History of Aromatherapy


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The burning of incense in ancient religious ceremonies  is one of the first uses of aromatherapy.

The history of aromatherapy is believed to have begun with the burning of fragrant woods, leaves, needles, and tree gums in ancient times. This practice probably arose from the discovery that some firewoods, such as cypress and cedar, filled the air with scent when they burned. In fact, our modern word perfume is derived from the Latin per fumum, which means "through smoke."

Incense was not the only early use of fragrance, however. Sometime between 7000 and 4000 B.C.E., Neolithic tribes learned that animal fats, when heated, absorbed plant's aromatic and healing properties. Perhaps fragrant leaves or flowers accidentally dropped into fat as meat cooked over the fire. The information gleaned from that accident led to other discoveries: Such plants added flavor to food, helped heal wounds, and smoothed dry skin far better than nonscented fat. These fragrant fats -- the forerunners of our modern massage and body lotions -- scented the wearer, protected skin and hair from weather and insects, and relaxed aching muscles. They also affected people's energies and emotions.

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Aromatic water, a third type of fragrant product, was actually a combination of essential oils, water, and alcohol. It was used to enhance the complexion and scent the skin and hair. It also was ingested as a medicinal tonic. It was the forerunner of our modern perfume.

As civilization became more advanced, incense, body oils, and aromatic waters were combined into blends to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Thus, throughout the world, aroma became an integral part of healing and lay the foundation for our use of aromatherapy today. In this article, we will review the history of aromatherapy, from ancient times to the present day. We will begin on the next page with a look at the fragrance trade, which brought essential oils all around the world.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

The Fragrance Trade

In ancient times, as now, commonly used essential oils such as frankincense, eucalyptus, ginger, patchouli, and rosewood came from the furthest reaches of the globe. These vital components of religious ceremonies, medicine, food, cosmetics, and aphrodisiacs were in great demand and were more costly than precious metals and jewels. Although each region could produce clothing, shelter, and food from the resources in its immediate territory, people of all nations craved rare, exotic odors that literally added spice to their lives and lent an air of mystery to their ceremonies.

The demand for aromatic materials, coupled with their portability, led to the establishment of long distance trade. Fortunately, seeds and herbs could be dried, gums rolled into beads, and fragrances infused in oil or solid perfumes while retaining or even improving their properties. This made them extremely portable and relatively impervious to damage.

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With trade and the passion for fragrance came adventure and intrigue. Fleets of ships crossed oceans, explorers risked their lives traveling across vast deserts, wars were ignited over land disputes and trade rights, kingdoms were conquered or lost, and love bloomed -- all in the pursuit of fragrance. As a result, the quest for fragrance was responsible for molding early world history more than any other single factor.

Babylonian Beginnings

No one knows exactly when trade began, but an import order for cedarwood, myrrh, and cypress was found inscribed on an early Babylonian clay tablet. More than 5,000 years ago, when Egyptians were just learning to write and make bricks, they were already bringing in large quantities of myrrh -- their most valued trade import. Certainly there were trade routes through the Middle East to obtain myrrh and other fragrant goods before 2000 B.C.E., and these routes were well-traveled for the next 30 centuries.

Overland trade meant grueling months or even years crossing arid deserts and negotiating difficult mountain passes while being threatened by bandits. So aromatics were soon transported by sea, leading to improvements in sailing techniques, vessels, and navigation. Monsoon winds carried double-outrigger canoes along the cinnamon route through the South Seas. Later, Egyptian and eventually Roman traders took advantage of these same winds to take them to India in the summer and home again in the winter.

The Scent of Royalty

Wheeling and dealing is not a new art, but it was fully employed in the ancient fragrance trade. The great Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, for one, knew a business opportunity when she saw one. As one of her greatest accomplishments, she sent an expedition to Punt on the African coast to establish what would be a very profitable trade. She also brought back 31 myrrh trees to Egypt, and they were planted in a botanical garden that lined the walkway leading to her massive temple of Deir al-Bahari near Thebes. On the temple walls, the images of the myrrh trees carved in bas-relief can still be seen today.

