History of Aromatic Medicine & Aromatherapy


Pre-historic Man already made use of Aromatic plants and this was verified when Archaeologists dug into sacred burial mounds in Eastern Europe and Iraq and discovered earth covered bodies with dried aromatic plants and seeds placed alongside to help the souls of the deceased on their journey into the next world. Tribal rituals and shamanistic practices were common as people made use of the scented smoke from burning aromatic material to reach the spirits.

The Ancient Worlds

In China, the use of medicinal plants and acupuncture was recorded in 2800 BC, some of the plants named as remedies were: Aniseed, Cinnamon and Ginger.

In India, Ayurveda (Brahma's sacred book on plants) names aromatic plants as part of the secret for eternal youth. It also quotes how it is possible to anaesthetise with the help of some plants, it gives advice on how to maintain good hygiene and health, again using aromatic plants.

The Sumerians (4000 BC) were using aromatic plants such as Fennel, Galbanum and Pine. This was found written on clay tablets discovered In Syria (in 1973), which also held the first written formula for plant remedies.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, around 3000 BC, it was common practice to treat body, mind and soul with aromatic plants. The Egyptians were experts at perfumes and cosmetics, and their knowledge was much in demand throughout the Mediterranean. Some of the aromatic plants used were: Aniseed, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Cumin, Frankincense, Bay, Mint and Myrrh. They also seem to be well acquainted with the idea "as above, so below" and had already established the relationship between many plants and some of the heavenly bodies e.g. Frankincense fell under the rulership of the Sun and so on. They knew a lot about the Influence that the Moon and the Sun had on life, on the Earth, and used this knowledge to balance the effects the higher had on the Lower.

The Hebrews

The Hebrews who also had their own knowledge of aromatic plants for health and rituals inherited some of the Ancient Egyptian practices whilst living there and gave a lot of importance to the hygiene of the body. Moses ordered David, while fleeing from Egypt, to burn aromatic substances such as Myrrh, Cinnamon, etc., in order to prevent the plague from spreading amongst the living.

The Christian World

When Jesus was born, the three wise men brought him gifts of Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold to honour his birth. Then later on, the Bible quotes Jesus as having instructed people to make special healing unguents with aromatic substances in order to cure various ills.

Ancient Greece

The Ancient Greeks took upon themselves the hard task of collecting and recording the knowledge of ancient medicine in the Mediterranean (including what they could retrieve from the collapsed Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt in the area of medicine and this included the knowledge of plants. It is because of their keen interest in these practices and their accompanying philosophy that medicine was able to develop throughout the centuries. Hippocrates is remembered today for saving Athens from the plague by ordering the inhabitants of the city to burn large urns of aromatic plants throughout the streets, effectively fumigating the whole city.

A century later another very famous physician, Gallen, made a definite advance by establishing certain rules in regard to preparing remedies. From then on, each civilisation that followed added its own contribution to this handed down knowledge.

Celtic Europe

The Celts also had their own knowledge, via the Druids, of the use of some plants. The invading Romans (Cinnamon, Myrrh, and Pepper) imported some of them.

Middle Ages

One has to wait until nearer to the middle ages to see any further progress as Western Europe seemed to have regressed into obscurity with the Dark Ages. Violence appears to have been the norm and culture particularly the written word, practically disappeared.

Crusades & Pre-renaissance period

It is more than probable that oral initiation of folk remedies still went on. Around the year 1000 AC, Europe finally saw a renaissance in the philosophy of life and with it medicine and a new era of learning began.

Arabic Medicine & Avicenna

Avicenna (Ibn Sena), the well known Physician, Philosopher, Astrologer and sometimes Alchemist, contributed much to medicine by writing the famous, Cannon of Medicine. He established himself as an authority on medical matters and his work was to be treated like the Bible up until near the 18th century. He is attributed to have invented distillation by means of the still (11/12century). By then Europe and the Middle East were growing a keen interest in purifying and distilling the essence of `everything' in order to transform lead Into gold. The Alchemists and renaissance period was on the rise.


The search for the `Philosophical Stone' was a physical metaphysical quest of pure mind or spirit over matter. Alchemy reached further heights with Paracelsus, another famous physician , astrologer, surgeon, (al)-chemist in the 16th cent. He was the first to achieve and record the dissociation of active chemical agents in plants, something regularly performed today in modern pharmaceutical procedure.

Essential oils of very pure quality became more and more available, giving rise to a renewed interest in perfumes, as hygiene practices in these were still poor compared to past civilisations.

Alchemy, really is the ancestor of modern chemistry, as physician sought to extract the cosmic essence from raw materials and capture the pure energy inherent within it.

This is probably the beginning of the split which occurred later on in the western European world, where magic and religion were parted from medicine to eventually make place for so called ‘pure science’.

Paracelsus was also a champion of the poor and made many blistering attacks on the other physicians of the day which he called "Quacks". As a result he was sometimes very unpopular and fell under many attacks from the rich and powerful.

Tudor England

Tudor England, around the period of Charles II, went through a period of excessive use of aromatic perfumes and plants. People perfumed everything. The use of pomanders which ladies attached to their garments, burners, scented gloves & hankies and even moth repellents became commonplace. Perfumes, of course, were used a lot, sometimes to cover up unpleasant bodily odours.

Industrial revolution period in England

Between the end of 1800 and early 1900 a German chemist working in industry invented a still which produced essential oils on a bigger scale than ever produced before. Essential oils became more readily available that it became an established fact that essential oils had definite antiseptic properties and were classified in relation to phenol another powerful antiseptic much in use at the time.

Twentieth century revolution

The turn of this century also marks the foundation of Aromatherapy as we know with the work of R. H. Gattefosse, a perfumer chemist who inherited the business from his family. His research on essential oils took a boosting when he accidentally burnt his hand in his laboratory and quickly immersed it in a tank of essential oil: Lavender! He was surprised to see that it greatly soothed the pain as well as healing rapidly the wound. He established that some essential oils also had antibiotic properties. Still Aromatherapy remained in obscurity for a while longer and we owe it to Jean Valnet, a professor at La Sorbonne in Paris, to study and write in a more popular way about essential oils. (see book list)

In the fifties, another pioneer of Aromatherapy, Marguerite Maury whose husband was a chemist, brought the therapy to England by adding to it the dimension of lymph drainage massage, as well as her idea of spiritual philosophy. She successfully treat ed many people. Her book has been recently re-published in England.

Modern Aromatherapy: the rise of holistic medicine

Its great action on preventing illnesses as well as treating specific ailments has not as yet given it the place it deserves with the modern medical world. Essential oils cannot be considered only because for their chemical qualities. They have a subtle but deep effect on the nervous system and hormone balance. Many explanations could be put forward but the mystery remains. Why do the essence of plants acts so powerfully on the essence of people?

Aromatherapy is still the fastest stress release therapy, unfortunately, essential oils are often tampered with through adulteration, or the raw material is of poor quality something not possible to detect. The best means of finding out their quality is by receiving good training with the sense of smell, as ultimately it will reveal the part that can be called Ultrascents.

The Sensory Therapy

This is why Aromatherapy is considered an art of the senses. The practice requires that one relies and draws on the finer qualities of the senses, as well as the therapist's personal feeling or intuition in order to make the ultimate choice.

About the author:

Article written by Nicole Perez

Website: http://www.holisticaroma.co.uk

Author: Nicole Perez
Copyright © 2023 Nicole Perez. All rights reserved

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