History of Aromatherapy

The therapeutic use of aromatic plants seems to be as old as human civilisation itself. Plants such as fennel, coriander seeds, cumin and many others have been found at the sites of ancient burial grounds. Many texts from Asia to Ancient Egypt, and much of the Mediterranean area, describe the various procedures and rituals involved in the making of healing ointments, medicated oils, poultices and healing perfumes.
The practice of using aromatic fumigations to uplift the spirit and help cure diseases has also been used by the world’s greatest civilisations throughout history. References in some old texts to ‘magical perfumes’ that enhance personal attraction and promise happiness are numerous. Spiritual perfumes for religious ceremonies have also been used in history particularly in Ancient Egypt and in Tudor England.

Aromatic oils have been a part of human history for more than 3,500 years BC and appear with regularity throughout all major civilisations down the ages, with uses ranging from religious ritual, food flavouring, medicines, perfumery and the masking of bad odours. It is impossible to date exactly when plants were first used medicinally, since such a development would have taken place over thousands of years.

Prior to modern-day scientific tests, the properties of different plants would have been discovered very much through trial and error, and by observing animals instinctive knowledge about which plants to eat when sick. Such knowledge would have been passed on to succeeding generations as part of a verbal tradition, eventually becoming the herbal medicine that we recognise today, and out of which aromatherapy developed.  

These early civilisations would also have realised that burning certain plant material produced unusual effects (e.g., sleepiness, heightened awareness, visions, etc). ‘Smoking’ a person is one of the earliest recorded forms of treatment with herbs and was often used to drive out evil spirits. Such experiences were often connected to religion, and since aroma is carried through air, and both air and the breath were considered to be manifestations of the divine, a connection was ultimately made through aroma between the human and the divine. Even today, this tradition continues with Eastern temples ritually burning incense on Hindu and Buddhist altars, and the Roman Catholic church continues to use a censor containing burning frankincense within its church services.

Furthermore, during the Neolithic period (approx 6-9,000 years ago) in the Eastern world, there is evidence that humanity discovered certain plants contained fatty oil – plants such as, olive, castor, flax and sesame – which could be extracted by pressing and then used to cook with, anoint with, and for their own medicinal preparations.

Ancient India was one of the first civilisations that aimed at treating people holistically.  Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurvedic (meaning ‘life knowledge’), is the oldest form of medical practice in the world, with plants and plant extracts being in continuous use there from at least 5000 years ago up to the present day.  
Written in India at about 2000BC, one the oldest books on plants is called, “Vedas”, and it lists the various uses of over 700 plants and substances, such as sandalwood, ginger, myrrh, cinnamon and coriander, for both religious and medicinal purposes.  

Ancient Chinese knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was incredibly advanced. The Chinese system of healing, involving medical treatments such as acupuncture, shiatsu and herbal remedies can be traced back to 2500BC, forming the basis of what we know today as “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM). The primary focus for health is the balance of Qi (energy), Yin and Yang (passive negative and positive active forces) and the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood). At around 2800BC, the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) wrote a book called “Internal Medicine”, about the causes and treatment of disease, including within its pages details on many plants and their herbal remedies. It is one of the oldest books in the world, and can still be obtained in print today. However, China’s main contribution to the aromatherapy story lies within the citrus family, since it is believed that nearly all the citrus species originated in this country, eventually reaching the Mediterranean world in the 10th century via the Arabs.

It is the ancient Egyptians though who are generally regarded as the pioneers of the use of aromatic plants. Not only did they use fragrant oils in incense, medicine, massage, skincare and cosmetics, but also in their highly refined process of embalming the dead.

There are no records showing that the process of distillation had been invented at this time, so the only methods of producing aromatic oils available to the Egyptians would have been ‘enfleurage’ and ‘maceration’. Enfleurage involved soaking the plant material in oil, with the whole mixture then being tightly wrung through a cloth to retrieve the fragrance, whilst maceration involved heating the aromatic material in oil.  

During this period, gardens of the pharaohs were used to grow a vast array of medicinal herbs from all over the world. But it was the temple priests and physicians of the day who were in charge of the medicinal preparations, produced from aromatic oils, and the composition of perfumes for the Pharoahs which were used for anointing them in times of prayer, war and love.