Other queens made an equal impact on aromatic history. When the Queen of Sheba paid her famous visit to the court of Israel's King Solomon, it was to discuss the fragrance trade. Some sources say she was from southwestern  Arabia, the land of frankincense and myrrh, but more likely she was queen of a North Arabian tribe that traded the fragrant terebinth resin from the pistachio tree.

Sometimes fragrance simply tagged along in the footsteps of the famous. For example, Alexander the Great's conquests had little to do with the pursuit of fragrant materials. In fact, he despised fragrances because they reminded him of his Persian enemies, and he contemptuously threw out a box of priceless ointments from King Darius' tent after defeating him at the battle of Issos. However, after a few years of traveling through Asia, he became convinced of the joys of fine scent. He anointed his body with fragrant oils and kept incense burning by his throne. And, in his wake, he left the lands he conquered desiring more aromatics.

A World Market

Today, cities prosper and fail with the price of oil. So, too, did they in ancient times; however, it was fragrant oils and spices, not fuel oil, that sparked the growth of key cities along the avenues of commerce. With the introduction of camels as pack animals, the city of Alexandria developed into an active trading hub linking several trade routes, including one to Arabia, 2,000 miles away.

By the fourth century B.C.E., Babylon had a thriving market, trading in cedar of Lebanon, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, calamus, and juniper. Athens was famous for its hundreds of shops selling scented body oils and solid incense/perfumes. Phoenician merchants dealt in Chinese camphor, Indian cinnamon, black pepper, and sandalwood. Africa, South Arabia, and India supplied lemongrass, ginger, and spikenard, the rhizome of which has an exotic fragrance. China imported jasmine-scented sesame oil from India and Persia, rose water via the Silk Route, and eventually, Indonesian aromatics: cloves, gum benzoin, ginger, nutmeg, and patchouli. Astute traders knew which locales produced the best oils and fragrances.

Redolent Wealth

Since ancient times, the wealthy and powerful have been able to drown themselves in fragrance. In fact, one unfortunate Roman literally did. He was asphyxiated when the carved ivory ceiling panels in Emperor Nero's dining room slid aside to shower guests, who reclined on floor pillows, with hundreds of pounds of fresh rose petals. In general, wealthy Romans so over-indulged themselves in fragrance that the ruler Leptadeni, in 188 B.C.E., issued an edict forbidding such foolish excess.

The Roman population paid little heed to the fragrance prohibition, and demand for incense only increased. By the first century C.E., Romans were burning 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh -- both herbs more costly than gold -- each year. As a result, Emperor Augustus increased the number of trade ships sailing between Egypt and India fivefold, from twenty to a hundred.

Islamic culture was also rich in fragrance, using it extensively in medicine, cosmetics, and confections. Rose water was mixed into the mortar used to build mosques, and even the ground in paradise was said to emit the scent of musk and saffron. Mohammed himself was once a spice and aromatics merchant who traveled on camel caravans. He loved fragrance, especially rose, mentioning it frequently in his teachings: "Whoever would smell my scent, let him smell the rose."

Linking East and West

Although certainly not the intention, the Crusades of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries acquainted the European population with Arabian ideas and fostered an appreciation of Eastern aromatics, despite repeated warnings by the Christian priesthood that fragrance was associated with Satan. Crusaders returned bearing gifts of oils, fragrant waters, and solid perfumes. Soon the European elite were demanding rose water, and Italians could not live without the addition of orange water to their sweets and confections.

As commerce in fragrance increased between East and West, so did the exchange of ideas. To facilitate trade the Chinese adopted the Indian system of counting. By the eleventh century, Arabs were navigating spice-laden ships from India to China with the Chinese compass and balanced stern rudder. During the next century, the Chinese navy grew from 3,000 to 50,000 sailors to accommodate large vessels that each hauled as much as six thousand baskets of fragrant herbs and spices.

