Aromatherapy has a long, interesting history that links ancient civilizations' study of medicinal herbs and roots to today’s cartridge-based electronic vaping systems. While prehistoric humans had a mostly anecdotal knowledge of what worked and what didn’t, today we have scientific proof that aromatherapy holds a host of benefits for those experiencing pain, insomnia, anxiety, depression and more. How did we get here? This brief history of aromatherapy will touch on the major developments in aromatherapy practices over the past several thousand years.
Aromatherapy in Ancient Mesopotamia
Experts suspect aromatherapy had largely accidental beginnings. In ancient times, the curation and use of fire to provide light, warmth, and to heat foods led ancient people to burn a variety of woods, branches, and greenery. Woods such as cedar, cypress, camphor, and sandalwood release fragrance into the air as they burn, and ancient people likely chose some woods based on their pleasant, therapeutic scent.
Tribes and individuals documented lists of herbs, roots, and other plants that had unique benefits to those who consumed, applied, or chewed them. Individuals stretching as far back as the Neanderthals buried their dead with medicinal plants, while more recent Mesopotamians left tablets detailing herbal remedies and other medicinal treatments using plants. Once Mesopotamians discovered – likely accidentally – that rendered animal fats could act as ideal vehicles for applying fragrance plant compounds, the idea of aromatherapy was born.
Aromatherapy in Ancient Asia and Africa
Meanwhile, ancient Indians were practicing ayurvedic medicine, including the use of prescribed plant materials. The Chinese, largely attributed to be the first culture to use aromatherapy to promote health and well-being, recorded instructional and historical texts describing the use of ginger, orange, and other herbs and scents to treat illness and stimulate the mind. In addition, Chinese medicinal practices often involved the burning of cedar wood and other incenses to promote well-being.
Elsewhere, ancient Egyptians practiced the widespread use of aromatic oils to anoint rulers both living and dead, as well as to perfume and embalm them, owing to the antibacterial properties of certain plants. The Egyptians promoted the use of perfumed oils, appointing priests to make perfumes said to improve the state of the body, mind, and spirit. In fact, the Egyptians were the first to develop a form of distillation to extract a concentrated scented oil for medicinal use. This machine, however crude, extracted cedar oil, providing a much more effective method of utilizing cedar’s aromatic properties than simply burning the wood.
Aromatherapy in Ancient Greece and Rome
Although we now know that much of their knowledge of aromatic properties and aromatherapy stemmed from the Egyptians that had come before them, the ancient Greeks attributed the gift of scented oils to the gods. The Greeks recognized the medical and spiritual benefits of the plants long before many other cultures. Hippocrates himself, known as the father of modern medicine, ascribed many healing benefits to aromatic plants, while a perfumer by the name of Megallus made topical, scented balms to promote healing and rejuvenation.
The Romans furthered the study of medical and aromatic benefits of plants, including a volume that listed the healing properties of every plant known to the ancient Romans and the evolution of the study of distillation. By the 11th century, a Persian by the name of Avicenna had perfected the world’s first distillery that could extract essential oils from aromatic plants. This discovery lead more people the world over to focus on the healing properties of essential oils.
Aromatherapy in Europe
Europe formed the first apothecaries, precursors to modern-day pharmaceutical establishments. As a response to the Black Death, an epidemic of plague that was sweeping the continent, European medical experts used a great number of herbal treatments to lessen the effects and promote immunity to the illness. The growing belief that perfumists in the cities affected by the plague had managed to survive because of their exposure to plant essences led physicians to wear masks stuffed with aromatic herbs to ward off infection.
During this time, distillation efforts increased, resulting in a host of essential oils considered standard today. Eventually, apothecaries became establishments where citizens could go to purchase their own essential oils, fueled in part by the plant studies of Paracelus, an alchemist who invented the term essence to describe a particular property of a plant extract.
We largely attribute modern aromatherapy to Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who believed strongly in the medicinal properties of the essential oils developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact, Gattefosse coined the term “aromatherapy” in 1928, when he wrote an article advocating for the use of whole essential oils for their medicinal properties.
In the years since Gattefosse, aromatherapy and essential oils have treated casualties of World Wars I and II, been touted for their beauty, therapy and medical benefits, and spread the worldwide. Advances in aromatherapy continue today, and the recent resurgence in the use of aromatherapy has promoted new, scientific attention to the properties and uses of essential oils.