Aromatherapy, the use of essential oils to benefit the mind and body, is a thousand-year-old healing practice which has received much publicity in the last twenty years. Most people probably think of it as the use of pleasant scents for mental and physical relaxation. But it is much more than that.
Aromatherapy has definite physical and emotional effects, some of which have been scientifically documented. Aromatherapy is also important to people interested in mind/body/spirit connections. They believe that the uses of essential oils extend to such things as chakra opening and release of negative vibrations. Some of the oils work best rubbed into the skin. Others are supposed to be inhaled.
Essential oils are extracted or distilled from plants. The “aroma” in aromatherapy is the plant extract that becomes the oil. Not all plant essences or extracts are essential oils. Many are fragrance oils or hydrosols — the water residue, such as rosewater or orange-flower water, left over from the distillation of essential oils. These have their own uses, mostly cosmetic or in cooking. While hydrosols may have a small amount of therapeutic value fragrance oils have none. Commercial essential oils are often adulterated in some way. Some oils that are marketed as essential oils are actually synthetic or produced through chemical extraction. The purity standards for the genuine article are quite high as are the prices. Fifty dollars for a half ounce is not unusual. Oils from different plants are usually not sold mixed together, although recipes for blends are common.
The history of aromatherapy begins in Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphic texts describe the use of plants and essential oils in religious and medical contexts. Jars of essential oils have been found in tombs along with simple distillation machines. Aromatic herbs were mixed into the mortar of buildings. An entire temple was made out of sandalwood. The book “Sacred Luxuries” by Lise Manniche presents the true history of essential oils and cosmetic fragrances in Egypt, with lists of the plants and their properties.
Aromatherapy is also part of traditional Chinese medicine in which everything is catalogued according to the various properties of qi energy and of yin and yang. Most essential oils are made into liniments or balms to be rubbed into the skin. Some of the plants used are the same as in Europe. Others are uniquely Chinese. This system traveled to India and became part of Ayurvedic medicine.
Greek visitors to Egypt brought medical knowledge back home with them and founded the first healing temples. Hippocrates and other Greek scholars catalogued many uses for aromatherapy. Doctors who traveled with Alexander the Great discovered many more uses of plants and their extracts for healing. The Romans picked up on this knowledge and used scent for pleasure as well as medicine.
The next major advance in the distillation of herbal oils for aromatherapy came with Avicenna, the Persian Hippocrates, who invented a cooling pipe to make the process of distillation more efficient. By the Middle Ages the cultivation of healing herbs was common. Essential oils were used during the Black Plague to cover the smell of death and decay, but may actually have saved lives with their antiseptic properties. “Thieves’ Oil”, used by grave robbers to protect themselves from infected corpses, is still made and sold today.
Aromatherapy got its name from a chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who found that lavender essential oil both soothed and healed a serious burn he had received while working. He devoted the rest of his life to studying the properties of various oils and how they worked.
You can learn the complete history of aromatherapy by studying the writings of Marguerite Maury. Her research focused on various alternative therapies and how essential oils could be used to preserve youth and beauty. Present-day researchers who have inherited her work include Daniele Ryman and Caroline Colliard.