What is the History of Aromatherapy

what is the history of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy: myth, magic or medicine?

First, why should we even care about “what is the history of aromatherapy? “

It’s a good question. And it goes to the heart of the deeper question as to whether aromatherapy is myth, magic or medicine.

And the answer lies in explaining the current dichotomy between conventional and alternative medicine.

Conventional medicine frowns on aromatherapy as something approaching a fringe superstition fueled by myth and magic. But we need to bear in mind that conventional medicine is itself fueled by trillion dollar commercial enterprises with a vested interest that is hostile to the competition that alternative medicine (including aromatherapy) presents. And this hostilly is reinforced by bought-and-paid-for politicians, and, by extension, government regulatory agencies.

Follow the aromatherapy money

And don’t forget that you cannot put a patent on an aromatherapeutic treatment because it is such “ancient history.”. And if you can’t put a patent on it, it has limited commercial value.

However, it is worth pointing out that this corporatist hostility to aromatherapy is more pronounced in the anglo-sphere than elsewhere in the world.

So what we will attempt here is to show the depth of influence aromatherapy has had through the ages. It has a history that makes its healthful benefits undeniable. 

What is aromatherapy?

While its practice in some form and its known effects are ancient, the term “aromatherapy” itself is relatively new. It was coined as recently as 1937 by the French chemist Rene Gattefosse with the publication of his book by the same name.

Aromatherapy may be defined as the study and use of essential oils as a means to promote human health and wellbeing. It is the recognition that aromatherapy has the undeniable effect of stimulating, rejuvenating, invigorating, and even healing us. 

It is the knowledge that in some way the permeation through inhalation of the aromas from essential oils into our olfactory systems and lungs causes physiological changes. 

And it is the realization that these aromas also affect the limbic system, our emotions and memories. So it has a psychological effect too.

Long history of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy has such a long history that its benefits cannot be denied. After all, while our ancestors, both ancient and near term, may have lacked the scientific resources of modern times, they were not idiots. They could figure out what worked, even if they were unable to demonstrate why it worked in modern scientific terms. Although this did come later. 

Aromatherapy has its roots in the therapeutic use of plants. And it is from plants that the oils actually used in aromatherapy are derived. 

Dawn of history

In times prior to around 5,000 BC, long before the discovery of any kind of plant medicine, our ancestors burned locally available aromatic woods and barks on their primitive fires. The smoke generated was thought to ward off the evil spirits that were apparently afflicting the sick people in their company. 

So, in those very early days, long before there was any understanding of aromatherapy itself, this practice was no doubt imbued with mysticism, magic and religion. And in this connection, it is worth noting that the word “perfume” is derived from the Latin “perfumare” meaning “to smoke through.”

And the use of the word “fume” came to be associated with both pleasant smells as well as the effectiveness of fumigation in getting rid of unwelcome pests. 

Ancient Egypt and Aromatherapy

egypt Early Egyptians would burn incense to honor their gods. This was made from aromatic woods and herbs. And in around 2,500 BC they began using frankincense, cinnamon, myrrh and such in the embalming and mummification process. These substances were highly prized and some of them, such as myrrh and frankincense came to be considered more valuable than gold.

In the later dynasties, preceding the Roman conquest of Egypt, the Egyptians were using aromatics from gums, resins and other plant material in the preparation of medicine and cosmetics. In fact, Egyptian perfumery became renowned from the Mediterranean region to Persia.

Ancient China

A treatise known as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’, is said to have been written In around 2700 BC by the emperor Huangdi. However, there is a school of thought that believes this origin is mythical. It holds that  the true date is about 300 AD, and that this treatise is in fact a compilation of work by a number of different authors.

Nonetheless, it is an important early text and a founding authority for traditional Chinese medicine. One of the remarkable things about this work is its description of more than 300 plants and their medical applications.

Ancient India and Aromatherapy

India Ayurveda is the ancient Indian medical school of holistic healing. And the Rigveda, a sacred text dating from around 4500 BC, mentions aromatherapy in connection with Ayurveda. 

It seems that a large part of Ayurveda is a type of “aromatic botanical medicine.” So it may well be that the true origin of aromatherapy per se may in fact be in ancient India. On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt the possibility of simply parallel development elsewhere in the world.

The Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks inherited much of their botanical knowledge from the Egyptians, as did the Hebrews, Assyrians and Babylonians. 

asclepius aromatherapyAsclepius (c.1200 BC) was the earliest known Greek physician and he used herbs in his practice. Of course, it is from Asclepius that we get the famous staff (pictured here) which is the original symbol of medicine. He was succeeded by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, in around 400 BC.

It seems that Hippocrates studied the effects of some 200 different herbs. He regarded the entire human body as a single organism in which all its parts interacted. It is from Hippocrates that we have derived the concept of holistic medicine, of which aromatherapy is a part. 

