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The History and Development of Aromatherapy

Although the word Aromatherapy was only coined recently, it has its origins in the most ancient of healing practices, for the plants from which we derive what are termed ‘essential oils’  has been used in one form or another as long as man has existed on the planet.

Before we take a closer look at Aromatherapy, let me first take you on a brief history of herbal, or plant-based medicine, if only to demonstrate that the benefits you will enjoy from using these oils are not some pet theory I dreamed up, but based on evidence gathered from all four corners of the world since the dawn of early civilisation.

No-one is sure how humans first discovered that what was growing all around them could also help them cure their illnesses or ward off disease, but it's likely early hominids made the discovery by accident, after observing that some of the roots and berries they gathered for food also made them feel better or helped heal wounds more quickly.

They may also have taken note of the plants sick animals chose to eat and be curious why the creature suddenly appeared to regain its health not long afterwards and tried it on themselves. Perhaps, by design or accident, certain leaves, stems and flowers were burnt in the fire or fell into the cooking pot and were breathed in or ingested in ignorance but their effects brought enlightenment.

Such herbal wisdom would have been of great importance to primitive tribes who depended on their immediate environment for survival. Once discovered, it is likely that such knowledge was handed down first verbally and then, as language became more sophisticated, by the written word.

The Ancient Egyptians

Every great civilisation we have known, be it the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese or South Americans, developed to one degree or another, a sophisticated herbal law from which healers of the time made pills, powders, teas, ointments and pastes from a wide variety of local trees, plants, animal and mineral substances.

Papyrus documents dating from around 2,890 BC show that the ancient Egyptians were using aromatic plants for medicine, beauty and to embalm their dead 3000 years before the birth of Christ. They utilised a wide variety of now familiar products such as castor oil, coriander, cumin, garlic, grapes and water melon for the treatment of all manner of common ailments.

The Egyptians invented a rudimentary distillation machine that allowed for the crude extraction of Cedar wood oil. It is also thought by some that Persia and India may have also invented crude distillation machines to extract oils from plants, but very little is known.

Oils of Cedar wood, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh were used by the Egyptians to embalm the dead. When a tomb was opened in the early 20th century, traces of the herbs were discovered with intact portions of the body. The scent, although faint, was still apparent. Although the Cedar wood the Egyptians used was distilled by a crude distillation process, the other oils the Egyptians used were most likely infused oils.

The Egyptians also used infused oils and herbal preparations for spiritual, medicinal, fragrant and cosmetic use. It is thought that the Egyptians coined the term perfume, from the Latin per fumum which translates as ‘through the smoke’. Egyptian men of the time used fragrance as readily as the women. An interesting method that the men used to fragrance themselves was to place a solid cone of perfume on their heads. It would gradually melt and would cover them in fragrance.

Ancient Babylonia and Greece

Further to the east, the sophisticated Babylonians were well versed in plant medicine, planting gardens of therapeutic cucumber, coriander, juniper, myrrh, pumpkins, garlic, onions, fennel, saffron, thyme, mustard and many others.

Perhaps one of the most famous and influential of ancient civilisations was the Greek Empire. More than any other, this ancient world power has done more to shape the modern world than any other.

Many of the concepts of civilised behaviour and government, such as democracy, were devised in ancient Greece. Modern medicine too owes much to this antiquarian society.  The most famous and revered of all Greek physicians was Hippocrates, born about 460 BC.

In his writings he catalogues a vast number of medicinal plants still used for their therapeutic benefits, such as rhubarb, quince and Myrrh. We all know the Christian story of the three wise men from the east that carried gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant baby Jesus. Myrrh was considered a very valuable medicinal plant long before the birth of Christ and was well known to Hippocrates.

In his time, Greek soldiers carried Myrrh into battle for the treatment of wounds. Just as modern herbalists do today, Hippocrates entreated people to use these medicinal plants as a preventative medicine when he said "Let your medicine be your food and your food be your medicine."

