The origins of aromatherapy can be traced through the religious, medical and social practices of all the major civilizations. It is likely that the Chinese were the first to discover the remarkable medicinal powers of plants around 4500 BC. However, it is the Egyptians who must take the credit for recognizing and fully exploiting the physical and spiritual properties of aromatic essences. From hieroglyphics and paintings we know that aromatic preparations were used as offerings to the gods. Furthermore the natural antiseptic and antibacterial properties of essential oils and resins, particularly cedar wood and frankincense, made them ideal for the purpose of preserving corpses in preparation for the next world. The discovery of remarkably well-preserved mummies up to 5000 years after their preparation is a tribute to the embalmer’s art.
By around 3000 BC priests who has been using oils in religious ceremonies and embalming rites became aware of the usefulness of their properties for the living, too. Closely guarding their secrets, they became the healers of their time, mixing and prescribing ‘magic’ medicinal potions. Use of essential oils gradually permeated all levels of society as cosmetics and perfumes became widespread.
From Hippocrates we know the Greeks had some awareness of the therapeutic properties of the oils and their value as sedatives and stimulants was certainly recognized. The Greeks and Romans used aromatics widely in rituals and ceremonies and the oils played an important role in the rise in popularity of baths and massage and body-culture generally. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire the use of essential oils died out in Europe.
The art flourished elsewhere, though, particularly in Arabia, where Avicenna was the first to distill rose essence around AD 1000. Arabia became the world’s centre for production of perfume, importing raw material from Egypt, India, Tibet and China, and trading their products internationally.
With the Crusaders the art of perfumery was reintroduced to Europe around the 12th century. Records show that aromatics were used as protection against the plague and the lower incidence of death among perfumers suggests they were to some degree effective. The 15th century saw the rise of the great European perfumers, and their wares were widely used to disguise body smells and ward off sickness. By the seventeenth century the aphrodisiac properties were certainly well recognized, and with the work of the great herbalists, such as Culpeper, the therapeutic properties also started to be recorded, laying the foundation for modern-day aromatherapy.
The term ‘Aromatherapie’ was first used in 1928 by a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse to describe the therapeutic action of aromatic plant essences. His work was taken up by Dr Jean Valnet who found the essences remarkable regenerative and antiseptic properties effective for healing the wounds of World War II soldiers. The application of aromatherapy to beauty therapy and health care was pioneered by Marguerite Maury in her influential book. The Secret of Life and Youth. She also developed the method of applying the oils through massage. Today there is a worldwide revival in the art of aromatherapy and contemporary research is beginning to understand the scientific foundations of the oils properties and applications, discovered by trial and error over thousands of years.
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