Personal hygiene was important to the Egyptians and the Ebers Papyrus of 1500BC contains one of the earliest recorded recipes for a body deodorant to be discovered, demonstrating that Egyptian physicians had a thorough knowledge of the properties of a large number of herbs. The use of perfume was especially important to the Egyptians and was closely linked with religion. In fact, it was so important, that each Egyptian god was assigned a particular fragrance, which was often used to anoint their statues. Some prescriptions and formulae to improve sanitation have also survived, being recorded on stone tablets.  One of the favourite ways of applying perfume was by placing a cone of solid unguent on the head which would slowly melt in the heat, covering the head and body with the aromatic mixture.

The ancient Egyptians were experts at using plant resins and essences in embalming and to perfume the temples. Indeed, when the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in 1922, by Howard Carter and his team, several pots and jars were discovered which still contained scented unguents of frankincense, Indian Spikenard and kyphi (see below) – they had been sealed for over 3000 years.

The strong antiseptic and antibacterial properties of oils were used embalm the dead, helping to prevent the flesh from rotting, with the intention of preserving mummies for 3000 years, since it was believed that this was how long it took for the soul to pass through all the animals of the earth and then back into a human being.

One of the Egyptians’ favourite perfumes though was called “kyphi” which was used as far more than a just a perfume, since it could also be applied as an antiseptic, incense, poison antidote, a balsamic and according to Plutarch, also a tranquiliser, which “lulled one to sleep, allayed anxieties and brightened dreams”. Kyphi contained a mixture of 23 different ingredients, including calamus (a powerful narcotic), cassia, cinnamon, peppermint, citronella, pistacia, juniper, acacia, henna, cyperus, ‘resin’, cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh and raisins. So intrinsic to Egyptian society was kyphi that in Heliopolis (the City of the Sun), the sun god, Ra, was worshipped through the burning of incense three times a day – a “resin” was burnt at sunrise; myrrh at noon, and kyphi at sunset. Kyphi also went on to be used by both the Greeks and the Romans too. 

Aromatic woods, herbs and spices were also burnt to honour their Gods – Egyptians believed that as the smoke rose, it would carry their prayers with it.

When this magnificent civilisation eventually crumbled into decline, it was Europe that became the new centre of medicine. 

The Greeks gained a lot of their knowledge about aromatic plants from the Nile Valley in Egypt, called the “Cradle of Medicine”, and this came about as a result of a visit to this region by Herodutos and Democrates in about 4-500BC. Herodotus also records how Assyrian women would “bruise with a stone, wood of the cypress, cedar and frankincense, and upon it poured water until it became of a certain consistency. With this they anointed the body and face to impart a most agreeable odour”. Subsequently, a medical school was established on the Greek island of Cos and this eventually became famous through the patronage of Hippocrates.

Hippocrates (460-377BC), born in Greece, and known as the “Father of Medicine” wrote about the useful properties of plants and herbs, effectively recording all the knowledge that had been gained from the Egyptians. His treatments would include massage with infusions, the internal use of herbs, baths and physical therapies. Surgery would only be used as a last resort and he regarded the entire body as an organism – the concept of holism. 

Even as far back as the 4th century BC, Hippocrates recognised that burning certain aromatic plants offered protection against contagious diseases.  At one time, he even used this knowledge of aromatic essences to fumigate Athens and rid it of the plague.  Together with Galen (2AD – see the “Romans” below), Hippocrates taught about the “healing power of nature”. He is quoted as saying that, “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented 서울출장안마 every day”, and that, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing … for nothing can bind a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid”.  

The foundation of Greek medicine was based on mental, emotional and physical balance.  Disease was viewed as a disturbance of this balance, with the route back to health being a re-balancing of these three – in other words, holism.  

Today, Hippocrates is probably better known for the Hippocratic Oath that all newly qualified doctors must swear allegiance to.

But it was Theophrastus (370-285BC), a Greek philosophy student of both Plato and Aristotle, and later leader of the Peripatetic School, who wrote the first treatise on scent, called “Concerning Odours”. He made a list of all the Greek and imported aromatics, discussing ways in which they could be used. And, it was Theophrastus who recorded one of the most fundamental principles of aromatherapy – that aromatic oils when applied externally can still affect the internal workings of the body. His work entitled “Enquiry into Plants” demonstrates the first attempts to record systematically the observations of plants and to list them according to their similarities, e.g. whether they were annual, biennial or perennial.

