Aromatherapy can be briefly described as the use of plant oils, in particular essential oils, in order to improve psychological and physical health. Procedures resembling aromatherapy have been in use for thousands of years. Essential oils have been used in this capacity for nearly 1,000 years. The term aromatherapy was just coined in the twentieth century, but the overall concept has not changed drastically since antiquity.
The Chinese were likely to first use aromatic plants in order to enhance well being. They burned incense in order to encourage harmony and create balance in life. The Egyptians later made great strides in terms of the acquisition and use of plant oils.
It is believed that ancient Egyptians created a basic distilling machine in order to extract oil from cedar trees. This oil, along with extracts of various other plants such as clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon, were evidently used in the embalming of bodies. Traces of these plants have been discovered in the excavation of various Egyptian tombs. The aroma of the oils, though faint, was still detectable in some cases!
The Egyptians used infused oils in treatment of the living, as well. Herbal preparations and plant oils were employed for medicinal, spiritual, and cosmetic reasons. It is believed that the term “perfume” comes from the Egyptians. Both men and women were likely to use plant oils in order to create pleasant fragrances which they would then apply to their skin, hair, and clothing.
The Greeks further expanded on the use of plant oils. Hippocrates held fumigations for aromatic and medicinal benefit. Megallus developed Megaleion, a perfume made of myrrh extracts and a fatty oil. Megaleion was popular due to its pleasant fragrance, its anti-inflammatory properties when applied to the skin, and its ability to aid in the healing of wounds.
The Romans built on Greek and Egyptian foundations by cataloging the properties of hundreds of plants and their oils. In the eleventh century, the distillation of essential oils became a reality. A Persian named Avicenna invented a coiled pipe that allowed plant vapors to cool effectively, providing for the extraction of essential oils and revolutionizing the world of aromatherapy.
In the fourteenth century, the Black Plague struck and wiped out large portions of the population. Herbal treatments and plant oils were used to treat victims, ward off the disease, and mask the smell of the dead. It is believed that some perfumers and others who worked often with plant oils were spared the sickness due to their constant contact with healthy plant extracts.
Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the range of plants whose essential oils were commonly extracted grew astronomically. Perfumery began to be regarded as an art form, while plants became a major focus in the medical field.
In the nineteenth century, the major constituents of essential oils were isolated and studied. This allowed for the rapid advancement of scientific and medical uses for essential oils.
In the early twentieth century, a French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, suffered a personal accident which led to his interest in essential oils as medicinal tools. After burning himself, he submerged the burn in a vat of lavender oil. When the burn healed quickly and without scarring, Gattefossé was convinced that essential oils were valuable, medically.
During the twentieth century, essential oils continued to grow in popularity and respect. They were used in the treatment of injured soldiers in the first world war. Aromatherapy as a spiritual tool also experienced a rebirth in this time period.
Today, essential oils are making a big come back due to a popular backlash against synthetic products. A vast amount of information about essential oils for cosmetic and spiritual uses is currently available in books and on the internet. Aromatherapy now is, in a way, making a return to its ancient, spiritual roots. Countless individuals turn to aromatherapy and essential oils for relaxation, inspiration, and psychological healing.