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Aroma Science

The History of Essential Oils: Past to Present

There are other historical evidences that prove essential oils were used by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Persians. In ancient Egypt, for example, essential oils were used for mummification and for embalming bodies, while other plant oils were also used for mental relaxation and therapeutic use.

Hippocrates, referred to as the father of medicine, used and experimented with herb oils to relieve pain and some various ailments. He promoted the beneficial effects of herb oils by advocating oil baths, oil massages and cosmetics prepared from essential oils. There is a consensus that the use of herbal oils first originated in Egypt (for mummification/embalming), and then spread to the Greeks and Romans, who used the oils to treat wounded gladiators.

The Romans were good chemists, and were well-versed in the art of extracting oils from plants and flowers. They made new compositions of oils by importing raw material from east India and Arabia. The most important discovery made in Persian civilization was the steam distillation of plants, which produced true essential oils. Earlier methods had only produced herbal water. Ibn Sina invented a pipe in which the plants were steam distilled to create a medicine. He was also the first one to distill alcohol and perfume.

There is also evidence in ancient Chinese medical texts about the use herbs for the treatment of various ailments. The use of herbal medicines by the Chinese coincides with the same time period as the Egyptians.

In the nineteenth century, many industries were established that produced essential oils, which they then marketed as perfumes and cosmetics.

The history of aromatherapy can be noted in India in the form of treatment called ayurveda, which is about 3000 years old. Even today, this form of medicine is very popular. Kerela, a state in India, is very famous for producing medicinal plants and essential oils; the medicinal qualities of these herbs are well known, and attract people from all over the world for treatments of various diseases.

Essential Oils Rise Throughout History

Historically, the sense of smell has always been important to man and to his survival. A newborn baby recognizes his mother mainly by scent until his eyesight improves and he learns to focus. To early man, his sense of smell was every bit as important as what it is to animals. Humans and animals alike emit pheromones – from the Greek “pherein” (to carry) and “hormon” (to excite) – which attract, repel, identify or mark territory. Human pheromones are manufactured by the apocrine glands, and are radiated into the air around us.

As the pheromones we produce are affected by fluctuations in other hormone levels, they can indicate our emotional state. For instance, the surge of adrenalin produced in times of anxiety can produce a “smell” of fear. Animals, who are highly receptive to scents, can easily detect these emotions in humans. Although we are all radiate pheromones and react to other people’s pheromones, this function takes place on a subconscious level.

Apocrine glands are also located on the soles of the feet, with the pheromone molecules created from them remaining on the ground for up to two weeks. Primitive tribes have, until comparatively recently, detected the proximity of other people by sniffing the ground.

Although early man used his sense of smell for survival and reproduction in much the same way as other animals, our present culture pays little attention to the sense of smell in its natural, emotional, feeling sense. We mainly use the sense of smell in a cosmetic way, spraying and powdering ourselves to remove or mask our natural scents.

The cultural importance of the effects of scents on the human psyche has also been gradually eroded. At one time, incense was burned on temple altars daily (it is still used today as an important part of some religious services, but not as much as it had previously been). Fragrant herbs and flowers were strewn on the floor of a dwelling. Odors were often associated with illness and disease. An evil smell was so much a part of the plague that it was believed to be one of the earliest symptoms. It was said to have an odor that was both foul and distinctive. The breath of plague victims was described by physicians of the time as that of “rotten flesh” or “corrupt cadavers.”

Because breathing in the foul stench was thought to be one of the methods of contracting the disease, those who were still healthy carried nosegays and pomanders of highly perfumed flowers and spices. By holding these to the nose they believed that they were warding off infection carried in the venomous air. In the Middle Ages, and even later, pleasant smells were considered to be an important part of good health and immunity to disease. During the 1348 plague, French physicians prescribed breathing in cold aromatics like roses, sandalwood, renuphar, vinegar, rose-water, camphor and chilled apples for summertime protection. And in the winter, hot aromatics like aloe, amber, sweetgum and nutmeg were recommended.

Throughout the ages, scents and odors have had a deep and profound effect on the human psyche. Author Patrick Süskind says: “For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who couldn’t defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.”

*Portions of this page’s content are courtesy of, a source of quality aromatherapy, herbal and reflexology information and products. The author, Dee, is a Certified Aromatherapist, Certified Reflexologist, and Reiki Master.

*Portions of this page’s content are courtesy of Louis Smith.