The Greeks believed that sweet aromatic aromas were divine in origin. In their ancient myths, gods descended to earth on scented clouds, wearing robes that were drenched in aromatic essences. After death, the Greeks also believed that the departed went to Elysium where the air was permanently fragranced with sweet-smelling aromas from perfumed rivers. A Greek, called Magallus, created a perfume combining myrrh, cinnamon and cassia which was called “Megaleion” and which became famous throughout the country, due in no small part, to its wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties. This should be of little surprise, in view of the fact that Greek soldiers would also take an ointment, containing myrrh, into battle for its excellent antimicrobial and wound-healing properties.

Another famous Greek, a renowned physician, called Marestheus, realised that certain aromatic plants were often possessed of stimulating properties and that rose, fruity and spicy aromas were uplifting for the tired mind.

Many Greek physicians were also employed in Rome and so passed on their knowledge to yet another advanced civilisation. However, the Romans not only used aromatic plants for medicinal purposes, but also went on to increase their use in hygiene and beauty preparations. Aromatic oils and essences were used regularly in public baths, both in the water and in massage blends.  

The Roman Empire became vast and, consequently, had access to a great variety of plants and herbs. As a result, they were excessive in their use of perfumes and aromatic oils.  They used three kinds of perfume: ‘ladysmata’ which were solid unguents; ‘stymmata’, scented oils; and ‘diapasmata’, powdered perfumes. These were used to fragrance hair, bodies, clothes, bedding and for massage after bathing. It is reputed that Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony through the expert use of perfumed oils. And, apparently, Nero once burnt more incense than Arabia could produce in an entire year at his wife’s funeral.  Interestingly, the word ‘perfume’ actually comes from the Latin ‘per fumum’ meaning “through the smoke” and relates to the burning of incense. 

Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90AD) was a Greek military physician in the Roman emperor’s army at the time of Nero. He was able to travel extensively (Germany, Italy, Spain) and wrote a book called, “De Materia Medica” (the oldest surviving Greek herbal). This is a massive five volume tome listing the habitat of about 500 plants, how they should be prepared, together with their healing properties, and over 1000 botanical medications. This book remained the standard medical reference for the Western world for at least the next twelve hundred years and earned Dioscorides the title of “The Father of Pharmacology”. De Materia Medica is the premiere historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity, with much of the herbal knowledge in Dioscorides’ book still influencing herbal medicine today.  

Claudius Galen, was a prominent Roman (of Greek ethnicity) physician, surgeon and philosopher who studied medicine and began his medical career by treating the wounds of Roman gladiators with medicinal herbs, giving him an opportunity to study wounds. It is said that no gladiator died under Galen’s care and, because of his success, he quickly rose to become the personal physician to several Roman emperors. It was Galen who believed that it was not the nose that interpreted smell but the brain.

Over time, the Roman Empire spread to cover vast areas of the world and so did their knowledge of the healing effects of plants – it was Romans who introduced perfumery to the British Isles. Seeds and plants were collected from all over and some of them eventually made it to the shores of Britain to become naturalised over time – plants such as, fennel, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

However, at the fall of this massive empire, and with the coming of Christianity, many Roman physicians fled to Constantinople taking precious medical books with them which were eventually translated into a whole variety of other languages.

Hebrews and Early Christianity
At around 1240BC, the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt on a 40-year journey to Israel, taking with them a variety of precious gums and oils, together with the knowledge of how to use them. God instructed Moses, in the Old Testament book of Exodus, to create a ‘holy anointing oil’ made from myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia and olive oil.  Such a combination would have had very powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, giving protection to all those with whom it came into contact. Not only that, but the wound-healing effects of myrrh were already well known, even before this time. 

Within the Hebrew civilisation, purification of Hebrew women took place over the course of a year, and during the first six months this was accomplished by regular anointing with ‘oil of myrrh’, with other aromatics being used for the latter six months. During the exodus, and at other times, when bathing was impractical for Jewish women, a small linen bag containing myrrh and other aromatics was hung on a cord between the breasts to act as a deodorant.

Whereas, ancient Indian temples were built of sandalwood, King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem was built of aromatic cedarwood (“cedars of Lebanon”). Perhaps they also recognised the need for a calming atmosphere when attending religious ceremonies.

