time of the ancient Greeks when flower petals were steeped in oil to make perfumed oil which they would use for medicinal or cosmetic purposes.


The most famous of the doctors from this. Was Galen (AD 129-200), a skilled physician so held the post of doctor of the Romans. He left behind many anatomical drawings which helped us acquire a basic understanding of Physiology, even though the main part of his knowledge was gained from the dissection of monkeys. (The use of using human cadavers had been outlawed in 150 AD).


Galen was a visionary in medicine, well ahead of his time period he was criticized by contemporaries for his refusal to accept symptoms were simply attributed to mysticism or divination and was recorded as having argued: “we must wait and observe”. today this seems obvious to us; We are familiar with the root of diagnosis and prognosis, but Galen was not. In fact, this was a completely groundbreaking notion.


In many respects, Galen’s work built a foundation of the work of Hippocrates but his largest contribution was in the understanding of the circulatory system. He was the first person to recognize the difference in color between the darker venous blood in the lighter arterial blood.

Galen was an accomplished surgeon with some of his theories about operations of the eye and the brain still holding true today. He used plants extensively as salves to mend wounds. In fact, he is attributed to having formulated cold cream.


Dioscorides, Another military Doctor Who worked under emperor Nero, was an avid collector in student of plants. Today, we still refer to his notes in the five volumes of Materia Medica.


The Romans used a variety of plants and herbs in their day-to-day life. Roman soldiers took myrrh with them into battle so they could use it to apply to their wounds as a healing agent; fennel was used to sweeten their breath, give them strength and keep away evil spirits, it also killed fleas. Rose was used as a scent bath water in lavender, probably most of all, was used for bathing too.


Hippocrates is considered to be the father of medicine, with Galen building on the works of Hippocrates had begun. Hippocrates gave us the understanding that illness comes from something which is wrong within the body, as well as the Hippocratic Oath. In his writings, he mentions a vast number of plants. Later, the books were translated into Arabic.


At this point, studies into plants and their properties gained great interest in the Arab countries. The greatest of all of the contributions came from a physician called Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD), also known as Avicenna. he writes extensively about his adventures experimenting with plants for beauty and photonics. We cannot be sure if he invented distillation but there are many pictures of stills in his work. It seems likely that rose oil was the first to be used and may have been uncovered purely by accident during some other alchemical endeavor.


Understandably we have very little documentation pertaining to the dark ages. However, by the 12th century, as The Crusaders brought back treasures from their travels, we see that plants were being moved from continent to continent. Previously in Europe, the like of aromatic gums and resins had never been seen, their parent trees only willowing in the heat of much warmer climates. As the Europeans began to use herbal waters and oils, blends began to be formed from these new travelers.


By the 15th century, although apothecary sold essential oils, most large houses had their own still room to make the most of the plants in the garden. Many herbal remedies were recorded, the greatest of course by Culpepper who remains a household name today.


Skip forward now to the 17th and 18th centuries when what we call the age of reason was starting to take a hold as was logical thinking. Plant medicine was pushed back to allow for a whole new world of chemical substances. Meanwhile, one German physician remained true to his beliefs and through his lifetime, Friedrich Hoffmann produced much of the information we know today about essential oils.


During the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists made huge leaps forward in medicine when they identified active ingredients and plants that were very useful to healing. For example,quinine, digitalis and morphine were formulated, all of which we use today. They removed the active ingredient from the plant and only used the part which seemed to bring about the response that they needed in the body.


in 1926, the term “aromatherapie” was first coined in a scientific paper by Rene Maurice Gattefosse. a chemist in his family's perfumery business. Gattafosse became intrigued as to how the antiseptic qualities of the natural plant essences were more effective than their chemical counterparts. During an experiment, Gattafosse burned his hand very badly then, looking for relief from the pain, he plunged his hand into the nearest VAT of fluid. The lavender oil instantly reduced the stinging, and over the next few days, he experienced the increased rate of healing of his skin.



Bringing the knowledge about the oils to the masses became his life's work and for the first time, he was able to provide clear scientific data to back up the previous submissions about essential oils.


Throughout France, interest quickly spread. Marguerite Maury designed skin care recipes which transformed the cosmetic industry. Andre Passebecq, A medical Doctor Who had studied at the university of Columbia, set up The School of Naturapathy, Vital Hygiene and Psychology, which he headed for over 40 years. Marcel Bernadet also gave us La Phyto-aromatherapie practique. these works form the basis of the art of aromatherapy which we have today.


In the 1960s aromatherapy started to become a more complicated therapy. Experimentation of drugs leaked over into the hallucinogenic qualities of plants. The esoteric movement started to make connections between the mind, body and spirit and how they may have linked together in Wellness.

Aromatherapy is becoming increasingly more complicated an intern, regulated, today, we not only rely on the essences themselves for their physical effects but we link them together with a whole range of other tools to encourage healing period a good therapist will look at their client holistically, as a whole person.


We understand the importance of good spinal alignment for health. We assess dietary needs and vitamin needs. Acupressure, Chinese medicine and reflexology can also be used to enhance the benefits of essential oils for detoxification of the body. Most of all, we consider the emotions when coaching clients and offering meditation techniques.


Science still continues to move us forward. In 1995, Robert Tisserand published the Essential Oil Safety: a Guide for Health Care Professionals. This will sit on most all bookshelves for professional Aromatherapists.


Regulation continued to get tighter. In 1985, the International Federation of Aromatherapy was formed and soon after the International Society of Professional Aromatherapists. This gave structure and meaning to the body as a whole. Suddenly there was a clear line defined between professional and amateur. Clinical aromatherapists have hundreds of hours of training. They base decisions on science and tend to not be affiliated with the teachings of multi level marketing companies.


At the beginning of the century, essential oils were on the shelves of every chemist an even supermarket, but changes in the trading laws in 2010 meant that many of these were removed. Restrictions and labeling legislations dictated that only qualified professionals were able to sell complementary medicines. Even though essential oils have tremendous documented health benefits, unfortunately due to strict legislation and laws we aren't able to talk about those legally, unless we are a clinical aromatherapist.


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