The origins of aromatherapy

Since aromatherapy is a relatively modern term, its history must be seen as linked with the use of aromatic and medicinal plants throughout time.  Plants and people have evolved together on the planet and since prehistory people have been utilising the herbs local to them by trial and error for food, for medicine and for ritual and spiritual uses.  Depending on the plant, people have used the whole plant or parts of it; the leaves, stems, roots, flowers and seeds often having differing properties.  When we think of essential oils, we think of what makes a particular plant itself – how the plant has evolved to protect itself and better survive – and those characteristics are contained within the compound of  substances that each plant uniquely makes and which we extract from them into essential oils.

Ancient civilisations are documented to have used plants in these ways and some of these uses still persist today.  The Vedic tradition in India goes back to more than 2000 BCE with the use of many plants in cooking and medicinally to improve health.  Many of these plants are aromatic and some we use today as essential oils, for example ginger, cinnamon, clove.  Other aromatics not used so much for therapies were used in sacred rituals to connect with the divine, make offerings to gods and as aids to prayer and meditation.  This use of aromatics to enhance or change perception and/or state of mind is something that continues into modern aromatherapy.

In China the use of aromatic herbs also goes back to more than 2000 BCE with traditional Chinese medicine often utilising several herbs together for prescriptions for all sorts of ailments, a practice still carried out today.  Plants were also used for health in cooking – garlic, ginger, chilli – and as religious offerings.

The most ancient civilisation to be documented using aromatic plants is perhaps Egypt.  Again, as well as using them for medicine, cooking and in sacred rituals, the Egyptians relied heavily on certain plant essences as part of the embalming process for wealthy citizens and royalty.  Traces of these essences can still be detected in mummified remains thousands of years later which attests to the efficacy of the plant extracts in preservation.  The Egyptians were also probably one of the very first peoples to extract essential oils similar to what we know today by enfleurage and probably by distillation too.

These ancient peoples relied on the plants that were native to their areas – and many of the aromatic species that are used as aromatherapy oils today come from Asia, India and northern Africa.  They were also traded extensively because of their high value, for example by the Phoenicians, which resulted in their use becoming more widespread and coming to the Mediterranean and beyond.

Knowledge of the value of aromatics moved westwards via the inhabitants of classical Greece and Rome.  From around 500 BCE the Greeks used aromatic plant extracts for medicinal purposes as well as more traditionally in sacred ritual and Hippocrates, born around 460 BCE, prescribed these extracts to be taken both orally and topically with massage in what is often seen as the birth of medicine as we know it in the West.  The empire of Alexander the Great which included Persia and parts of India brought back more spices and knowledge to the Greeks who had already learned from the Egyptians.  The Romans too learned these uses as well as the value of aromatics for personal perfume – as indeed the Egyptians had done.

Much of classical learning was lost with the decline of the Greek state and the Roman empire as Europe fell into the dark ages from about the 6th to 13th centuries CE.  At this time the use of plant extracts was carried on by the Arab empires in the near and middle east in conjunction with the development of alchemy which reached Europe in the middle ages following contact via the Crusades and beyond.  In the middle ages in Europe local aromatic plants were still recognised for their value in preventing and helping cure certain diseases as well as being used in cooking.  These included the plants we think of today in Europe as “herbs” – sage, rosemary, lavender etc.

With the renaissance in Europe came the development of alchemy and the beginning of chemical knowledge as well as medical science.  Distillation was possible for plant extracts so that they could be tested and used, and, with the invention of printing in the 15th century, herbals began to be composed and circulated so that knowledge grew and was more readily available.  Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal is one of the most widely known and is still published today.  New essences were available from plants traded around the world and these were used in the development of perfume manufacture as well as for medicinal use.  This continued on into more modern times with apothecaries being skilled in the use of herbs and their extracts for health benefits and the Christian church continuing to use aromatic herbs for incense in religious ceremony.

However, with industrialisation and the birth of the modern age and modern medicine, use of plant extracts became more divorced from the use of the whole plant or essence as chemical means could be used to extract single chemicals or to synthesise them – for example the extraction of salicylic acid from willow to be used as aspirin.  The refining of some plant extracts could lead to the production of substances which needed (and still need) to be used with great care – for example the refinement of opium to produce morphine and then heroin making available stronger and stronger drugs.  The misuse of heroin and the subsequent development of addiction is now well known.

It was around 1928 when a French chemist and parfumier called Gattefossé coined the term “aromatherapy” to describe the use of plant essential oils for their therapeutic properties.  He published Aromathérapie – Les Huiles essentielles – hormones végétales in 1937.  Aromatherapy recognised that essential oils can give up their beneficial effects to the human body by ingestion through smell, by mouth or by massage into the skin and subsequent absorption through that route.  Each of these modes of administration has its advantages and disadvantages, for example by inhaling an aroma the effect passes through the blood/brain barrier via the limbic system which can have a direct effect on the emotions and psyche.

The search for more knowledge of the effects of essential oils and the tradition of aromatherapy as we know it today continues to develop as skilled practitioners and researchers publish their findings and knowledge in the modern manner.  In some ways, aromatherapy can be seen as one of the most acceptable faces of holistic therapy because it involves the use of substances which are, after all, chemical compounds and these are something that science and medicine understands.  However, the subtle energies and connotations of using essential oils in a true holistic manner – one that requires understanding not only of plant chemistry but also of the spirit nature of plants, people and, indeed, the universe, take the skills of aromatherapy beyond that of mere chemistry and back into the realm of the holistic therapist.

Battaglia, S., 2003. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. 2nd ed Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.
Lawless, J., 2014. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Revised edition London: Harper Thorsons.  (accessed through free Kindle sample from Amazon)

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