China's upper classes were lavish in their use of scent, especially from the seventh century T'ang Dynasty through the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century. Everything was scented -- baths, clothing, buildings, ink, and paper. Miniature landscapes, in which perfumed smoke escaped from a mountain and coiled around the peak, became the rage.

Exploration and Colonization

Marco Polo made his famous journey to Kublai Khan's court in the late thirteenth century to establish direct trade between Italy and China. The Italians could thus circumvent Muslim middlemen and their 300 percent markup. The deal was successful, and throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy monopolized Eastern trade with Europe. Not to be outdone, Spain sent Christopher Columbus across the ocean to seek a shorter route to India.

It was the Portuguese who established a sailing route to India that circumvented Alexandria and Constantinople. In 1498, Vasco de Gama's sailors cheered, "For Christ and spices!" as they reached India, land of fragrant spices and herbs. They brought back so much that nutmegs were said to be rolling in the streets of Lisbon!

Early in the seventeenth century the Dutch built forts in India, establishing the Dutch East India Company by force. In provinces where they couldn't obtain control, they simply uprooted nutmeg and clove trees so no one else could have them. But the French managed to slip several fragrant plants out from under the Dutch noses. These were planted in the French West Indies and the island of Bourbon (now called Reunion).

The demand for essential oils and spices really started to escalate with the invention of incense and solid perfumes. We'll learn about this development in the next section.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

The Rise of Incense and Solid Perfumes

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The burring of fragrant plants soon evolved into the production incense  using gums and honey to bond the aromatics together.

For thousands of years and throughout the world, fragrant smoke has purified the air and comforted individuals who were in physical, emotional, or spiritual need. At first, tossing a few fragrant plant twigs into the fire served the purpose, but eventually solid incense was created using ground gums and plants mixed with honey. These were formed into solid cubes and set on a coal from the fire. In many cultures, elaborate ceremonial burners were designed to hold cubes of incense atop smoldering coals.

Purification

The ancients filled temples, council rooms, and homes with incense, using it even more liberally than we would an air freshner. Small wonder, since incense was able to dispel the disagreeable smells of unsanitary living conditions. In Europe, Arabia, India, China, and throughout North America, dwellings were fumigated to drive out the evil spirits that were believed to cause illness while, at the same time, ridding the dwelling of fleas and bugs. During epidemics, people who flocked to temples and churches were probably helped by the burning of antiseptic herbs. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have freed Athens from the plague by burning aromatic plants, as did Moses and Aaron in the desert (Num 16:46-50).

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Respiratory and rheumatic ills, headaches, unconsciousness, and other medical problems were treated by breathing in smoke arising from aromatic plants. And sometimes wet, aromatic herbs or herb teas were dropped on hot rocks to create a steam that was inhaled. Both techniques proved effective in treating sinus congestion, lung problems, or earache.

During religious and healing ceremonies, Native Americans burned tight bundles of fragrant herbs and braids of the vanillalike sweet grass and surrounded themselves in the smoke. And to heal the sick, rocks steaming from the tea of goldenrod, fleabane, pearly everlasting, and echinacea were placed next to a patient, and both were covered with hides or blankets to make a type of aroma-filled mini-sauna.

Versatile Aromata

Throughout Europe, Arabia, and India, incense proved to be immensely versatile; it was used as perfume, medicine, and even mouthwash. Remember, early incense contained nothing other than ground herbs, plant gums, and honey. (Only much later was messy charcoal and inedible saltpeter added so that, once ignited, it would continue burning.) Since most of the herbs were highly antiseptic, when rubbed on the skin and melted by body heat, they released a scent and disinfected wounds. Incense was even ingested as medicine. It is no surprise, then, that the Greek word aromata had several meanings: incense, perfume, spice, and aromatic medicine. The Chinese also had one word, heang, to describe perfume, incense, and the concept of fragrance.

