Sage Aromatique

The History of Aromatherapy

3,500 BC - 199 AD

The roots of aromatherapy can be traced back more than 3,500 years before the birth of Christ, to a time when the use of aromatics was first recorded in human history.

In reality, the history of aromatherapy is inexorably linked to the development of aromatic medicine, which in the early days was itself combined with religion, mysticism and magic.

This was a time when the ancient Egyptians first burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices in honour of their gods. They believed that as the smoke rose up to the heavens, it would carry their prayers and wishes directly to the deities. Eventually, the development of aromatics as medicines would create the foundations that aromatherapy was built upon.

Prior to that, and long before plant medicines of any sort had been discovered (5,000 to 10,000 BC), our ancestors would burn aromatic herbs, scented woods and barks to drive out the 'evil spirits' from sick people. Some of these poor individuals were possibly suffering from mental illness, but apart from using fire and water, 'smoking' was the only other form of treatment.

Initially, any fragrant woods, barks or herbs growing in the locality would have been used, since the major aromatic trading centres would not appear for thousands of years yet. Interestingly, the word perfume comes from the Latin 'per fumum', which means 'through smoke'.

Look to Eternity

The Chinese 'Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine', was written in 2697 BC and is the oldest surviving medical book in China. This landmark text contains information about the properties of over 300 different plants and their medical uses, which suggests they may even have preceded the Egyptians in their use and knowledge of plant based medicines. Although other civilizations in India and the Americas were also using aromatics, it seems those in the Middle East and China that have actually left us the best records.

During the 3rd Dynasty (2650-2575 BC) in Egypt, the process of embalming and mummification was developed by the Egyptians in their search for immortality. Frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniper berry and spikenard are all known to have been used at some stage to preserve the bodies of their royalty in preparation of the after-life.

The valuable herbs and spices they needed were laboriously transported across inhospitable deserts by Arab merchants for distribution to Assyria, Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia. The most sought after materials were frankincense and myrrh, and because during those early trading years demand outstripped supply they had a value equal to that of gems and precious metals.

Masters of Perfumery

The Egyptians loved to use simple fragrances in their daily lives and did so at every opportunity. At festivals and celebrations women wore perfumed cones on their heads which would melt under the heat, releasing their beautiful fragrance. After bathing, they would anoint their bodies with oil to protect them from the drying effects of the baking sun and to rejuvenate their skin.

During the period between the 18th and the 25th Dynasty (1539-657 BC), the Egyptians continued to refine their use of aromatics in incense, medicine, cosmetics, and finally perfumes. Until just a few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Egyptian perfumery industry was celebrated as the finest in the whole of the Middle East and beyond. So great was their reputation as master perfumers, that when Julius Caesar returned home with Cleopatra after conquering Egypt around 48 BC, perfume bottles were tossed to the crowds to demonstrate his total domination over Egypt.

Enter the Greeks

The richness of the Egyptian botanical pharmacopoeia had already been assimilated by many other cultures during previous millennia; the Assyrians, Babylonians and Hebrews had all borrowed from their vast knowledge of aromatic medicine. As the Egyptian Empire crumbled into decline around 300 BC, Europe became the heart of empirical medicine, where new methods were steadily evolving into a more scientifically based system of healing.

The earliest known Greek physician was Asclepius who practiced around 1200 BC combining the use of herbs and surgery with previously unrivalled skill. His reputation was so great that after his death he was deified as the god of healing in Greek mythology, and thousands of lavish healing temples known as Asclepieion were erected in his honor throughout the Grecian world.

The Father of Medicine

Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BC)

was the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illness was caused by supernatural forces. Instead, he believed the doctor should try to discover natural explanations for disease by observing the patient carefully, and make a judgment only after consideration of the symptoms. Hippocrates considered the entire body a single organism, and his approach differed greatly from that of the Egyptians who had a 'prescribed' method of treating any given disease. It's interesting to note that over 2,000 years later, both methodologies are still employed by practitioners of modern medicine.

His treatments would typically employ mild physio-therapies, baths, massage with infusions, or the internal use of herbs such as fennel, parsley, hypericum or valerian. Hippocrates is said to have studied and documented over 200 different herbs during his lifetime. He believed that surgery should be used only as a last resort and was among the first to regard the entire body as an organism. Therefore we have Hippocrates to thank for a concept fundemental to true aromatherapy - that of holism.