Records show that Phoenician merchants brought precious cinnamon, frankincense, ginger and myrrh from the Orient. And it was two of these incredibly valuable gifts, frankincense and myrrh, that were given to Jesus at his birth. Symbolically, they represented his status as a deity (frankincense for a God) and his death (myrrh was used to embalm the dead). Gold, incidentally, was symbolic of his royal status (gold for a king).

Spikenard was reputed to have been imported from India and was used by Mary to anoint Jesus before his crucifixion and the sponge that was held up to him, whilst he hung on the cross, was a mixture of vinegar and myrrh (perhaps intended to ease the pain of crucifixion victims).

Middle Ages (500-1500AD) 
It was the Knights of Crusades that brought aromatic essences and waters back to Europe. These became so popular that perfumes began to be produced. However, the real value of these plants and herbs was only fully appreciated when the bubonic plague arrived in Europe during the 14th century. Orders were given for fires to be lit at night on street corners burning, amongst other things, frankincense, benzoin and pine.  Indoors, the smell of death and the battle against infection was fought using incense and perfumed candles, together with aromatic “strewing” herbs which were scattered across floors to be trodden on, thereby releasing their own aromas in an attempt to stem infection and mask what must have been extremely unpleasant and unhealthy bodily odours. Therefore, aromatics were widely used to combat the Black Death at this time, people very often carried, or wore, aromatic plants in the form of pomanders, which consisted of an orange, stuffed with cloves, or wore herbal bouquets. These aromatic plants were the best antiseptic protection against the Plague at this time and people knew it. It is interesting to note that apothecaries and perfumers were thought to be immune to the Plague, due to their regular handling of aromatic plant material.

Doctors at this time often wore a nose-bag which contained aromatic herbs, such as cinnamon and cloves, in an attempt to filter the air they breathed, creating an antiseptic atmosphere which was thought to protect against the Bubonic Plague. They also waved in front of them as they walked a long stick with an openwork top, also containing aromatic herbs, in the hope of disinfecting further the air they breathed. Doctors continued to use these methods throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century.

However, it was the monasteries who became the main cultivators of aromatic plants at this time, some of which had found their way to these shores from Italy – thyme and melissa. These aromatic gardens were later continued by the universities of medicine when botany became part of the study of medicine, eventually developing into botanical gardens during the time of the Renaissance, or ‘physic’ gardens as they eventually became known. The first of these physic gardens to be established in Britain was in Oxford in 1621.

During the 12th century a German Abbess, called St Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179) grew lavender for its therapeutic properties, also using its essential oil. She was well known for her healing powers involving the practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. 

During the Middle Ages, the main route of trade with Arab civilisations at the time was via Venice and it was here that the origins of a craze for perfumed leather gloves can be traced. It is possible that an Italian noblewoman, Catherine D’Medici introduced this fashion to the rest of Europe on the occasion of her marriage to the future French king, when she took her perfumer with her to France in 1533. Grasse, in France, at that time mainly produced leather, but when this fashion began to take off, the canny businessmen of Grasse began perfuming their leather with the aromatic plants that grew around the town – eventually using plants such as tuberose, acacia, violets, lavender and roses.  As the fashion dwindled, Grasse’s leather industry was gradually replaced with perfume manufacture, which remains the case to this day.  

At the end of the 15th century, in a town which is now in modern-day Switzerland, Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was born (1493-1541). Commonly known as Paracelsus, he became a famous physician, astrologer, surgeon and an alchemist in the 16th century, revolutionising medicine and laying the foundations for both modern medicine and alternative medicine today. He was the first person to succeed in separating the gross part of plants from their more subtle components, ie isolating active chemical agents in plants, a process which is now routine in today’s pharmaceutical industry.  In 1536, he wrote a book called the “Great Surgery Book” and made it clear that the main role of alchemy (the original word for modern-day chemistry – see under “Medieval Islam), was not to turn base metal into gold but to create healing medicines from certain plant extracts, which he named ‘quinta essentia’ ie quintessences or essential oils.   Because of his emphasis on the importance of distillation for the release of the most important part of individual plants, certain oils such as cedarwood, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, rose, rosemary and sage became well known to pharmacists by 1600.

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