Aromatherapy evolved out of ancient herbal medicines, ritual offerings and practical need. You cannot make essential oils without aromatic plants. And, you cannot use herbs without understanding the subtle scents that accompany them.
In prehistoric times, fragrant woods and aromatic plants were burned to create an early form of incense as an offering to the gods. Over time, people learned to add aromatic seeds, leaves and flowers to foods as it cooked. This led to fat becoming infused with herbs that enhanced the taste of foods and smelled good.
The earliest written records of using aromatic plants for medicinal use comes from the Chinese. The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine dates back more than 2,000 years B.C.E.
In ancient Egypt, perfumed oils were used in medicine, religious practices and beauty treatments. It’s believed that they were the first to learn how to extract essential oils by steam distillation as well as boiling the herbs in an oil to create a scented ointment. The use of these aromatic oils spread to India, Greece, and later, Rome.
In the tenth century, a Persian physician and philosopher named Ibn Sina refined the Egyptian method of steam distillation by adding a coiled cooling pipe to the process. This method is still in use today.
Over the next few centuries, our understanding of aromatic plants and herbal lore grew. During the Middle Ages, soldiers returning to Europe from the Crusades brought back perfumes, aromatic plants and rosewater.
In the mid-1300s, the Black Death decimated Europe. In addition to herbal preparations and prayer, people tried to protect themselves by scattering the floor with herbs. Physicians wore hoods stuffed with aromatic herbs to protect themselves from the disease.
Apothecaries, individuals how prepared herbal medicines, began to gain status as skilled practitioners. By the fifteenth century, rose, sage, juniper and frankincense essential oils had been added to the growing list of essential oils available.
The legendary Four Thieves oil is rumored to have been created in the early 1600s as another wave of Black Death hit Europe. This blend, made with up to 12 different herbs, was used to create an antiviral, antibacterial formula that protected four grave robbers from catching the plague.
Nicholas Culpepper, herbalist and physician, published The Complete Herbal in 1653. It became a standard reference due to the pharmaceutical and herbal descriptions.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, herbal and essential oil industries continued to evolve in medicinal, food and fragrance industries.
The word ‘aromatherapy’ (or ‘aromatherapie’) was coined by R.M. Gattefosse, a French chemist, in 1928. He was studying the use of essential oils in dermatology. His interest in essential oils was a result of a lab accident: his hand was burned and, to stop the pain, he immersed his hand in the nearest liquid, which happened to be lavender essential oil. The burn healed quickly without infection or the expected scarring.
His book, Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones végétales, was first published in 1937 and is still in print.