Some aromatics were even found to help with weight loss, digestion, or menstrual regularity. Rome's most famous perfume, Susinon, when ingested was a diuretic and relieved various types of inflammation. Amarakinon treated indigestion and hemorrhoids and encouraged menstruation, either when ingested or applied directly to the affliction. It was also worn as perfume. Spikenard was the main ingredient in another perfume that could be sucked as a throat lozenge to relieve coughs and laryngitis.

An Intoxication of Mind and Emotions

Throughout the world, incense has been employed to affect mind and emotions. According to the Japanese, it fosters communication with the transcendent, purifies mind and body, keeps you alert, acts as a companion in the midst of solitude, and brings moments of peace amidst busy affairs. The fragrant smoke billowing from Chinese bronze incense burners was classified into six basic moods: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined, and noble.

Certain plants have been burned for their intoxicating or aphrodisiac properties. In Delphi, Greece, the oracle priestesses sat on stools over holes in the floor that emitted fumes of bay leaves to inspire visions. While little of Delphi's grandeur remains today, you can still see the hidden incense chamber underneath the floor. Women in Tibet called dainyals held cloths over their heads to capture cedar smoke, which would send them into prophetic chanting. Aromatic plants with hypnotic properties were used similarly by Australian aborigines and by Native Americans.

Cleopatra used the bewitchment of scent to lure Mark Anthony. Her slaves fanned smoke from burning incense onto the sails of her ship. In Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare describes these sails as "so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them." This was probably not far from the truth, since the scent she chose is thought to be that of the delicious camphire (henna) mentioned in the Song of Solomon—long regarded as an aphrodisiac.

Religious Uses of Incense

In nearly every culture, incense was believed to attract the gods and goddesses, keep evil spirits at bay, and purify both body and soul. Ancient peoples, believing that spirit and life entered the body through their breath, also thought that inhaling certain odors brought them closer to God. Fragrance was considered akin to the divine because it was invisible, mysterious, and attractive. They called aroma the soul of the plant and thought it a gift from God. They also believed that the deities would find prayers -- breathed into the smoke which carried them aloft -- more pleasing when sweetly scented.

Its association with sensuality and its excessive use by Arabs, Romans, and Jews gave incense a bad name among most early Christians. However, some sects did use it exclusively for religious ceremonies. Gnostic Christians of the first to fourth centuries were deeply influenced by Egyptian philosophy and adopted the ancient belief that a plant's fragrance is associated with the soul of man. Eventually, the Catholic church embraced the use of incense to purify and bless their statues, relics, altars, and those participating in the mass.

To the Chinese Taoist, fragrance also held a religious significance. Among the 10,000 rites of Taoist Buddhism, it is said that the "burning of incense has primacy," representing the soul's liberation from limitations of the material world. To enhance their experience, they sometimes incorporated psychoactive plants such as cannabis into their incense. The incense burner itself, called fa lu, became an object of worship.

The Art and Practice of Scent

Although the Japanese came relatively late to the use of incense, they quickly developed it into a sophisticated art called koh-do that was taught in special schools. Still practiced by a few people today, participants in the incense ceremony had to bathe and dress in clean clothes so that they carried no odors into the room. They then tried to guess the different characteristics of the incense. The winner went home with a prize.

The Japanese, during the Nara and Kamakura Periods (710-1333 C.E.), were especially practical when it came to household uses of incense. A clock changed scent as time passed. A more sophisticated clock announced the time according to which chimney issued smoke. Geisha even kept track of their customer’s stay by how many sticks of incense burned. A special headrest called a kikohmakura imparted perfumed smoke to a lady's hair, and kimonas were hung on a rack over scented smoke.

