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History of Aromatherapy

I have to say that this is probably one of my favourite elements of aromatherapy study; where it all came from and how it started. Of course, I can’t really do it justice in a 1500 word article in a magazine as all the information I have accumulated over the years could easily form a complete book on the subject! I even wrote my dissertation in aromatherapy on the history of rose oil, combining my favourite topic with my favourite oil!

So instead of trying to condense 5000 years into 1500 words, I have decocted it to help all those students who have just embarked on their aromatherapy diplomas by giving an overview and where to go to find more information, especially as they will all be asked to complete an essay on the subject themselves for coursework very shortly (if not asked already).

Primitive man may have used aromatics, certainly as foods but probably also as medicine. It would have been on a ‘trial and error’ basis and probably they got it wrong sometimes. Certainly, archaeologists have shown that primitive tribes have always had special individuals, both men and women, who took on the job of healer and were responsible for preventing illness and curing the sick and injured. In addition to magic, spells, prayers, and charms, shaman and healers often used signature, or symbolic, items to treat their patients. When they worked, these remedies would be passed on to the next generation by word of mouth.

We can trace the use of aromatics, in written form on stone tablets, back to 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. Evidence of simple stills have been discovered where probably myrrh and grasses were heated to collect the oils. In those times, Mesopotamia was part of the great kingdom of Egypt. In 2800 BC the physician, Imhotep, was known to have lived and hieroglyphs describe the use of fragrant materials. Ancient Egyptians revered fragrances so much that they even had a God of Fragrance (or God of Perfume) called Nefertem. Please see the website 4.htm, which has a lovely account of Nefertem. I love the account that Egypt was a holistic nation and thus the God of Fragrance was also a healer. There is of course a lot more information about aromatics and Egypt, too much to include here. I will give a list of resources at the end of this article.

Quite independently, the Chinese were also developing a herbal tradition which dates back, in written terms at least, some 5000 years. Most aromatherapists will be aware of the most famous book the Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Mediicne written by Huang Ti, which lists no less than 8160 different formulae, most of them plants. India also has its herbal medical traditions in the form of Ayurveda, which basically translates as the ‘Laws of Health’ and is around 3000 years old.

By 1250 B, Greece was emerging as a force. Asklepios of Epidaurus was regarded as the founder of medicine and with his two daughters Hygeia, who was later identified as the Goddess of Health, and Panacea the all healer.

Discorides collected knowledge of the plants in the Mediterranean and compiled the five volume De materia maedica. In 460 BC, Hippocrates, the most famous of all ancient physicians, was born on the island of Kos. He and his students wrote over 70 books that tell much about ancient Greek healthcare and the beginning of ‘professional medicine’. The Greeks believed that physicians should not work for personal gain but for love of mankind, and many of today’s professionall medical standards can be traced back to the Hippocratic School. The Greeks had a long tradition in oils, unguents and perfumes. Most women were skilled in the preparation of perfumes for therapeutic purposes.

We see lots of references to the use of aromatics in the Old and New Testament of the Christian Bible, especially frankincense and myrrh, which were as precious as gold as a commodity. Ancient Persia was also known for its use of aromatics and Alexander the Great helped to spread the knowledge of perfumes, gums and aromatics during his conquests. Dealers in perfumes were also called ‘aromatopyles’.

Now we come to one of my favourite periods of history – that of ancient Rome.. To coin a phrase “what did the romans ever do for us?” I can report that the Romans were lavish with their perfumery and use of aromatic oils. They use three types of perfumes: ladysmata (solid unguents), stymmata (scented oils) and diapasmata (powdered perfumes). A large amount were used for massage. Roman perfumeries wer called ‘unguentaril’ and were numerous. The Romans had a real love affair with roses. Temples of Venus were adorned with roses, rose water perfumed their baths and flowed from fountains and rose petals were strewn everywhere. Even wine was rose scented.! Roman baths that specialised in fragrances were called ‘unctuaria’. The famous physician Galen comes from this period and he wrote 300 volumes dividing plants into their medicinal categories, even today referred to as Galenic.

