Aromatic oils have been a part of human history for more than 3,500 years BC and appear with regularity throughout all major civilisations down the ages, with uses ranging from religious ritual, food flavouring, medicines, perfumery and the masking of bad odours. It is impossible to date exactly when plants were first used medicinally, since such a development would have taken place over thousands of years.
Prior to modern-day scientific tests, the properties of different plants would have been discovered very much through trial and error, and by observing animals instinctive knowledge about which plants to eat when sick.
The Chinese may have been one of the first cultures to use aromatic plants for well-being. Their practices involved burning incense to help create harmony and balance.
Historians believe the Chinese ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’ was written around 2600 B.C.E.
This book contains information on the medical uses and properties of more than 300 different plants. This comes long before the Egyptian knowledge of plant-based medicines. This text is also the most complete ancient record we have of how our ancestors used aromatherapy in their lives.
China was also part of the herbs and spices trade. Frankincense and myrrh were the most sought-after plants of the time. Because of the high demand and the limited supply, they were as valuable as gems and precious metals.
Later, the Egyptians invented a rudimentary distillation machine that allowed for the crude extraction of cedarwood oil.
The Egyptians loved to use simple fragrances in their daily lives and did so at every opportunity. After bathing, women would anoint their bodies with oil to protect them from the drying effects of the baking sun and to rejuvenate their skin.
Cleopatra, it is said, used essential oils in her rooms and on her clothes to seduce Mark Anthony.
The earliest known Greek physician was Asclepius who practiced around 1200 BC combining the use of herbs and surgery with previously unrivalled skill.
In 1597 John Gerard published ‘ Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’ which is now considered a herbal classic. Gerards book proved highly influential, and the apothecaries which had previously only sold the medicines prescribed by doctors, began to to prepare and compound their own medicines too. New style apothecaries that dispensed medicines and attended to the patient began appearing throughout England.
In the 1920s Rene Maurice Gattefasse, a French chemist, burnt his arm while making fragrance and immediately plunged it into a jug of lavender oil. To his amazement the pain was less than expected and the blistering was greatly reduced.
The healing process was faster and he was left with little scarring. He was so impressed that he devoted the rest of his life to researching the healing properties of essential oils and he christened it Aromatherapy.