The History of Aromatherap

Aromatherapy as a modern holistic practice is actually a relatively new concept, though one with roots deep in history. The word “Aroma -Therapie” is attributed to Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a perfumer and chemist who coined the phrase after conducting years of research, combined with his own personal experience of healing wounds with lavender essential oil. This experience prompted him to investigate the wide range of therapeutic properties found in essential oils. His seminal book, Aromatherapy, published in 1937, had great impact and influence on shaping how aromatherapy is practiced today.

Although the word “aromatherapy” wasn’t used until the 20th century, the use of plants for healing and beautification has been around since before recorded history. Historians and archeologists have been able to trace its use back over 6000 years, to early cultures located in India, North and South America, China, Egypt, Persia and the Middle East.

There is a great deal of historical evidence that ancient civilizations used essential oils for medicinal, spiritual and cosmetic purposes, uses that established the foundation of what we know today as modern aromatherapy. Here are few interesting facts about the early use of aromatics in ancient cultures:

  • Ancient India had rich knowledge of medicinal plants. The Rigveda (5000 BC) recorded 67 medicinal plants; Yajurveda, 81 species; and Atharvaveda (4500 – 2500 BC) lists 290 species. The famous Indian physician Charaka, who wrote the Charaka Samhita (700 BC), covers the uses and applications of over 600 medicinal plants.
  • Known written records about medicinal plants date back around 5000 years to the Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia; the Babylonians, another Mesopotamian civilization, which dates to the second millennium B.C.; and the Egyptians, whose Nile River-based culture began to flourish around 3000 B.C.
  • Egyptians were the first in the world to invent extraction of flower essences. Not only that, they were the first civilization to incorporate perfume into their culture.
  • Egypt’s fertile land and development in agriculture made it a rich culture for aromatherapy practices.
  • The Egyptians believed that the body cannot be separated from the mind, soul, or spirit. They also believed that beauty, magic, and medicine were inseparable.
  • One of the first extractions were done with the lotus flower. The lotus flower grew everywhere along the Nile River and became the symbol of Upper Egypt
  • Egyptians used incenses in the temples where they worshipped.
  • Aromatic oils like frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cedarwood, juniper berry and spikenard are all known to have been used at some stage in the embalming process to preserve the bodies of royalty. Further, after thousands of years, traces of oils like frankincense were found in the tombs of kings.
  • The walls of their temples contained pictures and processes of how they extracted, used, and preserved the oils.
  • Until just a few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Egyptian perfume industry was celebrated as the finest in the Middle East and beyond.
  • Evidence of this has been found in the tomb of King Tutankhamon, where the funeral furniture displays the pharaoh’s wife wrapping his body with the lotus oil.
  • By the 7th Century BC, Athens had developed into a mercantile center in which hundreds of perfumers set up shop. Trade was heavy in fragrant herbs such as marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris. These were often infused into olive, almond, castor and linseed oils to make thick unguents.
  • By the late 5th Century, Babylon was the principal market for the perfume trade. The Babylonians extensively used cedar of Lebanon, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, calamus and juniper. When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they brought back a heightened appreciation of fragrance, especially in the form of incense.
  • By the 1st Century AD, Rome was going through about 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. Nero, Roman emperor in 54 AD, spent the equivalent of $100,000 to scent just one party he was giving.


References and Excerpts for The History of Aromatic Medicine:

B Ebbell; Leon Banov, Jr.,The Papyrus Ebers: The Greatest Egyptian Medical Document (Copenhagen: Levin &Munksgaard. 1937)

Steffen Arctander, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origins (Illinois: Allured Publishing Corporation, 1994)

Lise Manniche, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, 2nd Edition (London: Bristish Museum Press, 2006)

Mindy Green, Kathi Keville Aromatherapy; A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2008)