The world's first novel, Prince Genji, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the eleventh century, describes the practice of scenting one's kimono sleeves. Small incense burners were "held for a moment inside each sleeve" so that scent floated about whenever a motion was made by the hand.

The European elite also scented their sleeves. Ladies of the court pinned scented pendants that held solid perfumes imported from Arabia into the sleeves of their cut-velvet gowns. They also kept the perfume in lockets worn around the neck where they could be conveniently sniffed. Orange blossom oil was extracted and combined with pressed almond pulp to make the very popular perfume ointment pomades. Pomme d’ambre, on the other hand, were scented balls of ambergris, spices, honey, and wine that hung from the belt in a small, perforated container. Even the slightest movement of a skirt would surround one in fragrance.

Another major step in the evolution of aromatherapy was the advent of body oils. We'll cover this development on the next page.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

The Invention of Body Oils

The ancient Egyptian were renowned for their ability create scented oils.

Fragrance also found its way into religious and secular life via scented oils. These were made, as they still are today, by extracting plant oils into fat or vegetable oil and then straining out the used plant material. They were used liberally in religious ceremonies to consecrate temples, alters, statues, candles, and priests.

Religious Use of Fragrant Oils

The Book of Exodus (30:22-25) provides one of the earliest recipes for an anointing oil -- given by God to Moses to be used in the initiation of priests. The ingredients included myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia blended into olive oil.

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When Mary Magdalene anointed Christ's feet and wiped them with her hair, it was with an oil made from costly spikenard. The name Christ, or Christos, from the Greek chriein, literally means "to anoint," and the frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men to the Christ child most likely were anointing oils. These oils were considered to be more valuable than the gold that was carried by the third wise man.

Ancient Egyptian Scents

Egyptian talent for formulating scented oils became legendary, and their oils were certainly potent: Calcite pots filled with richly scented oils still held a faint odor when King Tutankamen's tomb was opened 3,000 years later. Egyptians were especially creative with the use of scent and did not restrict it to religious rites. An individual's special odor, or khaibt, was represented by a hieroglyph of a fan and was thought capable of influencing the emotions of others.

The first beauty spa may have been the perfume factory owned by Cleopatra at En Gedi, by the Dead Sea. Individuals were apparently offered health and beauty treatments, since the ruins of the factory show seats in what are believed to have been waiting and treatment rooms. Fragrant herbs were blended into specially prepared olive oil. Unfortunately, the book in which Cleopatra recorded recipes for her body oils, Cleopatra Gynaeciarum Libri, is long lost. We know of it only through its mention in Roman texts.

Bathed in Fragrance

The Romans, who did not enjoy the messy process of infusing and straining scented oils, imported most of theirs from Egypt. Men and women alike literally bathed in fragrance. So prevalent was the use of scent that Romans affectionately called their sweethearts "my myrrh, my cinnamon," just as today we call our loved ones "honey."

The Greeks were especially attracted to the use of scented oils. In fact, Hippocrates recommended the use of body oils in the bath. In Athens, proprietors of unguentarii shops sold marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose, and iris infused in oil and thickened with beeswax. They packaged their unguents (from a word meaning to smear or anoint) in small, elaborately decorated ceramic pots, as they still do today. However, in those times the shopkeepers were consulted as doctors, and their products were sold for a multitude of medicinal uses.

Greek men and women anointed their bodies for both personal enhancement and sensuality. The men used a different scented oil, chosen for its particular attributes, for each part of their body. Most of the oils they used, such as mint for the arms, were warm and stimulating.

Oils were also used to massage tight muscles. Athletes in India, on the Mediterranean island of Crete, and later in Greece and Rome, had specially prepared oils rubbed into their muscles before, and often after, participating in their athletic games.

East Indian Tantric practice turned women into a veritable garden of earthly delights. They anointed themselves with jasmine on their hands, patchouli on the neck and cheeks, amber on their breasts, spikenard in the hair, musk on the abdomen, sandalwood on the thighs, and saffron on their feet. Men, however, applied only sandalwood to their own bodies.

