Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: A historic overview

The history of Essential Oils is as old as the history of civilization. Essential Oils have been in practice in almost every ancient civilization known to the human race. Before we proceed to chart a historic timeline about the usage of essential oils, we need to know what exactly does the term “essential oil” means.

What are Essential Oils?
Essential Oils are basically extracts from flowers, plants, seeds, leaves, stem, bark, roots of herbs, bushes, shrubs and trees. They are volatile and aromatic liquids which are used in various treatments as healing oils. An essential oil is the soul or blood of a plant. It takes a whole plant to create a single drop of an essential oil. Highly concentrated, they protect plants from diseases and cankerous attacks and are expected to do the same in humans. Essential oils are indeed the oldest form of medication known to man and were considered more valuable than gold or gems by the ancients.

Historic Timeline of Essential Oils:
The history of essential oils dates back to 4000 B.C., though the term ‘Essential Oils’ and ‘Aromatherapy’ are pretty modern (coined only during the 20th century). The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese and Indians were known to have practiced aromatherapy using essential oils in their medicines for centuries.

Egyptians: Ancient Egyptians were one of the first practitioners of essential oils. They used plant extracts in cosmetics, for relaxation, for embalming their bodies and for their mummies. The Egyptians kept a gradually-melting cone in their headdresses that released oils into the head and also kept the fragrance of people alive. The Egyptians used distillation methods to extract plant oils.

The Greeks learned about healing oils from the Egyptians. They used herbs and therapeutic oils for healing, relaxation and even in surgery. Asclepius in 1200 BC and Hippocrates in 400 BC were the famous physicians to have used plant oils in aromatic baths, remedies and healing therapies.

Indians and Chinese: Ancient Indians used aromatherapy in surgeries, for healing diseases, wounds and other injuries. Essential oils are an integral part of the age-old Indian medicinal system called Ayurveda. The Chinese too, on their part, is believed to have used healing oils in their medicinal practices.

Romans: After the Greeks, it was the Romans who took up the practice of healing oils in medicine. They borrowed medication practices using essential oils from Egyptians and Greeks and then, developed techniques to extract and distillate plant oils. Claudius Galen (150 AD) is said to have treated hundreds of wounded gladiators using healing oils and botanical remedies. He was also the personal physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius to whom he advocated essential oil treatments.

Persians: Though the Persians borrowed essential oil practices from Romans and Egyptians, Persian physician Avicenna (1000 AD) is the first world physician to have discovered a steam pipe to distillate plants and produce essential oils instead of floral waters.

Dark Ages: During the dark ages, the Catholic Crusaders brought healing oil practices to Europe. However, there was no significant progress as the Church ruled out disease as a punishment of God and those who were diseased as sinners. Owing to this, essential oil practice did not see any growth during this time. When Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe, botanical remedies were used but without much success.

Later periods: After Europe started exploring the East, they once again started practicing aromatherapy. Many wealthy people in Europe used aromatic handkerchiefs to ward off unpleasant smells and for microbial protection. Sometimes essential oils were used to fumigate hospitals and keep germs at bay. Apothecaries and herbalists engaged in formulation of pharmaceutical remedies, essential oils, fragrances and herbs. These remedies treated people of several ailments from headaches to injuries.

Aromatherapy: French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse was the first person to coin the term ‘Aromatherapy’ in 1928. Following him, French army doctor Jean Valet used essential oils to treat wounded soldiers in the Second World War.  An Austrian biochemist named Marguerite Mary used essential oils for cosmetic benefits whose research results are still considered the basis of aromatherapy all over the world.

First book: The first book in aromatherapy and essential oils was written by Robert B. Tisserand in 1977. Titled ‘The Art of Aromatherapy’, the book details on the basics of aromatherapy and the therapeutic value of several herbs. From then on, aromatherapy and essential oils have become popular worldwide as an alternative medicinal treatment.