Lesson 7: History
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Foundational Aromatherapy pages 8-10
A Brief History of Aromatherapy
How can we benefit from the knowledge of the past to create our successful future?
I find that we can learn much about a person by knowing some of their past. Where did they grow up? Who are their parents? What were their failures and successes? We can learn about essential oils and aromatherapy in the same way. Where did these little bottles come from? Who first started using them and why?
Essential oils have been around since the beginning of time in one form or another. The word aromatherapy itself was not coined until the twentieth century. The Chinese and Egyptians both practiced forms of aromatherapy and were some of the first cultures to leave some written record about their usage. This knowledge eventually spread along trade and travel routes to other cultures and regions, such as to the Greeks, Romans, and Israelites, to India and all around the Mediterranean, and eventually to the entire world. They used these oils for healing, religious ceremonies, and to improve the odor on their bodies and in their environments.
Egypt is widely known as one of the originators of the essential oil distillation process, though crude at first. The pharaohs and others of the elite class used essential oils not only for healing and ceremonies but also as a way to seduce lovers. Marc Anthony probably didn’t stand a chance but to fall for Cleopatra. Her beauty was renowned throughout the world, and it is said that she possessed some of the rarest and most expensive oils for her personal Use. She likely used several essential oils for their skin-enhancing properties, including bathing with essential oils and having her servants massage oils onto her body.
Some elite-class Egyptians placed solid cones of oils into their headdresses that would melt in the warm Mediterranean climate so a lingering aroma would stay with them throughout the day. Some oils were considered so precious that they were used for trade in place of silver or gold currency. Essential oils such as cedarwood, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and myrrh were selected for embalming and mummification. Egyptian high priests used scented oils in ceremonial rituals and often spent months preparing the desired fragrances for each ritual.
India is one of the only places that has constantly continued the tradition of aromatherapy. Veda Yajura or Yajurveda is a Hindu holy book or scripture in India. Known in English as The Vedas, it contains instructions for a healthy life, which include the use of over seven hundred products, including cinnamon, spikenard, coriander, ginger, myrrh, and sandalwood. The book classifies the uses and therapeutic purposes for each one. Ayurveda, a respected form of medicine or natural healing, comes from these writings. It considers the individual as a whole and customizes protocols based on the person’s body traits and persona.
The Greeks learned most of their aromatherapy knowledge from the Egyptians, although they gave the credit to their gods. They also recognized medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants and their oils. A Greek perfumer named Megallus created a perfume called Megaleion. It included myrrh, especially valued for its scent and other properties such as anti-inflammatory effects on the skin and an ability to help heal wounds.
The Toltecs and Aztecs also practiced a form of aromatherapy in connection with their rites and ceremonies. It was their custom to build a small stone or adobe room near the entrance of a temple. The room housed a heated pool where fragrant flowers and herbs were placed. Such rooms would be similar to modern-day steam rooms or saunas. As water in the pool heated, steam passed through the herbs and flowers, releasing their essential oils into the air. Inhaling the infused air had a stimulating effect on the circulation and metabolism. The healing vapors also absorbed through the skin, cleansing and softening the complexion.
The invention of the coiled cooling pipe in the 11th century by the Persian Avicenna changed the way people distilled essential oils. Its coiled pipe allowed plant vapor and steam to cool down more effectively than previous distillers that had straight cooling pipes. Avicenna’s discovery led to a wider interest in essential oils and their benefits.
Between the 12th century and the 19th century, many discoveries regarding aromatherapy were made. Lavender was distilled for its medicinal properties. The pharmaceutical industry was created, which encouraged increased production and use of distilled essential oils. It is believed many perfumers survived the Black Death because of their constant contact with the natural oils. Perfume-making, considered an art, became defined as its own field. Through their efforts, major components of essential oils could be isolated or separated from the whole.
Unfortunately, isolation of plant components led to a diminishing use of essential oils, which are holistic, in preference for developing medicines made with isolated components with an intention of targeting specific ailments and getting predictable results. While there are benefits to this modern approach, medications made from isolated components can also sensitize and create complications in the body—hence the long lists of possible side effects of most drugs on the market today. By using a plant in its wholesome state or by concentrating all of its properties into an essential oil, the naturally occurring elements balance each other, when used correctly, and create few, if any, complications or side effects.
During the 20th century, the discovery of new and more efficient ways for separating medicinal or other components of essential oils was used to create synthetic chemicals and drugs that would be beneficial both therapeutically and economically. These discoveries led to modern medicine and synthetic fragrances which lessened the use of essential oils for medicinal and aromatic benefits. A French chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who first worked in perfumes, became interested in the medicinal use of essential oils beyond their aromatic use. While working one day, he burned his arm badly. Acting on reflex, he immersed his burned arm into the closest liquid available—a container of lavender essential oil. To his surprise, he experienced quick pain relief and especially noted that the burn healed quickly and left no scar. His observations led to a more serious scientific consideration of utilizing plants holistically, especially in the form of essential oils. Gattefosse is recognized as the “Father of Aromatherapy.”
During the last century and continuing to the present day, people have shown an ever-growing personal interest in the use of natural products, which has rekindled focus on essential oils for their therapeutic, cosmetic, and aromatic benefits. In 1977, Robert Tissurand published the first aromatherapy book ever in English, titled The Art of Aromatherapy. French Aromatherapists Jean Valnet was recognized for his essential oils work to help World War II soldiers. His book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, originally in French is now available in English.
Aromatherapy has been used by medical practitioners in Europe and India for centuries. In other countries, the scientific revolution reduced its popularity for a long period of time. Aromatherapy, as it is known today, has only been in the United States for a few decades.
What does this history mean to us today? It gives us a deeper respect for the oils. It helps us realize that this is not some passing fad but a genuine health aid. Aromatherapy is not an alternative but a historical norm; western medicine, no matter how great and advanced it is, is (in reality) the new alternative medicine.
What new respect do you now have for essential oils?