The daily bathing ritual in India required the application of sesame oils scented with jasmine, coriander, cardamom, basil, costus, pandanus, agarwood, pine, saffron, champac, and clove. Ancient Vedic religious and medical books gave instruction on balancing body temperature, temperament, and digestion with such aromas, and some of their therapeutic uses were certainly passed on to the West.

In Egypt, everyone used body oils, from royalty to laborers. Builders constructing a burial site went on strike in the twelfth century B.C.E. not just because the food was bad, but even worse, they complained, "We have no ointment." They depended upon the oils to ease sore muscles after a day of hauling and carving huge stones and to protect their skin from the intense Egyptian sun.

Throughout the Americas, massage with scented oils was also used as therapy and was often the first treatment given. One massage oil prepared by the Incas contained valerian and other relaxing herbs that were thickened with seaweed. The Aztecs massaged the sick with scented ointments in their sweat lodges.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Liquid Perfumes

Jim Crossley Liquid perfumes like the kind we know today bear almost no resemblance  to first perfumes, created thousands of years ago.

Perfume as we know it today -- packaged in tiny, expensive bottles with a high alcohol content and hundreds of chemical compounds -- is a relatively new invention.

Maria Prophetissa's Invention

The first written description of a distiller to produce essential oils appears around the first century C.E. Maria Prophetissa, known as Mary the Jewess, invented a mechanism that looked something like a double-boiler. She described the essential oil it produced as an "angel who descends from the sky." By the second century C.E. the Chinese and Arabs were distilling essential oils, and Japan followed suit a few centuries later.

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Prophetissa's inventions could also distill alcohol. Combining it with essential oils and diluting it with water produced a new type of fragrance. These scented "waters" made the body smell sweet and also acted as medicine and cosmetics. When dabbed on the skin, they improved skin tone and diminished blemishes. When taken internally, they relieved indigestion, soothed menstrual cramps, or treated myriad other ailments. Thus was born the "medicinal tonic."

Aromatic Waters

If you have ever appreciated a fine European liquor such as Benedictine or Fra Angelica, you are benefiting from the stills of early monastery infirmaries and herbariums. Many monks and nuns were dedicated herbalists who served as both doctor and pharmacist to their patients. Aromatic waters were one of their favorite prescriptions.

Some sources credit the twelfth century herbalist Saint Hildegard, Abbess of Bingen, with inventing lavender water, which she mentions in a treatise on medicinal and aromatic herbs. However it originated, this aromatic water took Europe by storm. By the fourteenth century, lavender water was so popular that the French King Charles V had lavender planted in the gardens at the Louvre to ensure the supply.

Another famous monastic concoction was Aqua Mirabilis, or "Miracle Water," a water and alcohol combination spiked with essential oils. It was sipped to improve vision and to treat rheumatic pain, fever, and congestion; it was also said to improve memory and reduce melancholy. In addition, it was splashed on the body to improve one's smell. Carmelite Water was prepared by European Carmelite nuns from a secret formula that we now know included melissa (lemon balm) and angelica. It aided both digestion and the complexion, depending upon its use. Modern versions of Miracle Water and Carmelite Water are still sold in Europe today.

Eau de Cologne

In 1732, aromatic waters were further refined into cologne when Giovanni Maria Farina of Cologne, France, took over his uncle's business. Aqua Admirabilis, a lively blend of neroli, bergamot, lavender, and rosemary in grape alcohol, which has a distinct fruity scent, was used on the face and also treated sore gums and indigestion. Soldiers dubbed it "Eau de Cologne," meaning Cologne water, after the town, and the name cologne stuck to all perfumed waters since then. The rumor was that Napoleon went through several bottles a day, an endorsement that made the cologne so popular that 39 nearly identical products were created. A half century of law-suits against these illegal knock-off colognes followed.

