A large number of essential oils sceptics claims that the use of essential oils was only created during the counter culture and hippies generation. Well, unbeknownst to them, essential oils have a long and varied history of use from all corners over the earth. Today we will be going through a quick run-through of some of the major cultures that were users of essential oils and the key developments that created the essential oils that we use today for aromatherapy.
A brief history of the use of essential oils
I am sure most of you are aware of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and with China having a history that stretches back more than 5000 years, with an almost equally long history when it comes to medicine, starting with Pen T'Sao medical text written by Shennong (the Divine Farmer) dating back to around 2500 BC. It documents the medical usage of more than 300 different plants.
The second major character in China's history with essential oils is Huangdi or the Yellow Emperor, who wrote a book on medicine which included the use of essential oils for the purpose of aromatherapy, this book is still used by some practitioners of TCM to this day, more than 4000 years since it was written.
Another civilisation with a more than 5000 years history, essential oils and aromatic massages were part of the Indian Ayurvedic health care system, a mixture of the practical, philosophical and spiritual element. Ayurvedic text from around 2000 BC, documents cinnamon, ginger, myrrh, coriander, spikenard and sandalwood oils being used to treat patients of various ailments and medical issues.
The Vedas, one of India's most sacred text documents around 700 different aromatics and herbs for uses in perfumes and aromatics for therapeutic purposes.
Heavily influenced by the Egyptians who used essential oils in almost all aspects of their life and death. The Greeks also began to use essential oils for medical purposes such as myrrh for disinfecting wounds on the battlefields.
Hypocrites, the father of Greek medicine, who documented the medical use of over 300 plants, once wrote: "a perfumed bath and a scented massage everyday is the way to good health.”
Hypocrites, himself was influenced by Ayurvedic medicine after hearing accounts from returning troops who were deployed to the Indian subcontinent during the time of Alexandra the Great.
Unlike the Greeks, who tend to only use essential oils for medical purposes, the Romans went "all-out". Using essential oils to scent everything, beds, clothes, curtains, furniture, hair, house, body, bath, massages, well I guess you get the point.
In addition, they added on to the Greeks medical knowledge of essential oils, Pedanius Dioscorides (who was actually a Greek doctor employed by the Roman army) wrote 5 volumes documenting herbal and essentials oil uses for in medicine.
Ancient Middle East
For all the Christians who are reading this, I am sure you are all very familiar with the story of Myrrh and Frankincense being gifts for baby Jesus and the many references in the bible for essential oils such as cedarwood, frankincense, fir, cinnamon, myrrh, myrtle and spikenard.
However, it was not only the Jews who used essential oils, in fact, it was Arabs who first created a proper method to distil essential oils from plant extracts and commercialise it into a profitable trade which they dominated well up to the Middle Ages.
Middle Ages Europe
The Europeans were one of the last few cultures to get involved with essentials oils and aromatherapy, starting only after returning veterans from the Crusades brought the knowledge of essential oils distillation and perfumes back to Europe. However, this was slow to catch on, due religious association between brewing of herbs and witchcraft.
The only notable use of aromatherapy during the Middle Ages was the occasional burning of Pine and Frankincense in order to ward off "evil spirits" during the outbreaks of the plague.
The aromatherapy that we love and know started with a clumsy French cosmetic chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. In 1910, Gattefosse hand was badly burned during a lab explosion, to which he responded by submerging his hands in the nearest tray of liquid that he could find, which was a tray of essential Lavender oil. Despite this being, not a really bright idea ( Lavender essential oil is highly flammable), Gattefosse observed that his hand stopped swelling and blistering, and his hand began to heal the very next day. Despite having no interest in anything medical, Gattefosse began to investigate. The term aromatherapy was coin after Gattefosse published his book Aromatherapie in 1928, which documented different essential oils and their healing capabilities.
During the Indochina war from 1948-1959, a Parisian medical doctor and army surgeon, Jean Valnet accidentally discovered the antiseptic properties of essential oils after using it when he ran out of anti-biotics. After the war, Jean Valnet continued to use essential oils in his practice and published "The Practice of Aromatherapy" which earned him global recognition and increased interest into essential oils.
Lastly, during the 1980s French MD, Daniel Pénoël along with French biochemist Pierre Franchomme documented the medical properties of over 270 essential oils and recommend their use in medically in clinical environments. They later in 1990, co-authored the primary reference for the researchers doing research into essential oils, "L’aromatherapie Exactement".
With that, this concludes our quick run-through of the history of essential oils and I hope this read has been very insightful for you. Cheers!