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June 20, 2018  |  Login
History of Aromatherapy
By James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Long before humans discovered the processes for extracting essential oils from plants, they found ways to use aromatic plants and other perfumes to enhance their lives. Picture an ancient Egyptian temple. Incense is burning, infusing the air with frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood. A cadre of priests anoints the faithful with scented oils. Many of these pilgrims are already covered with various scents from their aromatic baths and perfumed cosmetics. And when they return to their homes, many of them will burn juniper or thyme to freshen the air and ward off evil spirits.

The Egyptians were among the first to indulge in aromatherapy. The same botanical knowledge that helped them embalm their dead was also used in daily life. But they were not the lone aromatherapists in the ancient world. While Egyptian priests and perfumers practiced their craft, to the east in India, Ayurvedic healers were recording the healing properties of such aromatic plants as coriander, ginger, and rose.

Farther east in China and Japan, aromatic woods and perfumes were used in religious rites and for personal beauty and hygiene. The ancient Greeks learned the secrets of aromatherapy from the Egyptians, and they became enthusiastic partakers of scent. They often used huge quantities of aromatic substances during religious rituals and adorned their bodies daily with perfume from head to toe, in hopes of gratifying the gods. But they also made the connection between scent and health. They believed that certain perfumes had therapeutic properties. Emotional or mental ailments could be healed with medicinal perfumes, and once the mind was healed, physical health would follow.

Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," prescribed perfumed therapies; Greek medical practice also yielded the label iatralypte, a physician who cured through the use of aromatic ointments. They passed their knowledge on to the Romans, who in turn spread the use of botanicals to each new land they conquered.

After the fall of Rome, aromatherapy in Europe dwindled. But the Arab world continued to add to the knowledge of perfumes' healing powers. By the tenth century, an Arabian physician, Avicenna, had discovered a way to distill the essential oils from rose petals. Soon, many other essential oils were available, and by the time trade resumed between Europe and the East, the use of essential oils was widespread. Oils such as juniper and pine were used to combat illness and keep it from spreading, and the use of perfumes for personal adornments and hygiene was commonplace.

Aromatherapy met an enemy with the Puritan movement, which lumped perfume and incense in with paganism and witchcraft. And with the advent of modern science, aromatherapy fell further from favor. The natural essential oils, so prized for generations, were replaced with synthetic scents in cosmetics, perfumes, and foods.

It wasn't until the 1920s that aromatherapy began a resurgence. The French chemist and perfumer Ren-Maurice Gattefoss actually coined the term aromatherapy after an accident in his laboratory left his hand badly burned. He immersed his hand in lavender oil and later noticed that the burn healed quite quickly and left no scar. This personal experience led him to delve further into the possibilities of healing with essential oils. more

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