For example, Hippocrates prescribed the use of chamomile in the reduction of fever. He also recommended massages with aromatic herbs for good health generally.

Then came Theophrastus of Athens, a student of Aristotle. Theophastus wrote the History of Plants somewhere around 270 BC and is considered the father of botany. 

Dioscorides, a Greek military physician, followed in around 60 AD and wrote the work known as “De Materia Medica,” a medical reference used for centuries thereafter. It discussed the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants, including plants we would recognize today among herbs and essential oils. 

For example, Discorides wrote about myrrh, frankincense, coriander, ginger, juniper, peppermint, pine, rosemary, and thyme.

The Romans

Galen, who was actually Greek, became the personal physician of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He lived around 130 to 200 AD and his treatises included “Simple Medicines,” which describes the medicinal uses of plants. Galen is also credited with the invention of the first cold cream containing olive oil, beeswax, and rose petals.

The Persians

avicenna aromatherapyAl-Razi (c 860 -930 AD) compiled a medical encyclopedia known as “Al Kitab al Hawi.” 

He was followed by Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), who lived around 980 – 1038. It was Avicenna who compiled the monumental “Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb” containing the total of all then understood medical knowledge, including the Greek, Arab, and Indo-Persian traditions and practices.

medieval The Anglo Saxons

The Anglo Saxons inherited some of what they learned from the Romans and incorporated some Germanic traditions. The Leechbook of Bald is an old English medical text that survives from the reign of Alfred the Great in the 10th century. The word  “leech” means “doctor” in old English.

This work includes prescriptions for cures using, for example, such plant material as the bark from trees like the apple, aspen, elm, blackthorn, elder, and ash.

And then the Crusaders came back from the Middle East and brought with them herbs and aromatics that had been forgotten in Europe since the fall of Rome. For example, in England, they used frankincense and benzoin to make what eventually became known as “Friar’s Balsam” used for respiratory and skin conditions.


During the 13th and 14th centuries, medicine in Europe came to be dominated by the Church, which generally disapproved of such practices as we have described, and they pretty much fell into the doldrums. But with the Renaissance, things improved.

John Gerard, an English botanist, published his Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597. It became a widely referenced book on botany.

At about the same time, the German physician Hieronymus Brunschwig described the distillation and use of 25 essential oils, including lavender, rosemary, clove, myrrh and nutmeg.

Then in the 1600s Nicholas Culpepper, introduced the concept of astrological herbalism. In his book “The English Physician” he describes the use of herbs and oils.

By the 18th century European apothecaries were including essential oils in their repertoire of remedies. These included rosemary, bergamot, neroli, and lavender. And in Victorian England brides would wear headdresses of neroli blossoms to calm their nerves.

The Spice Trade

Answering the question, what is the history of aromatherapy, would not be complete without some brief mention of the Spice Trade. After all, much of aromatherapy revolves around such spices as cloves, myrrh, turmeric, frankincense, cardamon, and cinnamon.

The Spice Trade is the story of how high value spices that were grown and sourced in the Far East found their way to where they were in high demand in the Middle East and particularly Western Europe. It is the story of how this market was satisfied and the supply controlled.

And it would be no exaggeration to say that over the millenia empires rose and fell and the world changed in many different ways, all because of the Spice Trade. It’s too long a story for this piece but there is great information here and here.

Modern Aromatherapy

In the 1800s medicine recognized the role of microorganisms in disease. It also came to recognise that herbal essences could play a role in combating them.

For example, in 1881, Koch studied the bactericidal action of essence of turpentine on anthrax spores. And in 1887, Chamberland studied the effect on bacillus anthracis of the essences of clove, cinnamon and oregano.

We have already mentioned Rene Gattefosse. It was he who discovered the healing power of lavender when he burned his hands in a lab accident. He later used the antiseptic and healing properties of essential oils in the treatment of soldiers in military hospitals in World War I. 

jean valnet aromatherapyDr. Jean Valnet, a French army surgeon, followed Rene Gattefosse in the treatment of wounds during the French Indo-China war. He published the Practice of Aromatherapy. And Valmet was the first to record the specific indications and dosages of essential oils in medical treatment.

Marguerite Maury, an Austrian biochemist and nurse, and near contemporary of Valmet, gave seminars on the rejuvenating properties of essential oils and the resulting overall sense of well being they provided. She published Marguerite Maury’s Guide to Aromatherapy: The Secret of Life and Youth in 1961. It is still available

What is the history of aromatherapy? What can we conclude?

What we conclude from this brief overview of the history is that aromatherapy is no flash in the pan, trendy fad that can easily be dismissed by the modern medical establishment. 

The use of plants and herbs in healing is deeply ingrained in the human physical experience and even psyche. This bond arises out of the fact that all things in nature are intertwined and interrelated. And beyond that, the documented benefits of aromatherapy cannot be denied.

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