Aromatherapy is the art and science of using pure essential oils extracted from natural plants. It means treatment with scents. It the use of essential oils in holistic healing to improve health and emotional well being and in restoring balance to the body.
History of Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy has been in use for more than 6,000 years. Its origins aren’t completely documented, but there is enough evidence to assemble a decent time line in the history of therapeutic uses of aromatic essences.
It’s possible that it all began in Australia with the aborigines over 40,000 years ago, but they weren’t known for keeping records. Much of their history was passed along verbally from generation to generation, much like that of the native tribes on all continents, including the native North American Indians, whose history also is rich with the use of fragrant oils for religious and therapeutic purposes.
But the Egyptians, with their use of stone tablets inscribed with stories of their culture, are generally credited with being the first to establish the use of aromatic oils. Later, the Greeks learned from the Egyptians, and still later, the Romans learned from the Greeks.
Concurrently, fragrant oils and plant essences were being developed in ancient China. The oldest surviving medical book in China, Shen Nung’s Herbal Book, dates back to about 2700 B.C. and catalogs more than 300 plants and their uses. By the 16th century, and hundreds of books later, the Chinese Materia Medica Pen Ts’ao contains information on almost 2,000 herbs and 20 essential oils.
Many of the uses of these oils eventually depended upon the discovery of the distillation process, as well as the types of plants present in each location. While the technology of distillation is credited to the Egyptians, it’s possible it was concurrently discovered in China, Turkey and Persia.
The traditional practice of medicine in India, known as Ayurveda, practiced for more than 3,000 years, also utilized essential oils by the use of therapeutic massage.
As trade routes developed across the globe, the different essences could be transported to countries that couldn’t grow the plants to produce them. This, of course, added to their value, and in most instances, made them the currency of the day, as they became more valuable than gold.
Numerous passages in the Bible point to the value of oils, spices and herbs, in fact. The most well known cite might be that of the Three Wise Men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Christ in Bethlehem. Some historians have even questioned whether the “gold” mentioned was, in fact, metallic gold, as it could have been ambergris, a golden oil that was of such high value, it outclassed gold itself and often was referred to as “gold” at that time.
Mary Magdelene was criticized in another passage, by Judas Iscariot, for anointing the feet of Christ, possibly because she was “wasting” an oil called spikenard, considered extremely valuable at the time. Indeed, the name “Christ,” or Christos, is Greek for “anointed.”
By the first century A.D., the uses for fragrances included religion, health, beauty, “hygiene” and entertainment. It is said that the Roman Emperor Nero used scents extravagantly at his palace parties, with carved ivory ceiling and wall panels outfitted to sprinkle or mist his guests with rose petals and floral waters.
Hygiene in those days consisted of bathing in perfume or slathering one’s body with fragrant oils. Much later, even Queen Elizabeth I is said to have used such fragrances in her annual bath, “whether she needed it or no.”
Perfumers, called unguentarii, lined the streets of ancient Rome and prescribed the use of different aromatics for specific ills. Placebo effect nothwithstanding, their formulations must have worked, because they were regarded as highly as doctors.
While it may have been the Egyptians who mainstreamed the uses of fragrances and essences, other cultures were by then using them also, developing their own processes. India became well known for their spices, herbs and oils, for example, and trading with them became highly competitive and profitable, giving India a significant boost in their economy at the time.
Anyone who has studied American history should remember the stories of the Dutch East India company, who had somewhat of a monopoly on such trades. It was this situation that prompted Christopher Columbus to seek a shorter route to the Orient in order to circumvent the expensive stranglehold they had on the world’s trade in spices and oils.
The rest is history, as they say, since Columbus did not reach the Orient after all. (An unknown, surprise continent got in the way!) Further, he was not able to find the same plant life as that which he sought. However, he found others that did become profitable and made the trip worthwhile, including juniper, cedar, sassafras, vanilla and other floral fragrances.
While ancient history is full of fascinating stories of aromatic oils and essences and their uses, it wasn’t until more recent times that aromatherapy began to be touched by the scientific world.
As civilization evolved and learning advanced at a faster and faster pace, the concept of science was born and the learned, educated members of society embarked on research, utilizing experimentation and observation to reach conclusions and to catalog knowledge.
Since aromatic oils were such an important part of life throughout the history of human existence, it was only logical to pursue that area and continue the advancement of such knowledge.
Moving ahead to our “modern world,” then, two major changes took place in the late 19th century. First, the use of fragrances split into two camps: perfumery and cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Second, and unfortunately, as with the field of nutrition, essential oils suffered a huge setback in understanding as well as acceptance and use, due to the discovery of the ability to formulate synthetic copies of almost any chemical. A replicated molecule of a vitamin is not the vitamin. Similarly, a copy of a plant oil is not that plant’s essence. No longer, then, could perfumes be used medicinally.
Synthetic copies are mere shadows of the original and usually are weaker and ineffective, or worse, they can be toxic. Sadly, such a reputation is given to the authentic version by the modern medical community and is cast as ineffective and inferior to accepted medical formulations, or, drugs. Ironically, however, many of today’s drugs were originally derived from plant sources.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that aromatherapy began its reentry into the world of therapeutics.
In 1928 (some authorities cite 1930, others say it was as late as 1937), the term “aromatherapy” was coined by French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefoss. His interest is reputed to have begun when he burned himself in a laboratory explosion at the family perfumery and he reflexively plunged his arm into a handy vat of lavender oil for relief. Later, he was so amazed at his painless recovery, with no scarring, that he pursued further experiments with the oil.
In the 1960s, French doctor Jean Valnet and biochemist Madame Maury, who both knew of Gattefoss’s work, furthered the future of aromatherapy with their own investigations.
Dr. Valnet had successfully used essential oils in the treatment of burns and wounds during World War II, along with various fragrances in the treatment of psychiatric problems. He wrote a book, titled Aromatherapie, which was translated into English and titled The Practice of Aromatherapy, and which is still a popular and well-respected volume today.
Maury developed specific massage techniques for best delivery of such oils and opened clinics across Europe for the practice of her new techniques. She and Micheline Arcier developed methods that are still in use today.
But it was Englishman Robert Tisserand’s book, The Art of Aromatherapy, published in 1977, that captured the interest of the American market.
Aromatherapy was ultimately introduced in America in the 1980s in California, where it was embraced by health food outlets and alternative health practitioners