The Origin of Aromatherapy
We, humans, possess five senses; touch, taste, eyesight, hearing, and smell. These senses are vital for any human body to function at its best and without these senses, we may not be where we are today. In fact, the world wouldn’t have progressed as much as it has till now. But these five senses have many other functions than you may know and have actually contributed to various aspects of living.
Apart from their primary function – for example, the sense of hearing is used to help us hear sounds in our regular life – there are other functions of these senses as well. The five senses have forever been a key feature in sciences, especially medical sciences. Therapists, doctors, and scientists have always used these senses and tried to manipulate them to learn more about the human body.
This is how we reached the understanding of utilizing the human senses instead of the use of external drugs for the treatment of the human body, and that’s how various therapies used worldwide for the treatment of a myriad of problems came into existence. One such very popular and ancient therapeutic treatment is aromatherapy.
By the term aromatherapy, you can get an idea that aromatherapy targets our olfactory senses – also known as the sense of smell. It is a therapeutic treatment method that helps humans in various ways and has been around for centuries now. Even though the term “aromatherapy” was unknown to humans up until the 20th century, the use of aromas for treatment and therapy was widely popular.
Today, let’s talk about the history and origin of aromatherapy in a little more detail. If you don’t know what aromatherapy is or are curious about how it became one of the most popular therapies worldwide, keep reading:
What is Aromatherapy?
Up until now, you already have an idea that aromatherapy is basically the use of aromas to manipulate our sense of smell and use it for treatment. Basically, aromatherapy is a branch of phytotherapy – which itself is the use of herbs or plants to help manage various health conditions.
Aromatherapy basically makes use of active ingredients present in aromatic plants (plants that have the ability to synthesize essence through photosynthesis). The essence from these plants is used in the form of oils – essential oils that are then used for curative, therapeutic, and preventative purposes.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
Aromatherapy works by stimulating your olfactory sense (sense of smell) and skin absorption. Various products, such as essential oils, aromatic diffusers, and bathing salts, are made using aromatic plant extracts. These products are then either applied on the skin (such as through an essential oil massage), so the essence can absorb in your skin, or their smell is added to the atmosphere through diffusers that can surround you and make you feel relaxed or cured as you breathe in.
Professionals, such as physical therapists, nurses, and aroma therapists, provide inhaled and topical aromatherapy for several health conditions. However, only very specifically trained professionals can prescribe aromatic products for oral treatment.
History and Origin of Aromatherapy
Now that we know what aromatherapy is and how it works, let’s talk about the beginning of aromatherapy. As we mentioned briefly, aromatherapy is an ancient concept that originated centuries back.
Let’s talk about the origination of aromatherapy as we know it today. In more detail, let’s see how many different cultures contributed to the popularity of the treatment in the past.
· The Earliest Mention of Aromatherapy
If we talk about the concept of the use of aromatic plants, we can say that the roots of aromatherapy can be traced back to 5000 years ago. At that time, aromatics were used for various purposes, including religious rituals, perfumes, and even medicine. In ancient times, people associated fragrance with a healing effect. It was believed that certain plants or herbs that were aromatic were also able to have certain unusual effects on people, such as causing them to become sleepy or helping them heighten their awareness and boosting their energy and vision.
There are various versions of aromatherapy’s history, depending on the culture we are talking about. Aromatherapy was discovered and used in various parts of the world at the same time, and each culture has its own history of using aromatic plants for healing and religious purposes.
Let’s talk about some of the most popular cultural anecdotes regarding the origination of aromatherapy.
· Ancient Egyptians
Undoubtedly, ancient Egyptians were considered the pioneers of aromatherapy because they were among the first ones to use aromatic plants and fragrance oils for various purposes. The earliest record of Egyptians using aromatic plants was them burning incense, aromatic herbs, and wood in honor of their god.
It was popularly believed that the smoke from burning these plants rose to the heavens, carrying their wishes and prayers to their deities directly.
However, other than that, the ancient Egyptians used fragrance oils and plant essence for medicine, massage, cosmetics, skincare, and even the process of embalming the dead. Since there are no records of modern processes like distillation from that time, it is believed that the only methods to produce fragrance oils were “maceration: and: enfleurage.”
At this time, the gardens of the pharaohs were used to grow medicinal herbs and plants in a vast array – plants from all over the world were found in these gardens. The physicians and temple priests were responsible for the growth of these plants and the extraction of fragrant oils, especially for the use of the pharaohs.
Since personal hygiene was important among the ancient Egyptians, they had intricate recipes for making fragrant hygiene products such as deodorants. This also showed how the physicians at that time had great knowledge of the properties of such a wide variety of plants.
