Aromatherapy is loosely defined as the use of aromas to alter moods or behaviors, or more specifically as a type of therapy utilizing essential oils from plants, flowers and trees. Essential oils, the key tool in aromatherapy, are used in massage therapy, baths, body oils, diffusers and many other ways. Each essential oil has different properties. Some, like tea tree, are used to treat skin conditions while lavender promotes a restful state.
An Ancient Art
The term “aromatherapy” is a relatively modern one, but the practice is extremely old. The first recorded use of the practice of aromatherapy dates back to the ancient Egyptian civilization, when those crafty pyramid builders created a machine that extracted the oil from cedar wood. That oil was used, along with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and myrrh, to embalm the dead. Egyptian women, understanding the value of soft, supple skin, also used essential oils after bathing. Men and women alike enjoyed wearing perfumed cones on their heads.
When the Greeks came a’ conquering around 48 BC, they discovered the joys of scented oils and perfume from the Egyptians. However, the Greeks were no strangers to the medicinal use of herbs and aromas. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, studied and documented the use of over 200 herbs. Those innovative Romans made quite a large contribution as well. Roman physician Dioscorides tagged along with Nero’s army through Europe, studying over 600 plants along the way. He compiled all this information, complete with drawings, in his masterpiece “De Materia Medica.”
Fast forward to the 14th century, when the Plague was sweeping through Europe on a population-control mission (taking out between 30-60%, depending on the source). During this time, the Catholic Church controlled most medications and it wasn’t too fond of sharing. Apothecaries created their own formulas using essential oils and herbs. When the plague sequel came out in the 17th century, perfume makers and other professionals working with essential oils seemed to have a higher rate of survival because essential oils are typically antiseptic in nature, helping keep bacterium like good old y. pestis (aka the plague) at bay.
In the early 20th century, René-Maurice Gattefossé , a French chemist, discovered the natural healing properties of lavender. Accounts vary regarding just how this discovery came about. Some say he plunged his burned arm into a conveniently located vat of oil, while others say he already knew about the healing properties and used it on purpose to sooth his bad burns after a lab accident. Regardless of how he came to understand the healing properties of lavender, the incident was enough to cause him to shift his focus to the beneficial properties of other oils. In 1937, he published “Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Eormones Vegetales, ” which simply became “Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy” when translated into English. Inspired by Gattefosse, French doctor Jean Valnet began studying and using essential oils in his own practice. His book, “The Practice of Aromatherapy,” brought modern aromatherapy to the English world.
When “modern medicine” came on the scene, the older ways, including aromatherapy, got shoved into the background. However, as more and more people are navigating towards a more natural way of living, aromatherapy has been making a strong comeback.