We have to mention the Arabs, and the most famous of all in terms of aromatherapy in the 15th century was Abd Allah ibn Sina. It is easier to remember him by his Latin name of Avicenna. He was a physician and was extremely gifted in various areas including healing. He wrote the Canon of Medicine. Here he gave such detailed description of plant use and also instructions on massage that they could be used in a modern aromatherapy classroom. I was lucky enough to see one of the original copies at the British Museum a few years ago at a special viewing of ancient medicine.

In Europe, following the decline of the Roman Empire, there was little advance in medicine during the Middle Ages. Healing fell into the religious sphere, and clerics were more interested in curing the soul than the body. Although distillation was known at that time, it seems most aromatics were floral waters and infused oils. Eventually herbals became fashionable again and special apothecary shops were set up, stocking all manner of herbs, fresh and dried, including what was called ‘chymical oyle’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, famous herbalists sprang up, such as Parkinson, Gerard and Culpeper.

During the 19th century chemists were able to look into the essences of plants in a more scientific way. However, most essences were abandoned in favour of chemical drugs which acted more powerfully. The perfume industry grew steadily in the 19th century and the region of Grasse in France became well known for its extraction of essences. They created what is now known as ‘Eau de Cologne’. Chemists like Cadeac and Meuvier and later Gatti and Cajola recognised the antiseptic properties of essential oils and the first research on this was undertaken by Chamberland in 1887 during his study on the anthrax bacillus. Despite this research, aromatherapy and phytotherapy went into a period of neglect from which it is now only slowly emerging.

In 1876, the first factory was established for preparation of synthetic perfume. The first artificial musk was created in 1887 and the first steps into the chemical era had been taken.

In 1928, Gattefossé published his book entitled Aromathérapie, his interest being spurred by an accident in his laboratory where he had used Lavender essential oil on his burned hand and was amazed at the speed of healing. The two World Wars halted any more advance in studies into essential oils but Dr Jean Valnet used essential oils while treating soldiers in World War I when penicillin was in short supply. In his book Aromathérapie published in France in 1964, he explains the remarkable properties of essential oils mostly used internally.

About the same time, Madame Marguerite Maury was pursuing similar research into essential oils. She was a biochemist not a doctor and so could not prescribe internal use. She pursued a method of external use which is now the way aromatherapy is used in the UK. She really is the Mother of modern aromatherapy. In 1961, she published The Secret of Life and Youth (which was later republished under the name Marguerite Maury’s Guide to Aromatherapy, published by CW Daniel, 1989). Her best known protégé is Danièle Ryman, and if you go to her website, you can read a beautiful tribute Danièle has written for her mentor.

Personally, I feel that aromatherapy is more akin to the perfume industry than herbal medicine as essential oils were used in perfumery (they are now all synthetics). The effect of fragrance on the mind and emotions is very powerful and the real beauty of aromatherapy lies with reminiscence and smell therapy. It is such a shame that every ‘natural product’ on the market with an aroma is being labelled as aromatherapy or ‘containing essential oils’ because of course it is ALL synthetic and not real aromatherapy at all.

Now before I completely run out of space and start going off on another whole subject, here are some very useful resources that you can use to learn more about aromatherapy history:

  • The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity by Roy Porter
  • The Art of Aromatherapy by Robert Tisserand
  • Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt by Lise Manniche
  • Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume by Mandy Aftel
  • Aromatherapy for Lovers: Using Oils and Fragrances for a More Sensual Love Life by Maggie Tisserand
  • The Secret of Life and Youth by Marguerite Maury
  • The Practice of Aromatherapy by Dr Jean Valnet
  • Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy by René-Maurice Gattefossé
  • DanièIe Ryman’ä Aromatherapy Bible by Danièle Ryman
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