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History of Aromatherapy

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.


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.