Essential Oils
Subject Contributors:
Soleil Brigham

History of Essential Oils

Ancient Times

Aromatic plants have played an important role in human civilization for millennia. They have been a part of marriage ceremonies, religious worship, dating and courtship, funerary rites, and medicine, among other aspects of life. Although the use and harvesting of essential oils has evolved over the years, the fundamental principles are the same.

Borrowing from the Egyptians, the Greeks used essential oils in their practices of therapeutic massage and aromatherapy. The Romans also used aromatic oils to promote health and personal hygiene. Influenced by the Greeks and Romans, as well as Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic use of aromatic herbs, the Persians began to refine distillation methods for extracting essential oils from aromatic plants. Further, essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial and fragrant properties.


Essential Oils Egyptian HistoryHistory tells us that the Egyptians were some of the first people to use aromatic essential oils extensively in medical practice, beauty treatment, food preparation, and in religious ceremony. The oils they used, however, were extracted using animal fats and vegetable oils, a method sometimes called enfleurage, which is rarely used in modern times due to time and cost. The plants were typically steeped in hot oils or fats. Although not as concentrated as the steam distilled oils used at present, they were, nonetheless, used for their aromatic and therapeutic properties. They are the grandmothers to what pure essential oils are today.

Frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon were considered very valuable cargo along caravan trade routes and were sometimes exchanged for gold. Other oils used commonly during that era were juniper, spikenard, coriander, henna, calamus, bitter almond and cedarwood.

One of the oldest documents known, the Ebers Papyrus, documents the Egyptians use of frankincense and other plant oils in treating a variety of health challenges. This papyrus is thought to have been composed somewhere between 1553 and 1550 BCE.

Historians believe that during ancient Egyptian times, oils like frankincense were of great value, keeping pace with precious metals like gold. Archeologist Howard Carter excavated the tomb of King Tutankhamen and surmised that evidence of several robberies spoke to the preciousness of frankincense. The robbers specifically took precious metals and aromatic oils, leaving behind other valuable objects.


The ancient Chinese are known to have been meticulous at documenting the scientific medical findings of the effects of herbs on all manner of health ailments. They are also believed to have been masterful in the use of aromatic plants for healing. They perhaps began studying aromatics around the same time as the Egyptians. An ancient Chinese text 'Pen T'Sao,' which is thought to have been written by Emperor Shen Nung around 2500 BCE, identifies medicinal uses for over 300 different plants. Chinese aromatherapists believed that extracting a plant's fragrance represented freeing the plant's soul.


Greek Essential OilsThe ancient Greeks believed all aromatic plants to be of divine origin, and they attributed the invention of perfumes to the gods. They learned a lot about perfumery from the Egyptians. When Herodotus and Democrates visited Egypt in the fourth century BCE, they reported that the people were 'masters of the art of perfumery.' (Photo of ancient perfume jugs)

The Greek physician Marestheus recognized that aromatic plants had either stimulating or sedative properties. He identified rose and hyacinth as refreshing and invigorating. Theophrastus, another Greek of historic importance, wrote that he wasn't surprised that perfumes should have medicinal properties when taking into consideration the other virtues of perfumes.

Without fully understanding the composition or chemical processes of essential oils, the Greeks were still able to profit from the antiseptic properties of the oils. Hippocrates used aromatic essences to fumigate the city of Athens to fight off the plague epidemic. He also suggested that the key to good health is found in taking a daily aromatic bath and receiving a daily scented massage.


The Romans were even more liberal then the Greeks in their use of essential oils. They used aromatics to scent everything- their beds, hair, clothes, bodies and houses. In addition, they used oils in massage and baths. The ancient Romans are famous for their focus on public health as well as for public bath houses, where they implemented aromatherapy. Roman soldiers were also known to carry pouches filled with the seeds of aromatic plants during their military campaigns.


One can clearly see throughout many historical texts that the ancient people of Israel held aromatics in very high esteem. The writings of the Old Testament, also called the Torah, contain many references to the oils, ointments and incenses that were used during that time. The New Testament also includes additional references to the use of essential oils and ointments by the Israelites. Most people in the Western world are familiar with the story of the three wise men and their gifts to the baby Jesus- Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. And, of course, the oil of Spikenard for anointing.