Founders of Botany & Pharmacology

After Alexander's invasion of Egypt in the 3rd century BC, the use of aromatics, herbs and perfumes became much more popular in Greece prompting great interest in all things fragrant. Theophrastus of Athens who was a philosopher and student of Aristotle, investigated everything about plants and even how scents affected the emotions. He wrote several volumes on botany including 'The History of Plants', which became one of the three most important botanical science references for centuries to come. He is generally referred to today as the Founder of Botany.

The next great luminary was the Greek military physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD) who served in Nero's army. In order to study herbs, Dioscorides marched with Roman armies to Greece, Germany, Italy and Spain, recording everything that he discovered. He described the plants habitat, how it should be prepared and stored, and described full accounts of its healing properties. His results were published in a comprehensive 5 volume work called 'De Materia Medica', also known as 'Herbarius'.

'De Materia Medica' was destined to become one of the most influential botanical books in history, and was the the cornerstone for practitioners of botanical medicine throughout Europe for 1,500 years. In it, Dioscorides wrote about the medicinal properties of almonds, aloes, aniseed, chamomile, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, crocus, dill, gentian, ginger, juniper, lavender, linseed, licorice, mallow, marjoram, myrrh, olive oil, pepper, peppermint, poppy, rhubarb, sesame and thyme.

This epic publication was the first ever systematic pharmacopoeia and contained 1000 different botanical medications, plus descriptions and illustrations of approximately 600 different plants and aromatics. His magnificent work was so influential he has been bestowed the accolade, the Father of Pharmacology.

Of Gladiators and Emperors

Perhaps the most brilliant and influential of all Greek physicians was Claudius Galen, who lived from 129-199 AD and studied medicine from the age of seventeen. He began his medical career aged 28 under Roman employ treating the wounds of gladiators with medicinal herbs. This unique experience provided him with the opportunity to study wounds of all kinds, and it is said that not a single gladiator died of battle wounds while under the care of Galen.

Due to his phenomenal success he quickly rose to become the personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and since Rome was a thriving academic center during the lifetime of Galen it was the ideal place for him to conduct further research. Galen wrote over 400 treatises, of which 83 are still in existence including 'De Simplicibus' which described the plant, its geographical location and medicinal uses. He also formulated plant remedies for a wide range of ailments and is credited with the invention of the first cosmetic cold cream containing beeswax, olive oil, rose petals, and water.

Galen was the last of the great Greco-Roman physicians, and within 100 years of his death the Roman Empire would begin to decline, plunging Europe into the dark ages. As the Romans began pulling out of Britain, much of their medical knowledge was discarded and all progress in the Western tradition of medicine came to a halt for hundreds of years. During this period, Europe sank into the lowest depths of barbarism recorded in history, and it would be the turn of another culture to carry the torch of aromatic medicine forward.

529 AD to Today

It was the Persians who next made the most enduring contributions to the knowledge of aromatics and medicine. Al-Razi (865-925) is considered one of Persia's finest physicians, and during his lifetime he penned a phenomenal 237 books and articles covering several fields of science, half of which concerned medicine. Born in the town of Rayy near Tehran, Al-Razi was known in the West as Rhazes and he had an enormous influence on European science and medicine.

His most influential work was a medical encyclopedia covering 25 books called 'AI Kitab al Hawi', which was later translated into Latin and other European languages, and known in English as 'The Comprehensive Work'. His medical accomplishments were legion, and he also developed tools such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century.

A Legend is Born

Next came Ibn Sina (980-1037), also a Persian, who was probably the most famous and influential of all the great Islamic physicians and known throughout Europe as Avicenna. His life truly was the stuff of legend. At the age of 16 he began studying medicine and by 20 he had been appointed a court physician, earning the title 'Prince of physicians'. He wrote 20 books covering theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philology, philosophy and poetry, and most influentially, 20 books and 100 treatises on medicine.

His 14 volume epic 'Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb', which means 'The Canon of Medicine' was over one million words long and contained the sum total of all existing medical knowledge. This monumental medical encyclopedia included the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, describing Syro-Arab and Indo-Persian practice plus notes on his own observations, becoming the definitive medical textbook, teaching guide and reference throughout Western Europe and the Islamic world for over seven hundred years.

Anglo-Saxon Remedies

The oldest surviving English manuscript of botanical medicine is the Saxon 'Leech Book of Bald', which was written between 900 and 950 by a scribe named Cild under the direction of Bald, who was a friend of king Alfred the Great. ('Leech' is an old English word meaning healer). This early text contains a mixture of herbalism, magic, shamanism and tree lore, and describes 500 plants, their properties, and how they can be used in amulets, baths or taken internally.

