Aromatherapy is not just some “New Age” fad. It dates back more than 5,000 years and is one of the oldest methods of holistic healing known to humankind.
In prehistoric times, there weren’t refrigerators, food additives, preservatives and so on (thank goodness!), and so we depended on our immediate surroundings for our needs – not some far-off chemical laboratory or manufacturing plant.
In those ancient times, we discovered that certain herbs and aromatics were useful in preserving food or treating ailments.
Aromatherapy Around the Globe
Aromatherapy, as we practice it today, actually started in ancient Egypt, where certain oils were extracted from plants and used not only for medicinal and cosmetic purposes but also for embalming techniques; many of these essential oil solutions are still duplicated today.
At the same time, ancient Chinese civilizations were using aromatics, or aromatherapy. Shen Nung’s classic herbal book dates back to 2,700 BC and is a virtual aromatic encyclopedia of more than 300 plants and their uses.
The Chinese also discovered that aromatics had applications beyond just medicine and cosmetics, and used incense and burning woods in religious ceremonies (as did Native American cultures) to show respect to their gods, a tradition still practiced today. Chinese aromatherapy was also linked to massage and accupressure.
Ayurveda, the traditional medical system used in India for many centuries, uses dried and fresh herbs as well as aromatic massage as important elements of treatment.
– D.H., South Carolina
The Greeks, of course, learned most of their medical knowledge from the Egyptians, so they, too, incorporated aromatherapy, but refined it even further. They discovered that the essence of some flowers and herbs were stimulating while others were relaxing. They developed the use of olive oil as the base oil, which absorbed the aroma of the more concentrated essences, then used the “perfumed” result for both cosmetic and medical purposes.
The Romans came along and learned from the Greeks. Rome was noted for its scented baths followed by massage using aromatic oils. In fact, it was the popularity of aromatics that led to trade routes being established to import exotic oils and spices from India, Arabia, and China. These imports were used far more in aromatherapy than in cooking.
When Roman society fell into decay, the use of aromatherapy in the Western World decayed with it as Europe descended into the Dark Ages in which anything with natural origins was regarded as witchcraft and superstition – a suspicion only reinforced by “modern” Western medicine until recent years when the little guys in white coats in their sterile laboratories discovered that the best cures lay not in the labs but in the rain forests and jungles.
The Dark and Middle Ages
Ironically, though aromatherapy was regarded as superstition throughout the Dark Ages, one of the few places it was kept alive and healthy was in the monasteries, where monks used plants from their small herbal gardens to produce infused oils, herbal teas, and medicines.
It wasn’t until midway through the Middle Ages, when societies were devastated by Bubonic and other plagues, that we “rediscovered” that certain aromatic derivatives helped prevent the spread of infection. Cedar and pine were often burnt to fumigate infected homes and streets.
Aromatherapy was revived by a Persian physician and philosopher, Avicenna, who lived from 980 AD to 1037 AD. The Arabs initiated an extraction method called distillation. The study of the therapeutic use of plants once more became popular in the universities and the distillation techniques spread to Europe during the Crusades when the Crusaders returned with their “amazing new knowledge” about healing methods.
– A.P., Connecticut
By 1200 AD, essential oils were produced throughout Europe, especially in Germany, where their herbs and spices were imported from Africa and the Far East.
With the invasion of South America by the conquistadors, even more knowledge was gained and more oils discovered. Montezuma’s private gardens were a virtual Eden of aromatic plants used as the basis for many new, important remedies and treatments.
New World settlers coming to America were surprised to learn that those “savage, ignorant” Indians had long been using aromatic oils, proving that the “rediscovered” European knowledge wasn’t as new and sophisticated as they thought.
The Birth of Modern Aromatherapy
Finally, in the 19th Century, the world of traditional medicine started taking aromatic oils seriously. Even though they weren’t oil-based pharmaceuticals – they worked. Repeatedly. And the white coats in the labs had to know why.
French perfume chemist Rene Maurice of Gattefosse burned his hand one day in the laboratory. He encountered the healing “aromatherapie” properties of lavender when he plunged his arm into a vat of what he thought was water. Aaah, serendipity! The lavender not only reduced his pain, but through several repeated applications his arm healed with no scarring. He was so impressed with the results that he published a book on the anti-microbial effects of aromatic oils in 1937. It was from that book that the term “aromatherapy” was born.
Today, major universities that specialize in chemistry and pharmaceuticals programs continue to study the benefits of essentials including the chemical, hormonal, and oxygen-rich basics. Being accepted as a viable and effective healing modality, aromatherapy continues to benefit from the research done by these respected institutions.
The rest, as they say, is history.