THE HISTORIC JOURNEY OF ESSENTIAL OILS
LIFE IN A PRECIOUS DROP
In the Middle Ages, the use of essential oils, in addition to being considered decadent and inappropriate, was also banned. Those caught using them were accused of sorcery and sentenced to exile or even death.
Essential oil users and enthusiasts can hardly imagine life without them. Rightfully so! These gifts of nature carry many benefits. We know this oh-so well with lavender. It has been known for its healing properties for centuries – relaxation, anti-bacterial activity, curbing insomnia, reducing swelling and itching after insect bites, controlling bleeding, wound cleaningy... the list goes on and on. French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé coined the term ‘’aromatherapy’’ by researching antiseptic properties of essential oils. Gattefosse's book "Aromatherapy" was published in 1928, in which essential oils and their healing properties are described in detail. The book has made a significant impact on medical practices in France.
Gattefossé discovered the amazing healing properties of lavender by accident during a minor explosion in his laboratory. One of his hands was severely burnt by the explosion. Without thinking, he dipped his hand into the nearest liquid, which turned out to be lavender essential oil. To his astonishment, Gattefossé noticed that his arm had healed without infection or scarring. This discovery led to the use of essential oils in wound healing given their antiseptic properties.
Gattefossé conducted further research on the healing properties of lavender and presented the findings to many hospitals in France. During the outbreak of the Spanish flu, no deaths were reported among the hospital staff which was later credited to the use of lavender essential oil.
In addition to their healing properties, essential oils have been used since ancient times for soothing the mind and body. Let’s shortly go back in time and travel around the world in search of essential oil use throughout history.
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church considered the use of essential oils decadent and inappropriate, making monks the keepers of secret knowledge about essential oils. Those caught using essential oils were accused of witchcraft or sorcery and sentenced to exile or even death. It was not until the early 1600s that knowledge about the healing properties of essential oils could not be kept a secret anymore – even leaflets on the many medicinal uses of essential oils were being distributed. By the 1800s, pharmacists were prescribing essential oils for various ailments.
Speaking of the church, it should be noted that various oils are mentioned in the Bible, in the Old as well as the New Testaments. There is a well-known reference in the book of Exodus with a recipe for anointing oils with cinnamon, clove, olive, cassia and spikenard oil.
A trip around the globe
Essential oils, or aromatic oils as they were once called, have been used by mankind throughout history for medicinal, spiritual, aromatic and cosmetic purposes.
It is difficult to accurately date the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes, but over time, knowledge about essential oils has spread around the globe.
The earliest evidence of plants being used for their healing properties were found in Lascaux, in the French region of Dordogne. The cave paintings there indicate the use of medicinal herbs in everyday life as far back as 18000 years BC.
The first historical records about essential oils indicate that the Egyptians used them as early as 4500 BC. The Egyptians were known for their immense knowledge of cosmetology, medicinal ointments and aromatic oils. “Kyphi”, the most famous herbal preparation of the ancient Egyptians, was a mixture of 16 ingredients used for cleaning purposes, but also as a perfume and medicine.
In everyday life they used balms, fragrant oils, fragrant barks, resins, spices and aromatic vinegars. Oils and pastes from plants were also made into tablets, powders, suppositories, medicinal cakes and various ointments.
Ash and smoke produced by burning anise, cedarwood, onion, garlic, grape and watermelon seeds were also often used for various medicinal purposes. During Egypt's most powerful and prosperous era, only the clergy were allowed to use essential oils. They were the ones considered closest to the divine and only they were worthy of applying such knowledge.
Each deity was ascribed a certain fragrance, with which their followers anointed the statues of their gods. Each ruler had his own special blend for meditation, love, war or other purposes, occurrences or events.
Cedarwood essential oil was used by the ancient Egyptians mostly in posthumous rites and ceremonies. Aromatic gums such as cedar and myrrh were used in the embalming process, and traces of these oils were found on the remains of mummies. Despite the importance of cedar and myrrh essential oils in Egyptian culture, they never distilled their own, but instead imported them.
The use of essential oils in China was first recorded between 2697-2597 BC during the reign of Huang Ti, the legendary Yellow Emperor. His famous "Book of Internal Medicine of the Yellow Emperor" contains applications for several aromatic blends. Practitioners of Eastern medicine consider it a classic work to this day.
Traditional Indian medicine and the Ayurvedic system, in its three-thousand-year history, cite the application of essential oils in its medicinal beverages. The Vedic literature lists over seven hundred substances effective in treating various ailments, including cinnamon, ginger, myrrh and sandalwood.
During the bubonic plague outbreak, Ayurvedic medics successfully used essential oils and herbal preparations instead of mixtures considered to have antibiotic properties at the time. The purpose of aromatic herbs and oils was not only medicinal but was believed to be a divine part of nature. To this day, they have retained a vital role in the spiritual and philosophical principles of Ayurvedic medicine.
Between 400-500 BC The Greeks recorded the knowledge of essential oils obtained from the Egyptians. Myrrh ointment was carried by soldiers in the battle to fight various infections.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BC), known as the “father of medicine” documented the benefits of about 300 plants, including thyme, saffron, marjoram, cumin and peppermint.
Hippocrates’ extensive knowledge of plants and their properties was actually of Ayurvedic origin and was partly acquired through encounters of Greek soldiers with Ayurvedic medicine practitioners on the Indian subcontinent during a trip with Alexander the Great. They found that Ayurveda was in line with their own medical practices, and evidence of the mixing of these two traditions can be found today within practices of remote indigenous tribal communities.
Hippocrates noted: "a fragrant bath and a fragrant massage daily are the path to health." The literature left to us by Hippocrates and his disciples contains the most important principles of modern medicine. The wisdom of Hippocrates has exerted an immense influence on modern medicine and science which is manifested to this day in the "Hippocratic Oath" taken by all physicians.
Galen was another Greek physician and philosopher whose extensive knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties had a significant impact on how we classify plant species today. Galen began as a surgeon at a gladiator school, and it was rumored that no gladiator succumbed to their wounds during Galen’s medical tenure. He soon became well-known and the personal physician of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His records of herbal medicines are vast, and his division of plants into different medicinal classes is still known today as the "galenic" division.
The Romans were known for their lavish application of fragrant oils on their bodies, bedding and clothing, and in massages and baths. During the fall of the Roman Empire, fleeing Roman doctors took with them the books of Hippocrates and Galen, which were later translated into Persian, Arabic and other languages.
Ali-Ibn Sana, better known as Avicenna, lived his life from 980 to 1037 AD. He was a prodigal child and an already extremely educated physician by the age of 12. Avicenna has written books on the properties of eight hundred plants and their effects on the human body. He is considered the father of the method of distilling essential oils. His methods are still used today.
During the Crusades, knights and their armies were responsible for passing on the knowledge of herbal remedies and preparations they learned in the Middle East. The knights acquired knowledge of distillation and carried with them perfumes and various medicinal preparations.
Incense and pine were burned in the streets to ward off ‘’evil spirits’’ during the bubonic plague outbreak in the 14th century. It was also noted that significantly fewer people died of the plague in areas where incense and pine were burned.
In 1653, Nicholas Culpeper wrote ‘The Complete Plant’ which is considered a classic work to this day. His oeuvre contains many remedies for various diseases that are still applied today.