Aromatherapy can be traced back through history from the cultural, religious and medical practices throughout civilisation. Essential oils were used for spiritual, therapeutic and ritualistic purposes by ancient civilisations including Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans who used them in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines.
Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine and traditional Chinese medicine remain the most ancient yet living traditions, however, it’s the Egyptians who can take the credit for recognising and exploiting the physical and spiritual properties of aromatic essences. Hieroglyphs show us that aromatic preparations were used as offerings to the gods and the natural antiseptic, antibacterial properties of essential oils and resins, particularly cedarwood and frankincense, made them ideal for mummification in preparation for the next world. The discovery of well-preserved mummies up to 6000 years after their preparation is a tribute to the embalmer’s art.
Sumerian writing from 3000 BC revealed that they had an elaborate diagnostic based medical system but the Chinese were the first to discover the remarkable medicinal powers of plant extracts. In traditional Chinese medicine, the primary focus for health is the balance of Qi (energy), Yin and Yang (passive negative and positive active forces) and the five elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood). Around 2800 BC the Yellow Emperor, also known by his Chinese name Huang Ti, Chinese deity and legendary sovereign, wrote a book called ‘Internal Medicine’ detailing plants and their remedies.
India was one of the first civilisations that treated people holistically and Ayurvedic (Sanskrit, from āyur, life + veda, knowledge) is the oldest known form of medical practice, with plant extracts being in use from more than 5000 years ago and continues today. The Vedas are a large body of religious texts in Vedic Sanskrit originating in ancient India from around 2000BC. They are the oldest Sanskrit literature and oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Part of this body of work lists over 700 plants and substances for religious and medicinal purposes.
From Hypocrites we know the Greeks understood the therapeutic properties of essential oils and their value as sedatives and stimulants. The Greeks and Romans used aromatics widely in rituals and ceremonies and the oils played an important role in the rise in popularity of baths, massage and body-culture generally. However, with the fall of the Roman empire the use of essential oils died out in Europe flourished elsewhere, particularly in Arabia, where Acivenna was the first to distil rose essence around AD 1000. Arabia became the world’s centre for production of perfume, importing raw materials from Egypt, India, Tibet and China and trading their products internationally. The Crusaders reintroduced the art of perfumery to Europe around the 12th century.
Closer to home, Rhiwallon and his sons Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion, known as the Physicians of Myddfai, lived in the parish of Myddfai in Carmarthenshire in the 12th century. Apothecaries to Rhys Gryg, Prince of Deheubarth, one of the most successful and powerful of the Welsh princes during the early middle ages, they used the accumulated knowledge from centuries past of the use of plants for medicine by the tribes of South Wales. Many of Rhiwallon’s writings on humours and medicinal herbs were included in the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest), a 14th century manuscript collection and one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language. In 2002, the National Botanic Garden of Wales planted The Apothecary’s Garden dedicated to medicinal plants that were used by the legendary Welsh apothecaries, the Physicians of Myddfai.
Records show that aromatics were used as protection against plague and lower incidents of death among perfumiers suggests they were, to some degree, effective. The 15th century saw the rise of the great European perfumiers and their blends were widely used to disguise body smells and ward off sickness. During Tudor times, even though washing was encouraged for personal hygiene, many water sources were distrusted because of poor sanitation. Aromatics like lavender and rosewater were used to mask awful odours which were common. Scented pomanders and sachets became popular and it was fashionable to wear musk. Henry VIII’s clothes were scented with his own blend of musk, ambergris, sugar and rosewater.
The Elizabethan era saw exotic goods from all over the world arriving at our ports including sandalwood, vanilla, pepper, cocoa, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise and cloves which were used for flavouring as well as new and exciting perfume ingredients. Distillation of essential oils increased with the arrival of orange, jasmine, tuberose frankincense, pine, cedarwood, fennel and much more over time. Warm baths weren’t common as they took a long time to prepare but, when the opportunity did arise, it was usual to add perfumes and aromatics to the bathwater. It is said that Elizabeth I took at least two a year for medicinal purposes.
By the 17th century the aphrodisiac properties were certainly well recognised and, with the work of herbalists such as Nicholas Culpeper, an English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer, therapeutic properties also started to be recorded, laying the foundation for modern day aromatherapy.
As for the mystical side of aromatherapy, numerous references can be found in old texts to ‘magical perfumes’ to promote love, prosperity and happiness and spiritual perfumes for religious ceremonies are used to this day. Essential oils have been used in medicines, fragrances and flavourings for millenia and there are hundreds of oils extracted from plants from all over the world with their own unique properties.