Thousands of years after his death, he is still known today by medical students all over the world as the 'father of all medicine.' Such is this man's importance in the history and development of modern medical practice that those same students studying to be doctors in many different countries are still required to swear allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath, binding him or her to the code of medical ethics contained in it.

In the 2nd Century A.D. another, now famous, Greek physicians by the name of Galen divided plants into various medicinal categories, a practice we still call 'Galenic'.

The Greeks learned a great deal from the Egyptians, but Greek mythology apparently credits the gift and knowledge of perfumes to the gods. The Greeks also recognized the medicinal and aromatic benefits of plants. Hippocrates practiced fumigations for both aromatic and medicinal benefit. A Greek perfumer by the name of Megallus created a perfume called Megaleion. Megaleion included myrrh in a fatty-oil base and served several purposes: (1) for its aroma, (2) for its anti-inflammatory properties towards the skin and (3) to heal wounds.

India and China

In India, ancient religious texts dating back 2000 years B.C. contain formulae and instructions for the use of plants such as cloves, ginger, pepper, sandalwood, sesame and aloes, plants that today still form the basis of India's traditional Ayurveda medical philosophy. Ayurveda medicine uses benzoin, caraway, cardamon, clove, ginger, pepper, sandalwood, cannabis, castor oil, sesame oil, aloe and sugar cane, the first seven of which are used in aromatherapy.

Walk down any busy street in a modern city and you are sure to come across a shop that sells traditional Chinese herbal remedies. China's herbal tradition is one of the worlds' oldest with the earliest written guide thought to have been committed to paper some 4000 years ago.  It was called the 'Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine'  or 'Huang Ti Nei Ching' and contains over 8000 different plant based formulae including liquorice, peach, gentian and walnut, complemented by the other great health-giving arts of Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Acupuncture.  

The Chinese may have been the first culture to use aromatic plants for well-being through incense burning to help create harmony and balance.

The Roman Empire built on the knowledge of the Egyptians and Greeks. Discorides wrote a book called ‘De Materia Medica’ that described the properties of about 500 plants. It is also reported that Discorides studied distillation. Distillation during this period, however, focused on extracting aromatic floral waters and not essential oils.

A major event for the distillation of essential oils came with the invention of a coiled cooling pipe by a 11th century Persian called Avicenna. He invented a coiled pipe which allowed the plant vapour and steam to cool down more effectively than previous distillers that used a straight cooling pipe. Avicenna's contributions lead to more focus on essential oils and their benefits.

Medieval Europe

We know from surviving manuscripts that in Medieval Europe Lavender, Rosemary and Thyme, all now known to possess effective anti-bacterial and antiseptic qualities, were held to the mouth as a posy that was breathed through to ward off diseases such as the Black Death in the 14th century.

It is believed that some perfumers may have avoided the plague by their constant contact with these natural aromatics.

By the 15th century, the number of books written on the subject of natural medicine was growing as more and more plants were being distilled to create essential oils, such as frankincense, juniper, rose, sage and rosemary. Paracelsus, an alchemist, medical doctor and radical thinker of the time is credited with coining the term ‘Essence’. His studies radically challenged the nature of alchemy and he focused on using plants as medicines.

During the 16th century, one could begin purchasing oils from an "apothecary," and many more essential oils were introduced, so much so that by the 16th and 17th centuries, perfume started to be considered an art form, and it was more clearly defined as its own field.

One of the most famous herbalists of the 16th century was Nicolas Culpeper, who produced one of the most thoroughly researched and wide ranging guides to herbal medicine of the time. The Complete Herbal contains information on hundreds of different plants and how they could benefit the user. This authoritative reference book is still used today as a trusted source of knowledge.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists continued to conduct research into the beneficial properties of plants, identifying the now familiar substances of caffeine, quinine, morphine and aspirin, the latter being one of the most widely used and popular modern pain killers.  It was during this century that perfumery became a very prosperous industry. Women would have their jeweller create a special bottle to hold their treasured perfume. The 19th century was also important scientifically as major constituents of essential oils became isolated.

