Ah aromatherapy. The scents that take us around the world. There’s something for everyone: repelling insects, helping the respiratory tract, or simply enjoying the scents.
So, how did we get to the modernisation of aromatherapy, which is now part of the daily lives of millions of people?
The beginning of history:
The ancient Chinese were pioneers in understanding the therapeutic qualities of plants. Their comprehensive approach to health, which included practices like acupuncture, shiatsu, and the use of herbal concoctions, dates back to 2500BC and laid the groundwork for « Traditional Chinese Medicine » (TCM). Central to their health philosophy is the harmonization of Qi (energy), the interplay of Yin and Yang (opposing forces), and the five elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. Around 2800BC, the Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, penned « Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor« , a seminal work detailing diseases and their plant-based treatments. There were up to 300 different plants in the book! This ancient tome, among the world’s oldest, remains in circulation today. Notably, China’s most significant contribution to aromatherapy might be the citrus fruits, as it’s posited that most citrus varieties originated there before making their way to the Mediterranean in the 10th century through Arab traders.
The ancient Egyptians are often recognized as early adopters of aromatic plant usage. They integrated fragrant oils not just for incense, medicine, and massage but also for skincare, cosmetics, and their intricate embalming rituals.
During this era, distillation was not yet a known process. Thus, the Egyptians likely employed methods like ‘enfleurage’ and ‘maceration’ to extract aromatic oils. At first, the Egyptians used herbs to extract their substance: the first technique consisted of immersing the herbs in oil, then pressing the mixture through a cloth to recover the odour.
Pharaohs’ gardens flourished with medicinal herbs sourced globally. However, temple priests and physicians oversaw the crafting of medicinal blends and perfumes, used for anointing the Pharaohs during rituals, warfare, or intimate moments.
The Ebers Papyrus, dating back to 1550BC, reveals the importance attached by the Egyptians to personal hygiene. It also shows the first recipes for body deodorants. The Egyptians had an advanced knowledge of plants. Perfumes, integral to their religious practices, were so revered that each deity had a designated fragrance, often used for anointing their idols. Perfume application was unique, often involving a solid aromatic cone placed on the head, melting gradually with the heat and enveloping the wearer in a fragrant aura.
Their expertise in exploiting resins and plant essences was made known by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Despite being sealed for over three millennia, jars containing aromatic compounds like frankincense and Indian Spikenard remained intact.
As the grandeur of Egyptian civilization waned, Europe emerged as the new medical hub.
When the Egyptian Empire began to decline around 300 BC, Europe emerged as the centre of medical progress, moving towards a more systematic and scientific approach to treatment. The ancient Greeks were convinced that aromatic baths and oil massages were beneficial to well-being. Several Greek doctors studied the therapeutic properties of essential oils. Among them were Asclepius, who, around 1200 BC, is said to have incorporated essential oils into surgical procedures, and Hippocrates, who is often regarded as the pioneer of medical science. In fact, a famous quotation from Hippocrates highlights the benefits of essential oils:
The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day.Hippocrate
The role of the Roman and Persian empires:
The Romans advanced the distillation and extraction methods previously established by the Egyptians and Greeks, leveraging their understanding of herbal medicines.
A prominent medical figure of that era was the Greek, Claudius Galen (around 150 AD). After extensive studies in herbal medicine and using plant-based treatments on numerous injured gladiators, he earned the position of personal physician to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Subsequently, the Persian society made significant contributions to the evolution of Aromatherapy. Ibn Sina, a revered physician of his time and recognized in Europe as Avicenna (around 1000 AD), devised a mechanism for steam distilling plants. This resulted in the extraction of genuine essential oils, diverging from the previous production of aromatic waters.
As explorers ventured to the East, traders introduced Europe to novel aromatherapy treatments, as well as a diverse range of foreign plants and herbs.
Another person who played an important role in the Roman Empire was Pedanius Dioscorides.
Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90AD), a Greek physician, served in the Roman military during Emperor Nero’s reign. His extensive travels, spanning regions such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, equipped him with vast knowledge. He penned « De Materia Medica« , an ancient Greek herbal guide which spans five volumes. In this comprehensive work, he detailed the habitats of approximately 500 plants, their preparation methods, their medicinal attributes, and discussed over 1000 botanical treatments. This book, which became important over the centuries, remained the reference in Europe for a very long time, earning Dioscorides the nickname of « pioneer of pharmacology« . De Materia Medica is an essential historical document detailing the medical practices of the Greeks, Romans and other ancient civilisations. « De Materia Medica » stands as a vital historical record detailing the medicinal practices of the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient civilizations. Many of the herbal insights from Dioscorides’ work continue to shape contemporary herbal medicine.
In Middle Ages Era
During the Crusades, knights returned to Europe with aromatic essences and waters. The appeal of these scents led to the emergence of perfume production. Unfortunately, it was a serious historical event that popularized plants during this period, giving them medicinal significance: the bubonic plague in the 14th century. To combat the spread and effects of the disease, fires were lit on street corners with a mixture of incense. Inside, the overwhelming stench of death and efforts to ward off infection were reflected in the use of aromatic candles, incense and the scattering of fragrant herbs on the ground. These herbs, when trampled on, released scents designed to mitigate infection and mask the overpowering smell of disease. As a protective measure during the Black Death, individuals adorned themselves with pomanders, often made of oranges pierced with cloves, or held bouquets of herbs. It was generally agreed that these aromatic plants were the best defense against the plague. In particular, because of their frequent interaction with these aromatic plants, apothecaries and perfumers were perceived as plague-resistant.
In those days, doctors often carried a pouch filled with fragrant herbs, including cinnamon and cloves, which they believed would purify the air they inhaled and create a sanitized environment protecting them from the bubonic plague. Another tool they used was a stick with aromatic plants at the top, which they waved in front of them as they moved about, in order to purify the ambient air. These practices lasted from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.
During this era, the widespread use of herbal treatments unfortunately opened doors for fraudsters to capitalize with their so-called ‘miracle elixirs’ that claimed to cure all ailments. Such deceitful practices led to a decline in the credibility of herbal medicine among contemporary doctors and the broader medical community.
With technological advancements in distillation, essential oils became a staple in the inventory of herbalists. Many families not only cultivated culinary herbs but also maintained a dedicated space, often called a « still room. » Here, women crafted homemade remedies, vinegars, wines, and spirits in a practice referred to as « simpling. »
By the century’s close, clear distinctions emerged among apothecaries, physicians, and alchemists. Alchemy eventually evolved into the modern disciplines of chemistry and pharmacy.
Around 1920, French chemist and perfumer René-Maurice Gattefossé inadvertently rekindled interest in the therapeutic virtues of essential oils. While conducting an experiment in his laboratory, he accidentally burned his arm and instinctively plunged it into the nearest container of lavender oil. Gattefossé was astonished by the immediate pain relief and rapid healing of the burn without scarring. This serendipitous event sparked his commitment to the systematic exploration of the medicinal and therapeutic properties of essential oils. Often considered the pioneer of modern aromatherapy, Gattefossé spent the following years studying pure natural oils for their therapeutic, medical and aesthetic values. His landmark work, « Aromathérapie », published in 1939, remains a reference in the field today. The second edition of « Aromatherapy » began in 1942 but was never published: the contemporary development of antibiotics seemed to render the work obsolete. During the Second World War, essential oils were used to treat sick soldiers when antibiotics ran out.
In this day and age, aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils to treat mood imbalances and health problems. These oils are used to promote health and combat disease. Worldwide, aromatherapy is recognized as a type of herbal therapy and is integrated into the curricula of various countries.
Over the past three decades, aromatherapy has experienced considerable growth, mainly due to studies validating the efficacy of essential oils for mental and physical well-being. What’s more, these botanical extracts are no longer reserved for the elite and have become accessible to a wider public.
There is a wide range of natural oils used in aromatherapy, each with its own method of use and purpose. In fact, we’ve written a guide to the most popular plants in the field.