The Real History Of Essential Oils

The history of essential oils dates back to 4500 BC when ancient Egyptians initially used them for medicinal and religious purposes.

Though historians and researchers credit Egyptians to have first used pure aromatic extracts (during 4500 B.C.) for culinary uses, beauty care, physical and spiritual wellbeing, the earliest evidence of essential oils usage occur between the period 3000 B.C and 2000 B.C.

Besides Egyptian civilizations, it is claimed that essential oils were also used in India and China nearly at the same time. Let us go back in time to unveil how essential oils were used throughout the history.

A Brief History Of Essential Oils

the history of essential oils

 Unveil the essential oils interesting history…

1. Pre-historic Times

 The origin of essential oils is said to have occurred in pre-historic times when people used them to create cave paintings.

2. Ancient Egypt

 When we say “aromatherapy or essential oils,” ancient Egypt is known to be its origin.

Info:The Egyptians cultivated different plants and extracted their oils for multiple purposes. These oils were extensively used for religious purposes, treating various ailments, and making cosmetics. 

Egyptians also made some phenomenal essential oil ointments, which were used to preserve the dead.

Even Queen Cleopatra’s beauty treatments have been credited to pure essential oils, clays, fatty oils, and salts from the Dead Sea. She had an immense knowledge of essential oils and their healing powers. In fact, she used rose oil to entice Mark Antony.

Besides adornment, the Egyptians even harnessed the power of essential oils to make powders, tinctures, ointments, and salves, which were further used in spiritual ceremonies and therapeutic treatments.

It is believed that a majority of essential oils were made in Egypt through a solvent-extraction process (also called enfleurage). The method used animal fat – but later in 3500 B.C., distillation “pots” were utilized.

The priests and ruling families of Egypt were well known for using expensive perfumes and aromatics. The Egyptian temple used a wide array of aromatic powders, resins, and balms for both medicinal and religious purposes.

Those good old recipes and formulas from the ancient times are still considered priceless today. Many primeval pictorials on the walls of Egyptian temples not only depict the extraction of essential oils but also demonstrate the royalty using them.

Evidently, essential oils were valued in the Egyptian ethnicity. In fact, when the tomb of King Tutankhamen’s was located and opened in the year 1922, the excavation crew found more than 50 antique alabaster jars – special carved containers to preserve essential oils.

Surprisingly, the tomb raiders took those prized essential oil jars, and left all the gold!

Around the same time, India and China were exploring different aromatic plants and herbs too, which then later turned out to be an essential segment of the Indian Ayurvedic healthcare system.

3. Ancient China

Like Egyptians, even the Chinese have a deep association in the history of essential oils. They were accurate in documenting all their scientific findings of various herbs and how they could work in treating different health ailments.

They even mastered the art of using aromatic plants for treating a plethora of ailments. Perhaps, they began learning and researching about aromatic plants same time as the Egyptians.

Info: The prehistoric Chinese text named “Pen T’Sao” lists medicinal benefits of more than 300 distinctive plants. It is claimed to have been researched and written by King Shen Nung somewhere around 2500 BC. 

In 2597 B.C., the Yellow Emperor of China – Huang Ti – used essential oils in his reign. Huang even wrote a book on medicines that included the use and benefits of aromatics.

 The book not only opened the doors for multiple treatments but also practiced today in the field of Eastern medicine.

Besides contributing some valuable information on historical plants, the Chinese are praised in the aromatherapy world. Today, they are amongst the prolific creators of essential oils.

4. Ancient Greece

 The knowledge that the Egyptians had about essential oils and other aromatic compounds were then claimed to have absorbed by the Greeks.

Info: In those days, the Greeks believed every aromatic plant to be a divine origin. Hence, they even credited their perfume invention to the holy gods. They studied a lot about aromatic plants and perfumes from the Egyptians.

When Democrates and Herodotus visited Egypt during 4th century BCE, both entitled the Egyptians to be “masters of perfumery.”

