Ever wonder how mankind discovered and used essential oils throughout history? Although the term aromatherapy was not used until the 20th century, the use of essential oils has existed for centuries.
History of Essential Oils
Essential oils, also known as volatile oils, have been used for centuries. History reveals that essential oils and other natural methods were widely used in the medical industry until drugs were available. Let’s take a look at the earliest use of oils in various parts of the world.
Egyptians were some of the first people to use plant oils for medicinal purposes, beauty, and ceremonies. Back in those days, plant extract was combined with animal fats and vegetable oils to produce a type of essential oil, although it was less potent than the steam-distilled oils of today. Some of the earliest literature actually suggests that Egyptians used plant oils in treating various ailments. Egypt is perhaps best known for its use of frankincense oil in ancient times, an aromatic substance with value equivalent to gold.
Herbs and plant medicine are an important part of traditional Chinese medicine. In fact, essential oils were used in China since around 2700 B.C. Discovery of this is in part thanks to Shen Nong Shi’s book on herbal medicine; China’s oldest medical book. Shen Nong Shi is the first Chinese herbal doctor and was considered the father of agriculture. His book lists hundreds of herbs and essential oils along with their use in medicine. Another influence on modern essential oil use use stems from Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor. Huang Ti wrote a book on medicine that included the use of essential oils and is still used by medical practitioners today.
Both the Greeks and Romans adopted much of their culture from the Egyptians. Aromatic oils were popular in Greece and commonly used in baths and massages. Hippocrates, often considered the father of modern medicine, was a famous physician and strong believer in holistic medicine. During his life, Hippocrates commonly used aromatic oils to treat patients. His influence on the medical world is prominent to this day, as demonstrated by the Hippocratic Oath that must be sworn by all doctors. Galen, another famous Greek doctor, was a surgeon for gladiators and well versed in the use of essential oils. He was known for not having a single injured gladiator die under his care, and even treated the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
During the crusades, Knights were known to have traveled to the Holy Land to learn about herbal medicines, including essential oils and perfumes which became very popular in Europe. Interestingly, these oils were used to combat the bubonic plague. One famous physician by the name of Nicholas Culpeper published “The Complete Herbal” which remains one of the most valuable resources for essential oils and herbal medicine to this day. Aromatherapy was finally brought mainstream by a French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in 1928 when he published a book about the use of essential oils throughout history. Gattefosse had experienced the healing properties of essential oils firsthand when he used Lavender oil to heal himself when he had accidentally burned his hand. By immersing his hand in the lavender oil, he noticed his skin healed fully with no sign of infection.
Today, people are continually turning to the methods of aromatherapy to enhance physical and spiritual well-being. Numerous essential oils are used in medical practice and are part of some of the most famous products in stores today such as Vicks VapoRub (a combination of eucalyptus, peppermint, and camphor essential oils).