From the beginning of recorded history, essential oils have been prized for their beauty enhancing, medicinal, spiritual, aromatic and therapeutic value. This article will describe the history of essential oils in various parts of the world.
As early as 2000 BC, the ancient Egyptians were using essential oils. They used them for medicinal benefits, beauty care, and spiritual enhancement. They used essential oils in literally all aspects of their daily life. The ruling families and the priests wore expensive aromatics and perfumes in Egypt.
Hippocrates, the Greek physician has been a huge influence in informing the medical community. He was considered the father of modern medicine. He studied the medicinal influence of over 300 plants. and documented it. It has been said that he advised that “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.”
Hippocrates reportedly believed strongly in the medicinal benefit of fumigation with aromatics. He fumigated the city of Athens to fight the plague. The fallen soldiers on the battlefields were prescribed aromatic treatments.
A contemporary of Hippocrates, Theophrastus wrote:
“It is to be expected the perfumes should have medicinal properties in view of the virtues of their spices. The effect of plasters and of what some may call poultices prove these virtues, since they disperse tumors and abscesses and produce a distinct effect on the body and its interior parts.”
In his observation, he implies a fundamental principle of therapeutic aromatherapy: Essential oils placed onto the body externally affects the internal organs and tissues of the body.
A core element of the Indian Ayurvedic health care system is essential oils.
WARNING: The Indian Ayurvedic health care system is a natural healing system blending spiritual, philosophical and practical elements. Deepak Chopra is an Indian-born American author and public speaker who is an advocate for alternative medicine. He is a prominent figure in the New Age movement. As a Christian, I would have nothing to do with this practice, so you must be careful with how you use essential oils.
When it comes to aromatics and health, the Romans used aromatic materials and essential oils more than any of the other cultures, the Romans used them lavishly. They used them several times a day with frequent massages with essential oils. The essential oils were also used to give scents to hair, body, and the bed.
Pedanius Dioscorides was a prominent Greek physician. He wrote an impressive 5-volume reference work on herbal medicine during the first century A.D. There is well over 600 remedies in those publications. One-thousand five hundred years of medical practice has proven that many remedies he wrote about are very useful. Examples of some of these remedies are: Myrrh – gum infections, juniper berry – diuretic, marjoram – sedative properties, and cypress – relieves diarrhea.
Herbs and plant medicine are an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Shennong’s Herbal is the oldest surviving medical text that we are aware of. It is dated around 2700 BC, and it contains information on usage of 365 plants. The father of Chinese herbal medicine, Shennong was a ruler. He taught his people the practices of agriculture. He ate hundreds of herbs to test their medical value. It is said that he discovered tea and acupuncture as well.
Huángdì, the Yellow Emperor, was another significant influence on today’s Eastern medicine. He is said to have authored a book on internal medicine which included important uses of essential oils. It is still used as a reference for physicians today.
China is also one of the most abundant essential oil producers in the world.
There are over 1,100 direct and indirect mentions of essential oils in Scripture.
Cedarwood, frankincense, fir, cinnamon, myrrh, myrtle and spikenard are essential oils and herbs that are specifically mentioned in the bible.
One of the most well-known references to aromatics is of the Magi bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. The book of Exodus has another significant instance in which Moses received the specifics for a holy anointing oil. The formula included cassia, cinnamon, clove, galbanum, myrrh, olive oil and spikenard.
During the Middle Ages, Hippocrates’ wisdom and the use of aromatics was denounced by the Catholic Church. It was deemed as decadent. Bathing for healing or ‘the cure’ was thought as ‘inappropriate’. This temporarily reduced the use of essential oils therapeutically, although they were kept in use for their pleasant aromas.
History seems to point to the Monks of that era for secretly keeping plant medicine and wisdom alive and well. The threat of persecution or being burned at the stake was real. The use of herbs and essential oils was labeled as ‘witchcraft’. Many lost their lives or were outcast from their communities during that time period.
NOTE: People who practice in witchcraft use essential oils, and this is evil, BUT that does not make essential oils evil.
By the 1600′s, writings about herbal medicine and essential oils became widespread. By the 1800’s most of the medication of England, Germany and France were referencing and prescribing essential oils for a variety of medical conditions.
At the same time, large flower-growing districts in the south of France were supplying raw materials for French perfumers. Tuberculosis was common. Interestingly, workers processing flowers and herbs generally remained disease-free. It was thought that essential oils in the plants were protecting the workers. In 1887 the first recorded lab test reported anti-bacterial properties in essential oils.
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French cosmetic chemist, in 1910 was severely burned. He burned his hands and arms in an accidental lab explosion. He extinguished the flames, but as he described it, “both my hands were covered with rapidly developing gas gangrene.” He submerged his burns in a large container of lavender oil. He reported that “just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating and healing which began the next day.”
His astonishing burn experience led him to investigate the medical uses of essential oils. He treated soldiers in military hospitals during World War I. He coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1920’s-1930’s which means the treatment of disease and injury using aromatic essential oils.
Jean Valnet was a Parisian medical doctor and army surgeon. He was also a colleague of Gattefosse’s. He began to use as antiseptics treating war wounds during the Indochina war from 1948-1959. The story goes that while in China, treating the war wounded, he ran out of his supply of antibiotics. He began to use essential oils on the injured out of desperation. He was amazed to see how the essential oils fought infection which saved many lives.
After the war, he published the comprehensive text The Practice of Aromatherapy.
Dr. Daniel Pénoël
In the 1980′s, a French doctor, Daniel Pénoël along with French biochemist Pierre Franchomme, investigated and catalogued the medical properties of over 270 essential oils. They then co-authored a reference book listing the medicinal properties of these oils. The book was published in French in 1990, called L’aromatherapie Exactement.
With the renewed interest in essential oils and resurgence in their use, there are many new clinical studies and publications documenting the efficacy and benefits of essential oils.
See HISTORY OF ESSENTIAL OILS at Essential Oils Academy.