After four centuries as the undisputed favorite, Queen of Hungary Water was displaced by Eau de Cologne as the fragrance in most demand.

Chemistry and Cosmetics

A little more than 100 years ago, the fragrance industry was suddenly thrust into the modern chemical age. Previously, cologne and even soap had always been considered part of the medicinal pharmacy. Then, in 1867, the Paris International Exhibition boldly exhibited them in a separate section dubbed cosmetics. This radical move birthed an entirely new industry that paved the way for a new product: perfume.

The very next year, the first commercial synthetic essential oil was developed in the laboratory. With its fresh smell of newly mowed hay, the synthetic oil was an instant hit with cologne manufacturers. Thousands of synthetic fragrances, even those imitating the rarest and most expensive essential oils, were engineered mostly from petroleum chemicals.

These synthetic oils changed the character of personal fragrance forever. The new chemicals were so concentrated, they allowed the manufacture of powerful perfumes. Replacing light colognes that were liberally splashed on, just a few small drops of perfume completely scented an individual. Still other newly-invented chemical additives made that scent linger for hours. Of course, with all the synthetic ingredients, colognes and perfumes were no longer medicinal—and certainly not edible. For the first time in history, they were purely a cosmetic product.

Promoted by the newly emerging fashion design world, major perfume houses such as Guerlain, Bourjois, and Rimmel established themselves in France. While the Victorian era had frowned on anything but the lightest scents, styles changed when American soldiers returned from France following World War I, laden with gifts of perfume. The idea of wearing a personal fragrance caught on.

On our final page, you will learn about how aromatherapy has returned to prominence.

To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

The Return of Aromatherapy

Today, perfume, food, medicine, and aromatherapy products are viewed as separate entities, although aromatherapy is slowly reclaiming its medicinal heritage. A French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, coined the term aromatherapie in 1928. His family were perfumers, but his interest in the therapeutic use of essential oils began when he severely burned his hand in a laboratory explosion. He deliberately plunged his hand into a nearby container of lavender oil to ease the pain, but was amazed at how quickly it healed. He wrote numerous books and papers on the chemistry of perfume and cosmetics. Around the same time another Frenchman, Albert Couvreur, published a book on the medicinal uses of essential oils.

A new wave of aromatherapist practitioners was inspired by this work, one of whom was Dr. Jean Valnet, who, while an army surgeon during World War II, used essential oils such as thyme, clove, lemon, and chamomile on wounds and burns. He later used essential oils to treat psychiatric problems. Marguerite Maury, a French biochemist, developed therapeutic methods for applying these oils to the skin as a massage, reintroducing an ancient method of aromatherapy to the modern world.

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To learn more about Aromatherapy and other alternative medicines, see:

  • Aromatherapy: Here you will learn about aromatherapy, how it works, what part essential oils play, and how to use aromatherapy.
  • Essential Oils Profiles: We have collected profiles of dozens of plants that are used to produce essential oils. On these pages, you will learn the properties and preparations for the most popular essential oils.
  • How to Treat Common Conditions With Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy can be used to treat a number of conditions, from asthma to depression to skin problems. Here you will learn how to treat some common medical problems with aromatherapy.
  • Home Remedies: We have gathered over a hundred safe, time-tested home remedies for treating a wide variety of medical complaints yourself.
  • Herbal Remedies: Herbal remedies and aromatherapy can be very similar, and they stem from similar historic roots. On this page, you will find all of our herb profiles and instructions for treating medical problems with herbal remedies.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and editor of the American Herb Association Quarterly newsletter. A writer, photographer, consultant, and teacher specializing in aromatherapy and herbs for over 25 years, she has written several books, including Aromatherapy: The Complete Guide to the Healing Art and Pocket Guide to Aromatherapy, and has written over 150 articles for such magazines as New Age Journal, The Herb Companion, and New Herbal Remedies. This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.