A brief history of Essential Oils
At a time when National Organizations tell us what is good or bad for us based on their own set of experiments, do we really need science to confirm what God set in motion 5,000 years ago? In any cases, it’s always reassuring to have researchers backing up what folk medicine has practiced with great success for over 5,000 years.
In the past ten years, scientists are now discovering how powerful Essential Oils are to cure all types of diseases and to help people live the Essential Life. But before we talk about the green revolution that is taking place today with the resurgence of Essential Oils, let’s dig into the past and take a look at what is a medicine as old as humanity.
History of Essential Oils
Essential Oils are essential elements of ancient culture starting at the dawn of civilization.
Egyptians (3500 BC to 332 BC)
The first documented use of essential oils appears with the Egyptians who were the first to make extensive use of herbs thanks to distillation methods dating back 3,500 B.C. For almost 30 centuries; from its unification around 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.; ancient Egypt was the preeminent civilization in the Mediterranean world. As such, any discovery they made was widely dispersed.
Not only the Egyptians used Essential Oils as Egyptian medicine but also in the burial of rulers and pharaohs. An amazing discovery was made with King Tutankhamon: when his tomb was opened 350 liters of Essential Oils, were discovered in alabaster jars.
The Egyptian quickly became well-known for their knowledge of cosmetology, ointments, & aromatic oils. It’s very well known that Queen Cleopatra, who was famous for her amazing skin and beauty, owned the very first spa near the dead sea where she used Essential Oils on her for amazing personal results.
Oils and pastes from plants were used for medicinal purpose. Some oils went into pills, powders, suppositories, other into medicinal cakes and ointments. One of her most famous herbal preparations, the “Kyphi” was a mixture of 16 ingredients that could be used as perfume, incense, or medicine.
The Egyptians used daily not only what was called at the time “perfumed oils”, but also scented barks, balsams, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars.
At the apex of Egypt’s power, priests were the only authorities allowed to use aromatic oils, as they were regarded as a necessity to be at one with the Gods. Specific fragrances were dedicated to each deity. Even their statues were anointed with oils by their followers. Of course, Pharaohs had their own private blends for love, war, meditation, etc. Aromatic gums such as cedar and myrrh were used in mummies, and traces of these have still been found on mummies today. In spite of the importance of aromatic oils in Egyptian society, the Egyptians never distilled their own and imported oils of cypress and cedar from Lebanon.
Jews (1500 BC to 62 BC)
Eventually, Moses also used Essential Oils that were referenced in the Ancient Testament and the Bible. In the book of Exodus when the Lord refers to holy anointing oil, it was from a specific formula recommended by God.
Due to the very high price of Essential Oils at the time, this secret formula was used only to anoint higher hierarchy like priests and kings. Eventually, the holy anointing oil was also used when someone went to the priest for healing. The oil was poured onto the head of the sick, and the priest prayed for his healing. This wasn’t just a ritual, the Essential Oils were known to have healing properties.
In the book of Numbers 16 Moses tells Aaron, one of the the high priest, to burn oils as incense to stop a plague. We know now that these oils, especially cinnamon, have powerful anti-bacterial properties that could protect the people.
Other healing oils frequently used during the time of the first testament included frankincense, hyssop, spikenard, and cedarwood.
Greeks (500 BC to 200)
Thanks to travels, the medicinal wisdom of the Egyptians was taken over and absorbed by the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates (c.460 – 377 BC), the most well-known physician of that time, was a firm believer of holistic medicine and included aromatherapy to enhance massage techniques a few centuries before the coming of Christ.
China 2697 BC-2597 BC
Essential Oils were not used only in the holy land. Somehow, China and India also started to employ herbal remedies.
The use of Essential (or aromatic) Oils was first recorded in China between 2697-2597 BC during the reign of Huang Ti, the legendary Yellow Emperor. Huang Ti’s famous book “The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine” contains uses for a lot of aromatics and is still considered today a useful classic by practitioners of eastern medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine embraced essential oils extensively. The traditional Indian medicine called “Ayur Veda” has a 3000-year history of incorporating essential oils into their healing potions. The Vedic literature has over 700 substances including some Essential Oils like cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood which they refer to as effective for healing.
In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, the purpose of aromatic plants and Essential Oils were not only for medicinal purposes. Those natural ingredients were believed to be a Godly part of nature and played an integral role for spiritual and philosophical outlook.
The watershed about Essential Oils start with the story of Jesus. Just a couple of months before His birth, 3 Wise Men travelled through the desert and gave the infant King of Israel gifts of gold to honor his royalty, frankincense as a perfume, and myrrh for anointing oil.
The Wise Men traveled from the far east and gave baby Jesus these precious, costly items that could be used as potential medical remedies to save his life.
During the time of Jesus, Frankincense Essential Oil was used to support the immune system and fight infection. Myrrh Essential Oil was known to help healing after pregnancy and to support hormonal health.
As civilizations transferred world power, the essential oil techniques traveled from Greece to Rome, who favored aromatherapy and fragrances.
The Romans were known for loving everything the Greeks were doing and as such, they lavishly applying perfumed oil to their bodies, bedding and clothes.
