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 honor 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.