Aromatherapy, Origins and Background

Aromatherapy, Origins and Background

Aromatherapy is derived from two words: Aroma – meaning fragrance or smell; and Therapy – meaning treatment. Aromatherapy was used by the most ancient civilizations and is reputed to be at least 6000 years old. It is widely thought that Aromatherapy began in Egypt. A medical papyri considered to date back to around 1555 B.C. contains remedies for all types of illnesses and the methods of application are similar to the ones used in Aromatherapy and Herbal medicine today.

The Egyptians used a method known as infusion (this process is described later on) to extract the oils from aromatic plants and incense was probably one of the earliest ways of using aromatics. Frankincense was burned at sun rise as an offering to the sun god, Ra and myrrh was offered to the moon. The Egyptians were experts at embalming, using aromatics to help preserve flesh. The Egyptians used to be massaged with fragrant oils after bathing.

The Greeks continued the use of aromatic oils and used them medicinally and cosmetically. A Greek physician, Pedacius Dioscorides, wrote a book about herbal medicine and for at least 1200 years as the Western world’s standard medical reference. Many of the remedies he mentions are still in use today in Aromatherapy.

The Romans took much of their medical knowledge from the Greeks and went on to use and improve the ability of aromatics with Rome becoming the bathing capital of the world. After bathing they would be oiled and massaged. The Romans started to import new aromatic products from East India and Arabia through the opening up of trade routes.

During the crusades the knowledge of aromatic oils and perfumes spread to the Far East and Arabia and it was a physician called Avicenna, who lived from A.D. 980 to A.D. 1037 that is understood to have first used the process known as distillation to distill essence of rose; although it probably took many years to perfect the process. The Arabs also discovered how to distill alcohol around the same time making it possible to produce perfumes without a heavy oily base.

There is a strong possibility that the ancient Chinese civilizations were using some form of aromatics at the same time as the Egyptians. Shen Nung’s Herbal book is the oldest surviving medical book in China which is dated about 2700 B.C. and contains information on over 300 plants. The Chinese used aromatic herbs and burned aromatic woods and incense to show respect to God.

Traditional Indian medicine known as ayurveda has been practiced for more than 3000 years and it incorporates aromatic massage as one of its main aspects. The invasions of South America by the conquistadors brought about the discovery of more medicinal plants and aromatic oils. The Aztecs were well known for their plant remedies and the Spanish were amazed at the wealth of medicinal plants found in Montezuma’s botanical gardens.

The North American Indians also used aromatic oils and produced their own herbal remedies.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists in Europe and Great Britain began researching the effects of essential oils on bacteria in humans.

A French chemist, Rene Maurice Gattefosse, began his research into the healing powers of essential oils after burning his hand in his laboratory and immersing in it in lavender oil, and being impressed by how quickly the burn healed. In 1937, he published a book about the anti -microbial effects of the oils and coined the word Aromatherapy. He went on to set up a business producing oils for use in fragrances and cosmetics. Around the same time another Frenchman, Albert Couvreur, published a book on the medicinal uses of essential oils.The North American Indians also used aromatic oils and produced their own herbal remedies.

A French medical doctor, Jean Valnet, discovered Gattefosse’s research and began experimenting with essential oils. Around the same time, Margaret Maury, a French biochemist developed a unique method of applying these oils to the skin with massage. Micheline Arcier, now living in London, studied and worked with Maury and Valnet and their combined techniques created a form of Aromatherapy now used all over the world.

Essential oils are very expensive to produce, some more so than others, due to the labor intensive process and the quantity of the plant required to produce the oil. Approximately 400kg. of thyme would produce 1kg. of essential oil; 2000kg. of rose petals to make 1kg. of oil; 6 tones of orange blossom to produce 1kg. of neroli; and 4 million jasmine flowers to produce 1kg. of jasmine absolute.

Informational resource from: Kevala Centre Online.


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