The 20th Century

By the 20th century, the now well established knowledge of how to separate the active constituents of essential oils was used to create synthetic chemicals and drugs. It was believed then, as it is now, that by separating the major active constituents of plants and then using the extracted constituents alone or in synthetic form would be more beneficial therapeutically and economically. These discoveries and beliefs helped lead to "modern medicine" and synthetic fragrances, however, nearly all practitioners of ‘complimentary medicine’ will tell you that this actually weakens the beneficial effect as most natural remedies are ‘synergistic’. This means that different active ingredients of the plant must work together for the greatest benefit, as nature intended.

It was also at this time that a French chemist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé became interested in the use of essential oils for their medicinal use. Previously, he focused on the aromatic use of essential oils, but his interest in their medicinal use grew after an accident heightened his curiosity. While working, he burned his arm rather badly. By reflex,he plunged his burned arm into the closest liquid which happened to be a large container of lavender essential oil. The burn he suffered healed quickly and left no scar.

Gattefossé is credited with coining the now familiar term aromatherapy in 1928 in an article he wrote supporting the use of using essential oils in their whole without breaking them down into their primary constituents. Later, in 1937, Gattefossé wrote a book called Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones végétales that was later translated into English and named Gattefossé's Aromatherapy. It is still in print and widely read.

Other highly respected 20th century aromatherapists include Jean Valnet, Madam Marguerite Maury, and Robert B. Tisserand. Jean Valnet is most remembered for his work using essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war and for his book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, originally entitled Aromathérapie in French. Austrian Madam Marguerite Maury is remembered as a biochemist that avidly studied, practiced and taught the use of aromatherapy for primarily cosmetic benefit.

Robert B. Tisserand is a English aromatherapist who is responsible for being the first individual to bring knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations. He has written books and articles including the highly respected 1977 publication The Art of Aromatherapy - the first aromatherapy book published in English.

From the late 20th century and on into the 21st century, as the limitations and unwanted side effects of mainstream medicine have become more and more evident, the public have shown a growing interest in more natural medicinal products, including essential oils,  for therapeutic, cosmetic and aromatic benefit. The use of essential oils never ceased, but the scientific revolution minimized the popularity and use of essential oils in one's everyday life. Today's heightened awareness regarding the use of synthetics coupled with the increased availability of aromatherapy information within books and the Internet has refuelled the use of essential oils for therapeutic, cosmetic, fragrant and spiritual use.

So what exactly is aromatherapy?

In brief, aromatherapy is the use of volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being. The essential oils used in aromatherapy are what give the plants from which they are extracted their characteristic odour or flavour. Essential oils are found in various parts of the plants such as the seeds, flowers, bark or leaves and it can take many pounds of plant material to make up just one tiny bottle of concentrated oil. The natural chemical composition of each essential oil differs according to the plant from which it is extracted and therefore the therapeutic benefits of each oil can also differ.

One thing all essential oils have in common is their ability to be readily absorbed by the skin. That’s because their unique molecular structure allows them to pass through the cells that make up the outer, semi permeable layers of the skin and into the body where they can have beneficial effects.  

Here’s an interesting experiment you might like to try to prove this to yourself. Garlic has been used medicinally for nearly 5000 years and for good reason. Its unique anti-viral and anti-bacterial chemical makeup means it is one of the most versatile of herbal remedies that are said to help treat many common ailments including blood pressure, coughs and cold, acne, asthma and many others.  

Garlic oil also contains essential oils. Break open a capsule of the oil and massage it into your skin, somewhere on your body. Within a few hours you should be able to smell the garlic on your breath without ever having eaten it! That’s because the oils have been absorbed through your skin and have made their way around your body to the respiratory system. Be careful though, garlic oil has been known to irritate the skin in sensitive people.

Another thing all essential oils have in common is that they are to a lesser to greater extent, all of them contain naturally anti-bacterial and antiseptic chemicals, so using a cream or lotion containing any essential oil will go some way to help keep spots and pimples at bay.





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