During the period between 1000 BCE to 400 BCE, Arabia was the land of a lucrative spice trade, one that spanned 2400 miles from the Dhofar region of Omar to Petra in Jordan. Frankincense was by far the biggest trade commodity, and it brought great wealth to Arabia. This trade route was called the Frankincense Trail. This trail was used so many times that modern day satellite images still show faint marks on the ground where the camel caravans passed over.

The Arabs are credited with being the first to invent the steam distillation methods that extract oils from plants. In around 1000 CE, Avicenna, an Arabian physician, is said to have invented of this method. (Photo of Bronze Incense Burner dated ca. mid-1st millennium BC. Southwestern Arabia - MET Museum)


By the end of the twelfth century, the Europeans had caught wind of the new distillation process coming out of the Middle East, and were distilling their own essential oils and making their own perfumes.

During the time of the Great Plague in Europe, fumigations with aromatics were often utilized to drive out sickness from the cities. Those who were most in contact with aromatics, especially the perfumers, were virtually immune to the plague while so many died around them. In London, houses and workplaces were fumigated on a daily basis to try and keep the plague away. Frankincense was among the aromatics used.

By the 1500s physicians such as Hieronymus Brunschwig (who wrote one of the earliest printed books on essential oil distillation and use called Liber de Arte Distillandi) were distilling and using essential oils for their medicinal benefits.

Essential Oils Resurface In Modern Times

Essential oils regained popularity in the mid 19th century largely because of their desirable fragrances. As the cosmetic, soap, and food industries grew, so did the demand for essential oils to be used to scent and flavor these products. These essential oils were perhaps not of a therapeutic grade, but they did bring awareness once again to the powerful potential of aromatic compounds. With research conducted by several key individuals, essential oils became recognized once again for their therapeutic and medicinal properties.

Rene-Maurice GattefosseRene-Maurice Gattefosse

The powerful healing properties of essential oils were rediscovered in 1937 by a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who healed a badly burnt hand with pure lavender oil. Gattefosse was working in the laboratories of the cosmetics firm owned and named after his family (of which he was to become head, and which is still in business today). He badly burned his hand during an experiment and plunged his hand into the nearest tub of liquid which just happened to be lavender essential oil. He was later amazed at how quickly his burn healed and with very little scarring. His research didn't stop there. He went on to the discovery of large numbers of essential oils and their qualities. Further, his enthusiasm and dedication to aromatherapy and other medicinal uses of essential oils was without parallel during his time. Gattefosse also had a deeper humanitarian side- aware of the harsh living conditions of small lavender farmers in Haute Provence located in Southern France, he spent many years of his career providing help to develop sound cultivation and distillation methods.

Dr. Jean ValnetDr. Jean Valnet

A French contemporary, Dr. Jean Valnet, used therapeutic-grade essential oils to successfully treat injured soldiers during World War II. Dr. Valnet went on to become a world leader in the development of aromatherapy practices. He began reintroducing natural treatments into modern medical writings in 1948, defining the therapeutic powers of essential oils on a more specific and scientific basis. At a time when medicine had almost totally turned its back on plants and herbal essences, he codified their indications and introduced useful dosages into medical practice. [Source:]

Robert B TisserandRobert B. Tisserand

Robert Tisserand searched for 20 years to obtain a copy of Gattefosse's Aromatherapy. Once he found the book, he edited it and added his own introduction to the 1993 printing. He calls Gattefosse's Aromatherapy the 'missing link for 20th century aromatherapy.' His own research delves into the history, use, properties, and therapeutic benefits of essential oils. Tisserand was also very instrumental in making information about the therapeutic benefits of essential oils available to the general public.

The modern use of essential oils has continued to grow rapidly as health scientists and medical practitioners continue to research and validate the numerous health and wellness benefits of Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade essential oils. As of 2016, there is a group of PhDs from Johns Hopkins University researching which oils work against super-bugs, bacterias and virus'.

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