Welcome to a history class with an alternative scent, one about ancient old healing crafts and how they made their way back into our lives. Aromatherapy is a healing practice that goes way back and originated in several civilisations throughout the world. After millennia have passed, modern science took the place of herbal medicine and it became an almost forgotten art. In more recent times, alternative modern medicine revived aromatherapy into a certain part of society. Currently, we have most of these tools available with only a couple of clicks away, yet most are not aware of all the benefits that these scents pack in their veins. Let’s dive into the brief history of aromatherapy and the forgotten powers of natural scents
The very beginning
The first recorded history of aromatherapy was over 5000 years ago. Aromatics were used at that time for religious purposes, perfume, and medicine. The different fragrances and their healing purpose can be traced back to ancient cultures, and their uses varied depending on the culture. The connection between that early civilisations and plants came through the realization that burning certain plants, herbs and roots produced unusual effects such as sleepiness, heightened awareness, visions and energetic boost. Thus, ‘smoking’ a person became one of the earliest recorded forms of herbal treatment with herbs and was also related to religious rituals. This also sparked the connection between the breath, scents and the divine, of which we see much proof in current day religions such as Hinduism. These healing experiences were passed on through stories and rituals until later they became centric to religion practices and were turned into holy scripts.
The various histories of Aromatherapy
India was one of the first civilisations that started treating people holistically. Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurvedic (life knowledge), is the most ancient script of medical practice. Plants and plant extracts have been used continuously there from at least 5000 years ago up to the present day in various ways. About 2000 BC, the most ancient book, called “Vedas" on plants and their abilities was written. It highlights the medicinal and religious uses of over 700 plants, roots and other substances, such as ginger, sandalwood, cinnamon, myrrh and coriander.
Ancient Chinese civilizations were known for their incredibly advanced knowledge and practice of the medicinal properties of plants. Daily rituals took place where plant oils were used for incense at rituals but also in cooking and even cosmetics.
At around 2800 BC, the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) wrote a book called “Internal Medicine”. This book highlights various treatments and healing capacities of plants and the different diseases that they treat. Besides the “Vedas”, it is one of the oldest books on the healing abilities of plants in the world, and can still be obtained in bookstores today. The common treatments with natural scents during this time were practices such as acupuncture, shiatsu and herbal remedies.
China is also known for Citrus. It is said that China is the birthplace of citrus as it was only existing there until it found its way to Europe in the 10th century through Arab trade routes.
The ancient Egyptians were generally regarded as the pioneers of the use of aromatic plants for fragrances and skincare. Not only did they use fragrant oils in incense, medicine, massage, skincare and cosmetics, but also in their highly refined process of embalming the dead to perservince the bodies for over 300 years. During the early Egyptian empire, the gardens of the pharaohs were used to grow all sorts of medicinal herbs and plants collected from a wide variety of places in the world.
The Egyptians were known for the use of scented essences in their herbal baths, massages and medicine throughout the world. They were also popular for use as cosmetics when incorporated into salves or pastes. One of the Egyptians’ favourite perfumes though was called “kyphi”. This fragrance was used as far more than just a perfume, it was the apex of Egyptian healing and used as a poison antidote, antiseptic, incense, a balsamic and even a relaxing tranquiliser, which treated anxieties and brightened dreams”. Kyphi contained over 23 different ingredients and required a skilled herbalist to create.
Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks medicinal philosophers shared their beliefs and developments of aromatherapy, stating that certain smells improved vitality and health. Similarly to the Egyptians, they poured oils in public baths and during massages to fight plaguing disease and stimulate wellness.
Hippocrates, known as the ‘Father of Medicine’ wrote a modern version of the useful properties of plants and herbs. Even though surgery already came into existence he stated “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day”. Highlighting that surgery would only be used as the very last resort and he regarded the entire body as one organism that was powered by the concept of holism.
Around 1700 the use of essential oils had become an integral part of mainstream medicine and was used to treat many diseases. This continued until chemistry developed to such a degree that synthetic materials could be created in a laboratory, often more cost-effective than growing plants. For example, salicylic acid, the active ingredient in willow, was synthetically produced in 1852. During this period the development of chemistry accelerated and synthetic produce began to replace the herbal garden as the main supplier of medicines.
As in so many other cases, the industrial revolution became responsible for the decline of many ancient traditions. These traditions got lost as people to move into the cities and from the country in an endeavour to find a more prominent life. This is where people left behind their gardens, herbs and access to fresh air. Sadly, as a result, the art of using fresh herbs in cooking and healing got lost.
Reinvention of natural fragrances and aromatherapy
After some time in the new modern era, the concept of aromatherapy or herbal healing was reinvented through curiosity in a scientific scope. The actual term "aromatherapy" was invented by the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in 1935 he burned himself in an accident and afterwards treated it effectively with lavender essential oil. Afterwards herbal medicine got more attention and became a field of study which resulted in many useful remedies.
Aromatherapy falls under the umbrella of alternative medicine. The theory is based on the belief that scents stimulate the olfactory system, and subsequently cause a response from the body. According to the theory, these responses can cause a person to relax, brighten, or heal. It’s important to note that practitioners will only utilise specific scents in aromatherapy, which are generally derived from essential oils and aromatic plant compounds. The scents are inhaled via diffusers, candles, or massage oils, and are believed to cause an immediate reaction. So where does the traditional medical community stand on aromatherapy? It all boils down to a science.
The Modern Science behind Aromatherapy
After the reincarnation of Aromatherapy, there has been ample debate about the scientific truths behind aromatherapy. However, scents prevailed as more and more recent studies are revealing that the effects are substantial. A report compiled by the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that aromatherapy is a derivative of herbal medicine and that the applications have historically ranged from emotional support to healing purposes. The report went on to surmise that various aromas were indeed impacting the olfactory bulb and causing subjects of a 2014
study to show sedative and stimulant symptoms from the aromas.
How do these symptoms occur? The nerves used to detect scent are located high in the nose and connect directly to the brain. Aromatics release tiny molecules into the air that you breathe in, setting off olfactory nerve cells. The cells send a message up to the brain where the smell can ignite a reaction that travels through the entire body. This translates to physical responses such as increased or decreased heart rate or emotional reactions such as calmness.
Current-day civilization came to a point where information is abundant and many remedies can be obtained through the form of everyday consumer goods. You don’t need a herbal garden and millennia's worth of ancient knowledge to use aromatherapy as a healing mechanism in your life.