In fact, Marestheus – the famous Greek physician – identified that sweet-smelling plants had sedative or stimulating properties. He even recognized that hyacinth and rose were invigorating and refreshing.

Another famous Greek physician named Hippocrates (460-377 BC), who holds a historic prominence used scented essences to disinfect the city of Athens and fight against plague. He even said that to maintain good health, aromatic baths and scented massages are highly important.

He firmly believed in treating his patients holistically. He majorly included massages in his therapies.

5. Ancient Rome

The Romans, on the other hand, were highly influenced by the Greeks and adopted the wisdom they had. Romans strongly believed that hygiene is the key to promote health. No wonder their aromatic baths are still spoken about.

Info: Unlike Greeks, the Romans used essential oils liberally. Be it beds, clothes, baths, hair, homes, massages, or bodies – they utilized aromatics to scent everything.

In fact, they bathed with essential oils and aromatic compounds lavishly and to the extreme. They not only indulged in scented baths multiple times a day but also had recurrent massages.

History says that the Roman soldiers even carried small pouches filled with sweet-smelling plant seeds during the military campaigns.

Pedanius Dioscorides, a popular Greek physician and the doctor of the Roman army, even wrote a remarkable five-volume reference book on herbal medicines in the 1st century A.D. The publication featured more than 600 natural remedies that were practiced since 1,500 years ago.

6. Ancient India

India also has a key role in the essential oils history and the credit goes to its Ayurvedic healthcare system.

Info: One of the key tenants of Ayurveda is aromatic massage. A popular Ayurvedic literature from the 2000 B.C. records a few Indian doctors directing the oils of ginger, cinnamon, coriander, myrrh, sandalwood, and spikenard to their patients.

Ayurveda is a healing system that blends philosophical, spiritual, and practical components. There is no evidence till date as to how old the Ayurveda is. But as far as the research and studies are concerned, it has been there since 5000+ years.

The Vedas (one of the most sacred books of India), states more than 700 different aromatics and herbs. The book even codifies the uses of aromatic plants and perfumes for both therapeutic and religious purposes.

7. Ancient Israel

Historical texts clearly show that the ancient Israelis held aromatics and perfumery in high reverence.

Info: In the writings of Torah, an Old Testament includes references to essential oils, incenses, and ointments that were employed during those days.

The New Testament incorporates some more references on how the Israelites use essential oils and scented ointments.

8. Ancient Arabia

Between the period 1000 BCE and 400 BCE, Arabia was in fame for its profitable spice trade. In fact, the trade line spanned about 2400 miles right from Omar (in Dhofar region) to Petra at Jordan.

Info: The largest trade commodity in Arabia was Frankincense, which not only brought honor to the place but also a great prosperity. This trade path was so popular that it was named as the Frankincense Trail.

The Frankincense trail was so much used by the traders that even the modern satellite pictures show ground marks where the caravans passed.

You will be fascinated to know that the Arabs were the first to formulate the process of distillation – where the aromatic oils are extracted from plants. Avicenna, a well-known Arabian Physician is claimed to have discovered this method in 1000 CE.

9. Ancient Europe

During the 1600s, historical scripts about essential oils and other herbal medicines became prevalent. In the 1800s, a majority of Pharmacopeia in Germany, France, and England were recommending essential oils for different illnesses.

Info: The flower-growing districts in southern France were trading a huge amount of raw materials to the French perfumers. This was also the period when tuberculosis hit a few European nations. But yet the labors processing the herbs and flowers remained disinfected.

Seeing that the essential oils were defending the labors, the world’s first lab test was performed in the year 1887. The test mainly focused on unveiling the various anti-bacterial properties of essential oils.

Final Thoughts

Essential oils have demonstrated their effectiveness and efficacy in every way. Historical and traditional records provide us confirmed insights and information as to how essential oils were utilized long-ago, and how they help our overall health.

As the demand and interest for essential oils are growing rapidly, there are new clinical publications being documented every now and then to reveal their worth and benefits.

No wonder aromatherapy acts as an influential bridge between modalities, culture, and healthcare experts.

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