The History of Aromatherapy
From Ancient Chinese Courts to 17th Century Plague Doctors, How Physicians Throughout the Ages Have Harnessed the Power of Aromatherapy
If you are new to the world of aromatherapy, a sceptic, or just have never looked into the matter, you would be forgiven for thinking it is some sort of new age, post hippy movement that is going to be replaced by whatever the next trend is. In reality, though, this could not be further from the truth.
Aromatherapy is, in fact, one of the oldest and most well-established forms of treatment and outdates even the great Egyptian pyramids themselves. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to fully explore the long and intricate history of the therapeutic use of plants here as it would fill several bookcases and more to do it all justice.
Instead, we are going to take a whistle-stop tour of some of the key uses of plants throughout different cultures, and learn how we got to where we are today.
3500B.C. and Before- Pre-History
5500 years is a long time, and this period before the creation of writing is largely a mystery to us. There is though significant evidence that plant use beyond just eating was widespread, and one of the key uses was likely the earliest forms of herbal medicines.
Although it would have undoubtedly taken a very different form from today, we can still see striking similarities. With signs of grinding, burning, and turning materials into pastes, this first attempt at aromatherapy nonetheless shares key principles we still apply, in order to unlock the power of nature.
3000 B.C. India
One of the oldest civilisations around, it is no surprise that the ancient Indians were ahead of the curve when it came to unlocking the power of herbs. From at least 3000 B.C. there is evidence of these ancients peoples using aromatherapy in their everyday lives, with many of the very same techniques being used today.
We can still gain from this ancient wisdom today because of the Vedas, one of the oldest known books dating back around 4000 years and a guiding text for countless people over the millennia. As well as containing many religious teachings this text also had a large number of herbal and aromatic remedies that have been used ever since.
2800 B.C. China
Okay, so who got there first between the Chinese and Indian civilisations of the past is not really known, as both started taking advantage of aromatherapy at similar times. In reality, due to their proximity, these two towering cultures of the ancient world were probably learning from each other constantly and so I definitely wouldn’t argue if you wanted to put them together as the aromatherapy pioneers.
What we do know though is that roughly 4800 years ago The ‘Yellow Emperor’s Internal Medicine’ was written, and contained medical uses for around 300 plants, many of which were used aromatically for the healing of mind, body, and soul.
Another vital contribution to the world of aromatherapy coming out of China is the citrus fruits that are thought to have originated here. While it took them until around 1000 A.D. to arrive in Europe they have since become key in many aromatic practices.
1500 B.C. Egypt
The final one of our truly ancient civilisations, the Egyptians were masters of all things olfactory. Aside from creating a vast number of complex perfumes and even deodorants, the Egyptians also used this ability in their medicine.
Unguents, oils, and smokes were all in widespread use in this incredibly advanced culture, with the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of many of them used in everything from cleaning cuts to preserving the dead for mummification. While this last use may be a bit gross to us today, it is fair to say the Egyptians were unparalleled when it came to harvesting the power of nature.
400 B.C. Greece
Known as the ‘father of medicine’, it may surprise many today that the Greek Hippocrates considered surgery to be a last resort. Instead, he believed that “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day”, and his mastery of aromatherapy was so great that in 430 B.C. he even saved his home city of Athens from a plague. By setting up fires around the city with aromatic essences he was able to largely stop the disease in its tracks.
Taking much of his inspiration from the Egyptians Hippocrates and those after him built and expanded on the practice of aromatherapy across centuries, and it is with good reason that doctors still take the Hippocratic oath to this day.
11th Century A.D. Medieval Islam
Skipping ahead a bit now the next big leap was made by the Arab physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Born in Persia, he studied medicine obsessively and wrote many books on the benefits plants could have on the body. His greatest work ‘The Canon Of Medicine’ went on the shape medicinal practices in Europe and the Middle-East for seven centuries, with many such as the Damask Rose essential oils still helping people to this day.
17th Century A.D. Plague Doctors
Okay so this one probably isn’t the most ground-breaking, or historical, use of aromatherapy, but I love it and think that plague doctors get a bad rep. Those big scary plague masks they wore that everyone mocks them for as being superstitious and to scare away the plague? They were actually filled with up to 55 protective herbs, spices, and plants that suffused the infected air before hitting the doctors’ lungs.
Myrrh, cinnamon, and honey were all used and while these masks were not as effective as modern hazmat suits, they did a really good job at keeping doctors safe as they treated patients and undoubtedly saves thousands of lives.
18th Century A.D. Industrial Revolution
Unfortunately, this is where things go downhill for aromatherapy, and where a lot of the stigma surrounding it today comes from. The industrial revolution was an incredible time, full of
innovations, inventions, and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. There were, however, downsides.
The new giants of science and the scientific method often looked down on aromatherapy as ‘unscientific’, claiming it to be superstitious nonsense. This was because over the millennia the people practising aromatherapy often had no clue why what they were doing worked, and so a lot of the time, ritual and faith sprung up around aroma therapeutic methods.
More often or not, this led to the whole healing technique being thrown out the window by the new proponents of logic and reason, who believed new was better and were superstitious of superstition.
What they failed to realise though was that in many ways aromatherapy was as scientific if not more than anything they were doing. Although they did not know why civilisations had been using trial and error for thousands of years. They threw out what didn’t work, and improved and refined what did.
Just because a lot of the time-specific rituals went along with the applications of oils or burning of healing plants, did not mean that the medicines themselves were superstitions, and it is a huge loss that for hundreds of years aromatherapy went scoffed at and looked down on.
1910 Birth Of Modern Aromatherapy
Like anything that helps people though, aromatherapy couldn’t be kept down forever. The revival for this particular brand of healing came when French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé burned himself while making perfumes and, with no water available, plunged his hand into a cooled vat of lavender oils. To his amazement, the lavender oil not only cooled him far more than water would have but also allowed his burn to heal far more quickly. Aromatherapy was reborn.
Since then the practice has gone from strength to strength as we have relearned many of the secrets lost for centuries. Throughout the 20th and 21st century countless advances have been made, and we are getting better and better at healing using the power of aromatherapy.
That brings us all the way up to… today, where we at Novenary are trying to do our little bit to advance the practice of aromatherapy, and help others as best we can. We are creating balanced scents that prioritise self-care and overall wellbeing, and plan to continue to do so for years to come.