· Ancient Indians
Ancient India is also considered one of the earliest civilizations to use aromatic plants and treat people holistically. You must have heard about “ayurvedic” products and medicines, which are still popular names in south Asia. Ayurvedic – translated to “life knowledge,” is an ancient medical practice that was developed using plants and plant extracts. This medical practice was so famous and successful that it is still popularly practiced among people across the world.
In most ancient Indian scripts, you can find the record of people using aromatic plants and plant extracts for religious and therapeutic purposes. There is an entire ancient script called “Veda” about plants and their abilities. Up to 700 aromatic plants and herbs like cinnamon, coriander, sandalwood, and myrrh were a highlight in their religious practices and ayurvedic medicine. These plants are, to date, used in south Asian foods and most Hindu rituals just for their aroma.
· Ancient Chinese
We have all heard about Chinese medicine, which is a traditional medical practice, nothing like modern-day medicine. To date, Chinese medicine and herbal treatment are, to date, renowned for being unconventional yet effective and most concepts of ancient Chinese medicine concepts are derived from the understanding of aromatherapy.
Ancient Chinese civilizations had advanced knowledge and understanding of plants’ medicinal properties, which is still evident in their medical practice. They used plant oils and plant extracts for incense in their rituals but also in food and cosmetics – most just for their aroma. Dating back to 2500 BC, there are scripts and books written about the use of plants in medicine. In fact, the yellow Emperor of China named, Huang Ti, wrote a book highlighting the healing properties of various plants in this book called “internal medicine.”
Just like “The Vedas,” “Internal medicine” is one of the oldest scriptures discussing plants’ properties and their treatment abilities. The book also highlighted how to treat various diseases and became a backbone for modern-day Chinese medicine and aromatherapy. However, apart from this book, the biggest contribution of the Chinese in this field lies in the citrus family.
It is believed that all citrus species originated in China, and it only existed there until the plant somehow found its way to Europe. However, in one way or the other, the use of citrus in China has been wide, and the plant was used for its properties, including its aroma.
We all know Greeks were geniuses of the time, and most of the things that we know today are due to the Greeks and their ideologies and knowledge. In fact, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, was also a Greek who actually was the first physician to dismiss the Egyptian belief that illnesses are due to supernatural forces. The Greeks were always ahead of their time, and when it comes to aromatherapy, they have made a key contribution in their field as well.
The previous millennia featuring the Assyrians, Hebrews, and Babylonians had all assimilated and borrowed the knowledge of the Egyptians regarding aromatic medicine – as their botanical pharmacopeia was rich by then. But as soon as the Egyptian empire crumbled during 300 BC, Europe, especially Greece became the heart of empirical medicine. This is where new treatment methods were discovered, and experiments and medicine began to evolve steadily, giving us a more scientific system of healing.
Around 1200 BC, the earliest known Greek physician named Asclepius was said to practice combining the use of surgery and herbs, which was a skill unknown previously. His use of herbs and plants in medicine was new, unconventional, and revolutionary. He had such a great reputation that even after his death, he was known as the god of healing as per Greek mythology and had thousands of temples in his name. And his contribution to the field of medicine is enough to associate Greeks with the history and origin of Aromatherapy.
Modern Day Aromatherapy
It must be evident by now that the use of aromatic plants and herbs was quite common among various ancient civilizations, which all contributed to the current understanding of aromatherapy. It was by 1700 that the use of aromatic essential oils became mainstream in modern medicine and was used in treating various diseases. But soon came the time when chemistry had become advanced enough that developing synthetic aromatic material in the laboratory became more cost-effective than growing plants.
However, since the industrial revolution came, the traditions of using plants and herbs for treatment have subsided. As industries grew and gardens were reduced, people had no time to grow and use fresh herbs for even cooking. This led to aromatherapy becoming a lost concept for a short while.
But then, after some time came the modern era, where the concept of herbal remedy and aromatherapy was reinvented. There was major curiosity about this field’s scientific scope, so chemists and practitioners started working toward it again. And so aromatherapy was properly rediscovered as what we know today.
The term “aromatherapy” was coined by Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who studied and specialized in the medicinal properties of essential oils for quite a while. In fact, he worked with his family in the perfumery business, which further sparked his interest in the field.
A popular story is that a chemist once had a blast in the laboratory and experienced a severe burn on his hand. However, applying pure lavender oil immediately reduced swelling and helped the healing process accelerate. This incident made him more passionate about exploring aromatherapy and resulted in him coining the name for the treatment method.
From Egyptian perfumery to ancient Chinese medicine – there have been records of the use of aromatic plants in various aspects of life from many past civilizations. Today we are finally at a point where aromatherapy is a popular and very successful alternative medicine method. It is used in various filed other than medicine, such as skin care, cosmetics, and even the massage industry. However, scientists are still working and trying to unfold what else is there in store for the future of treatment methods.