Since the Romans invented the baths, they used the Essential Oils in massage and baths. When they fled during the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman physicians brought with them books written by Galen and Hypocrites. Later on, these texts were translated into Persian, Arabic and many other languages.
Persia (980 BC)
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Persia picked up these healing techniques and perfected the essential oil distillation process.
Avicenne, whose real name was Ali-Ibn Sana was a child prodigy and became a well-educated physician by the age of 12. Avicenne wrote several books listing the properties of 800 plants and their effects on the human body. He is also the first person to discover and record the method of distilling essential oils. His methods are still in use.
The Dark Ages brought a disdain for Hippocrates’ holistic approach. However, because the Catholic Church viewed bathing as inappropriate, high esteem was given to aromatics, which coincidently are also antibacterial, and prevented people from stinking. They had absolutely no idea that what they were only using as perfume was also helping them getting rid of sickness and disease!
Folk medicine was viewed by the clergy as “witchcraft” and many herbalists were either thrown in jail, persecuted or simply burned. But the Monks continued their healing tradition anyway, thanks to essential oils and secretly kept herbal medicine alive in the halls of their monasteries.
During the Dark Ages, many herbalists were either thrown in jail, persecuted or simply burned.
The Bubonic Plague (1330)
In the early 1330s, an outbreak of deadly bubonic plague started in China. Because China was one of the busiest trading nations, it was only a matter of time before the plague outbreak spread from China to western Asia and Europe. In October of 1347, several Italian merchant ships returned from a trip to the Black Sea. When the ships docked in Sicily, many were already dying of plague. Within days, the disease spread to the city and the surrounding countryside.
Eight months after, the plague had spread as far north as England, where people called it “The Black Death.”
After five years, 25 million people were dead; more than one-third of Europe’s inhabitants.
The “4 Thieves” concontion helped get rid of the bubonic plague
The disease took its toll on the church. Catholics and Christians devoutly prayed for deliverance from the plague; which never stopped. Why hadn’t those prayers been answered? Soon, a period of philosophical questioning and political turmoil started which ended with the French Revolution.
Enters bizarre images of physicians wearing dark robes, wide-brimmed hats, and masks with long beaks. These horrible beaks were stuffed with dried herbs, spices, and essential oils that the physician breathed. The dark robe was also sprayed with the same Essential Oils concoction.
This concoction came from a “Four Thieves Vinegar Recipe” made with Essential Oils, dried rosemary tops and sage flowers, fresh rue, camphor, “spirit,” garlic cloves and vinegar. The “Pharmacologia” refers to the French Codex and The German Dispensatories as sources of the “vinegar” recipe.
The preparation was coming from four thieves of Marseilles (a French city) who confessed to the king that they used it with complete protection against the plague while they robbed the bodies of the dead. The “Four Thieves” preparation was eventually credited with saving many when the plague later struck the cities
Renaissance (14th–17th centuries)
The word Renaissance means “Rebirth” in French. The Renaissance is a period during the 14th to the 17th century which bridges the Middle Ages to modern history. The devastation caused by the Black Death resulted in a shift in the world view of people. The daily familiarity with death caused people to think more about the purpose of their lives on Earth, rather than spirituality and the afterlife.
It is the Renaissance that resurrected herbal medicine and Essential Oils as therapeutic helpers.
Physicians such as Paracelsus challenged his medical colleagues with testimonials of successfully treating life-threatening concerns like leprosy.
France (20th century)
What we now know as “aromatherapy” was not introduced formally until French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse first coined the phrase in 1937. Although he wasn’t a natural health advocate, he became interested in Essential Oils after a 1910 accident. After badly burning his hand, Gattefosse used the first available medicine in his laboratory, a pure, undiluted lavender Essential Oil that not only immediately eased the pain, but healed his injury without infection or scar.
Thanks to Maurice Gattefosse’s work, Dr. Jean Valet used Essential Oils to treat injured soldiers in World War II. It was after that that Marguerite Maury started to “individually prescribe” Essential Oil thanks to acombinations using a Tibetan technique for back massage that treated nerve endings along the spine (similar to the current The Raindrop Technique). During the outbreak of Spanish influenza, the use of Lavender Essential Oil was credited for the absence of deaths of hospital personnel.
Jean Valnet used Essential Oils to treat injured soldiers in World War II
Today, more than 5,000 years after its first discovery, not only Essential Oils are still used as medicine by “priests” and “kings,” but also by nurses, doctors, nutritionists, and moms and dads all over the world.
Robert Tisserand was the first to translate the vast French knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English
The French aromatherapist Jean Valnet’s work using essential oils to treat injured soldiers during the war led him to write an acclaimed book, “The Practice of Aromatherapy,” simply titled “Aromathérapie” in French. Austrian born Marguerite Maury is a biochemist who dedicated her life studying, practicing and teaching the use of aromatherapy; especially for cosmetic benefit.. Robert B. Tisserand is a French-English aromatherapist who is responsible for being one of the first to translate the vast French knowledge and education of aromatherapy to English speaking nations, especially Britain and the USA. He currently lives in San Diego and has written numerous books and articles including the 1977 publication “The Art of Aromatherapy,” which was the first aromatherapy book published in English.