Aromatherapy seems to have existed in some form right throughout human history. In prehistoric times juniper berries were used as an antiseptic and a cosmetic – an early plant-based cure-all. They were used to both flavour food and to ward off infection – their qualities harnessed for both health and pleasure. The first aromatherapy related oil extractions can be traced to Ancient Egypt, when oil from plants such as cedar, jasmine and rose were extracted and used in death rites and ceremonies. Perfumes and oils formed a large part of Egyptian ‘death’ culture – their aromatherapy practices were sophisticated and entwined with embalming. A spiritual element was attributed to aromatics – they were revered and had enormous symbolic (and monetary) value.
The ancient Greeks took a more therapeutic approach – chamomile was exalted as a means of reducing fever, and the health benefits of massage (preferably with aromatic plant extracts) was promoted by the legendary physician Hippocrates.Aromatherapy oils for mood enhancement was first promoted in China – orange and ginger were two early favourites, famed for their stimulating properties. Incense burning was another discovery, a practice purported to bring harmony and balance and involving a refined system of perfumes and aromatics. Sandalwood was particularly revered for its medicinal qualities – it was used in China to treat cholera and in India was a popular wound healer and even featured in exorcisms.
It was a Persian physician who discovered the distillation process – and first distilled an essential plant oil (it was rose). Avicenna was a Medieval doctor and philosopher,and an early proponent of therapeutic massage. He produced the ‘Canon of Medicine’ which was essential reading in European universities for centuries – and emphasised the health benefits of plant extracts. The Crusades meant sophisticated aromatherapy knowledge was brought back to Europe by returning knights. Oils such as frankincense and bergamot were introduced, along with methods of enhancing the purity of oils – techniques refined and perfected by Arab cultures during Europe’s Dark Age.
Britain has its own unique aromatic history – the fifteenth century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper was famed for his knowledge of botany and plant-based remedies and compiled an encyclopaedia, ‘The Complete Herbal.’ Aromatics were popular in the fifteenth century as a perceived protection against disease – doctors would wear masks containing flowers, spices and aromatic herbs to ward off the plague. Orange blossom was popular later – as a calming influence – and was often found in Victorianbridal bouquets
The term ‘aromatherapy’ wasn’t coined, however, until the 1920s – by Rene-MauriceGattefosse, a French chemist who promoted the healing power of aromatherapy after successfully treating a burn with lavender oil. A true aromatherapy evangelist, and a native of Southern France, Gattefosse championed the distillation of French lavender oil and introduced other aromatic antiseptics to wartime field hospitals.
In the 21st century aromatherapy products are increasingly popular as consumers move away from mass-production, animal testing and chemical based cosmetics. Aswe embrace natural and all-organic alternatives, a rich reservoir of aromatherapy knowledge is there for the taking.