When the Crusaders returned from the Holy Wars they brought back rose water, perfumes, aromatics and remedies that were previously unknown. Fragrant plants became more popular, with aromatic herb garlands decorating homes and rose water being used to wash the hands of those who could afford it. The availability and range of aromatic medicines continued to increase over the next few hundred years, but the knowledge of the Eastern physicians had not yet begun to arrive on our shores.

Medieval Apocalypse

During the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, medicine was almost entirely governed by the Catholic church. They considered illness and disease to be a punishment from God, and the standard form of treatment administered by the priests was prayer, and perhaps a session of blood-letting. When the 'Black Death' first arrived in 1347, it was devastating. Almost 50% of London's inhabitants succumbed within the first year, and up 40% of the entire population of Europe would die within 3 years. The basic Anglo-Saxon botanical remedies such as wearing sachets of dried lavender and amulets of thyme proved no match for this deadly pandemic.

In 1597 John Gerard published ' Herball, or General Historie of Plantes' which is now considered a herbal classic. Although the very first essential oils such as juniper, lavender, rosemary and sage had arrived in Britain around this time, he makes no mention of them. 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. But not quickly enough.

The second visitation of the Black Death in 1603 hit almost as hard as the first, and virtually every available aromatic was burned in houses and on the streets to keep the pestilence at bay. Benzoin, styrax, frankincense and various spice oils were all used to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, but to little effect. It was reported the only people not to succumb to the plague were the workers involved in aromatics and perfumery, and this is undoubtedly due to the highly antiseptic properties of the essential oils.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was one of the most influential herbalists who also introduced the concept of astrological herbalism. In his most famous work, 'The English Physician' (1652), Culpeper's descriptions of herbs, oils and their uses were intermixed with astrology. Other notable herbalists such as Joseph Miller and John Parkinson would also leave a rich botanical legacy, paving the way for later generations to expand upon. The essential oil industries throughout Europe flourished, providing oils for the pharmaceutical, flavour and fragrance industries.

Champions of Modern Aromatherapy

The term 'aromatherapie' was coined by a French chemist named René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950) who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years whilst working in his families perfumery business. He had the opportunity to personally test his innovative theories when an explosion in his laboratory caused a severe burn to his hand.

He plunged his hand into a vessel of pure lavender oil which immediately reduced the swelling and helped accelerate the healing process. Most impressively, he was left with no scar. He was a prolific writer covering many subjects, but it was his passion for researching essential oils that eventually led to the publication in 1937 of his ground-breaking book, 'Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales'.

A French doctor named Jean Valnet followed the work of Gattefossé, and during World War 2 whilst working as a surgical assistant he used essential oils of chamomile, clove, lemon and thyme to treat gangrene and battle wounds. After graduating as a surgeon at the end of the war, Valnet continued to use essential oils to treat illnesses, and was the first ever to use them to treat psychiatric conditions. His inspired book, 'Aromathérapie - Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes' was released in 1964, and in 1980 translated into English and released under the new title of 'The Practice of Aromatherapy', putting aromatherapy on the English map.

Madame Marguerite Maury (1895-1968) was an Austrian born biochemist who became interested in what was to become aromatherapy, after reading a book written in 1838 by Dr Chabenes called, 'Les Grandes Possibilités par les Matières Odoriferantes'. This was the man who would later become the teacher of Gattefossé. Her influential book, 'Le Capital Jeunesse' was released in France in 1961 but sadly did not initially receive the acclaim that it deserved. In 1964 it was released in Britain under the title of 'The Secret of Life and Youth' and has at last been recognised for the great work that it was.

After her death, the work of Maury continued through her protege, Danièle Ryman, who is now herself considered an authority on aromatherapy. The work of Valnet and Gattefossé stimulated and influenced Englishman Robert Tisserand, who in 1977 wrote the very first aromatherapy book in English entitled, 'The Art of Aromatherapy'. This book became the inspiration and reference for virtually every future author on the subject for almost two decades.

Today we are at last unfolding the final secrets of the Egyptian mysteries, revealing aromatherapy to be one of the finest ways to combat the detrimental effects of stress, restoring the beauty, tranquility and harmony of Nature into the lives of everyone.

Copyright © Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd 2003. Written by Geoff Lyth