Ancient Egypt was the true birthplace of essential oils, or ‘aromatherapy’ as we know it today. The Egyptians cultivated plants for their oils and used them extensively in their religion, in cosmetics as well as for medicinal purposes. Aromatic essence and resins were also used in the embalming process.
It is thought that most essential oils were produced in Egypt by a type of solvent extraction method (enfleurage) using animal fat – however, distillation “pots” have also been found dating back about 3,500 BC.
Around the same time, China and India were exploring herbs and aromatic plants too, which would become an integral part of the Indian Ayurvedic medical system.
The wisdom of the Egyptians was absorbed by the ancient Greeks: the most well-known physician of that time, Hippocrates (c.460-377 BC) was a firm believer in treating a patient holistically and included massage in many of his therapies.
Romans, in turn adopted the Greek’s knowledge and were great believers in hygiene to promote health – aromatic baths being especially popular.
A dark time
The Dark Ages, which came about after the fall of the Roman Empire, heralded a time of great religious oppression. The Church, since it considered bathing a sin, encouraged people to use aromatics to cover the stench – (luckily, most of these plants turned out to have anti-bacterial and anti-pesticide properties as well!) But apart from this, the holistic teachings of Hippocrates were all but forgotten.
Rebirth of interest
It was not until the Renaissance period that aromatherapy found favour again, and there was a swing back to the wisdom of folk medicine. A great Physician at the time, Paracelsus (1493-1541) proved his mettle to his contemporaries by having great success “curing leprosy” with plant extracts.
The term “aromatherapy” as it is known today was first coined in 1937 by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse. He was not a believer in the natural health movement but was interested in the properties essential oils exhibited.
In 1910 he burnt his hand badly in his laboratory, and being the first compound available, he treated his hand with pure undiluted lavender oil. This not only immediately eased the pain, but helped heal the hand without any sign of infection or scarring.
He also found that minute amounts of essential oils are absorbed by the body and interact with the body’s chemistry.
During the second World War, as a result of Gattefosse’s experiments, doctors went on to successfully treat many injured soldiers with essential oils.
Since the late 70’s and early 80’s a boom in the interest in natural medicine, and more recently the rise in environmental concerns has kept essential oils growing in popularity– both for health and healing, and practical uses to replace harmful chemicals in the home.