History Of Aromatherapy
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Centuries have passed, all the while the most prestigious civilizations have used aromatic plants and learned the delicate process of extracting essential oils. Here, we talk about their history right up to modern aromatherapy, as you know it today.
1. The earliest essential oils usage
The first traces of the use of aromatherapy date back more than 30,000 years. Through fumigation, Aboriginal Australians were distinguished users of the Tea Tree (or Melaleuca alternifolia). Tea tree oil is today very promising in terms of antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic, and antifungal properties.
A terracotta pot found in Pakistan dates back 7000 years ago. The Ayurvedas books contain the oldest testimonies concerning the procurement of natural products. Ayurvedic medicine mainly uses aromatic plants.
The Hindus knew about fermentation and obtained products from it, such as Calamus and Andropogon essences, by distillation, even if they were alcoholic solutions.
In India, aromatic waters and perfumes were widely used, both in religious sacrifices and to cleanse the body, mind, or habitat. They were also used in aromatic baths and massages. We still practice this today with oil diffusers and aromatherapy massages.
China is also another cradle of the use of plants and their essences for healing. The Compendium of Materia Medica (or Pen Tsao), the first medicinal book dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C., relates the use of about a hundred plants such as Anise (also called Aniseed), Turmeric, Cinnamon or Ginger.
- Africa – Middle East
The Egyptians and Persians were experts in the art of distillation. Proof of this was found in Mesopotamian inscriptions dating back 4000 years and Egyptian writings dating back 3500 years.
The Egyptians obtained oils by pressing plants. They isolated the perfumes and utilized the essence of turpentine, from the resin of "Pistacia terebinthus" (known commonly as Terebinth), which is probably the first essential oil extracted by dry distillation.
The Egyptians created aromas for their personal use as well as for rituals and ceremonies in temples and pyramids. The antiseptic properties of essential oils were notably used for embalming and preserving mummies, as well as for diffusion or fumigation to make ointments and more.
According to the oldest historical data, Egyptians used balsamic substances with aromatic properties in their medicinal preparations. The precious oils of Frankincense, Myrrh, Galbanum, Rosemary, Hyssop, Cassia, Cinnamon, and Spikenard were widely used for their healing properties in anointing and caring for sick people.
The Ebers Papyrus, discovered in 1817 (circa 1550 BC), was called the "medicinal scroll". It mentioned more than 800 prescriptions and herbal remedies.
Other parchments indicate that the Egyptians had a high success rate in the treatment of 81 different diseases.
In the Bible, there are more than a hundred references to aromatic substances and fragrances. Biblical prophets seem to have admitted that essential oils protected their bodies from disease. The Three Kings even brought the precious essences of Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus.
The Greeks massively employed "perfume oils" and aromatic oils for healing. During the Plague of Athens, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed large fires of Juniper, Cedar, fragrant woods, and aromatic plants.
In the 1st century AD, Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician from Asia Minor (or Anatolia), wrote the work "De Materia Medica", evoking the medical uses of distilled waters, which lists no less than 519 species of plants.
Hippocrates then brought together all the medical knowledge of the era in his seminal work, where he advocated healing by promoting the natural forces of self-healing and the use of herbs in food and medicine.
The Romans, great users of perfumes, used aromatics in the form of "aromatic fats" or scented oils. They knew the antibacterial and antiseptic properties of the aromatic plants they cultivated.
The advanced civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, knew the use of aromatic plant drugs: Styrax, Copaiba, Sassafras—used to heal infections and wounds.
2. The birth of aromatherapy
The source of "modern" aromatherapy comes directly from the Arab world, where scientists began distilling plants with steam. Steam distillation is still the most popular method used to extract and isolate essential oils from plants for use in natural products to date.
- Aromatherapy before the 10th century
The great scholar Avicenna developed the still around the year 1000. The Arabs, great users of alchemy and medicine from natural sources, then invented in the High Middle Ages, the coil which allowed the perfection of refrigeration of distilled product and distillation techniques.
The first documents about the history of distillation date back to the writings of Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) in the 9th century, which describe dry and aqueous distillation.
The ancient Arabs began to study the chemical properties of essential oils. As it was trendy in the Middle East at that time, they extracted rose oil and rose water.
Kings traded land, gold, and slaves in exchange for oils, which were more valuable than gold.
- The evolution of aromatherapy until the 19th century
It wasn't until the 13th century that aromatherapy arrived in Europe. Back from the crusades, the knights brought back the invention of the steam still and the use of essential oils. At that time, pharmacists were called "aromatherii".
- In the 13th century, Arnold Villanova de Bachuone gave the first serious description of the distillation of essential oils with Turpentine and Rosemary. Raymond Lulle provides an accurate description of distillation for Sage. At the same time, the distillation of essential oils of Almond, Cinnamon, Rose, and Sandalwood was successfully completed.
But these were, in fact, aromatic distilled waters. Indeed, at that time, the plants were first macerated in the brandy or fermented in water. Because of the presence of alcohol, the separation of the essential oils did not occur, and we obtained aromatic waters.
- In the 14th century, the distillation apparatus evolved and made their debut in medical and alchemical laboratories. Only Turpentine oil represents a real essential oil.
- At the end of the 15th century, a doctor from Strasbourg (France), Jérôme Brunschwig, only mentions in his writings the oils of Aspic, Turpentine, Juniper Wood and Rosemary. The purpose of distillation was to obtain Quintae essentiae (quintessence). But all these distillates were highly alcoholic, and there was still no notion of essential oils.
After many works on the art of distillation, we had to wait for the "Liber de distillatione" written by Giovanni Battista della Porta (Italian) in 1563, where he distinguished fatty oils, essential oils and how to separate the essences from the aromatic distilled waters.
- It was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that essential oils received their first real applications and introduction into the trade. In Provence (France), in particular, apothecaries and herbalists gradually prescribed Lavender, Thyme, and Rosemary essential oils.
- At the end of the 19th century, with the advent of organic chemistry, essential oils gradually revealed their secrets: they are a mixture of numerous components, terpenes, alcohols, esters, aldehydes, ketones, phenols...
3. The advent of modern aromatherapy
- In 1918, René-Maurice Gattefossé (French), a chemist and perfumer, the true father of modern aromatherapy and inventor of the word itself, accidentally burnt his hand due to an explosion in his laboratory. He had the reflex to plunge his hand into a container containing real lavender essential oil. Relief came immediately from the lavender oil, and the wound healed with disconcerting speed. Faced with this surprising result, he devoted himself to the antibacterial study of essential oils.
- In 1929, Sévelinge (French), a pharmacist, similarly devoted himself to the study of essential oils in veterinary medicine and confirmed Gattefossé's work.
- In 1964, Dr. Jean Valnet (French), author of a relevant popularization, relaunched the medicinal use of essential oils.
Paul Duraffourd invented the aromatogram, which Christian Duraffourd and Jean-Claude Lapraz took over. These specialists in phytotherapy and aromatherapy will design magisterial preparations based on essential oils, a therapeutic set capable of alleviating aches and even healing.
Aromatherapy has become very popular in recent years. The desire to limit dependence on allopathy, and to move towards more alternative medicine, with fewer adverse effects on the body, is becoming increasingly popular. Aromatherapy can be used in many cases, as essential oils hold many healing qualities.
However, be careful, Aromatherapy products also present risks and contraindications. It is always important to consult with a qualified health professional.
Check out our article: Essential oils for headaches. You will find how to use essential oils and our suggestions for safety as well.