Aromatic plant oils are a vital component of ancient culture that dates back to nearly the beginning of time. It appears that it was the Egyptians who first made extensive use of herbs with distillation methods around 3,500 B.C. Essential oils were used in Egyptian health protocols and used in the burial of rulers and pharaohs. When King Tut’s tomb was opened, 350 liters of essential oils were discovered in alabaster jars. It’s been documented that Cleopatra, who was famous for her beauty and charm, owned the first spa near the dead sea where she used essential oils for her personal beauty treatments. Also, essential oils were used by Moses and were referenced in the Bible. In fact, in the book of Exodus when the Lord refers to holy anointing oil, it was a specific formula God recommended. This formula was used to anoint priests and kings. And, this holy anointing oil was used when someone went to the priest for healing. The oil was poured onto their head, and they were prayed for. And this wasn’t just a ritual, this oil was known to have powerful properties.
“In the Bible,essential oils are referenced 264 times and 33 different types of oils are mentioned.” In the book of Numbers 16, Moses tells the high priest Aaron to burn oils as incense to stop a plague. We know that these oils, especially cinnamon, have powerful antibacterial properties that can help balance the digestive tract and defend the body.Other essential oils used frequently during that time period include frankincense, hyssop, spikenard and cedarwood.
This wisdom then sailed across the Mediterranean and evidently reached Hippocrates, who utilized aromatherapy to enhance massage techniques a few centuries before the coming of Christ. Somewhere in the midst of this knowledge transfer, China and India also started to employ herbal remedies and embraced essential oils extensively. Then, as the Bible tells us, 3 wise men gave the infant King of Israel gifts of gold to honor his royalty, frankincense as a perfume, and myrrh for anointing oil. Although there is probably some truth to this, other sources claim that the wise men from the far east were actually being more practical by giving the baby Jesus these precious, costly items that could double as potential health remedies.
During that time frankincense was used to support the immune system and healthy inflammation response. Myrrh was known to help recovery after pregnancy and support hormonal health.
As civilizations transferred world power, the essential oil techniques from Greece traveled to Rome which favored aromatherapy and fragrances. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Persia picked up these techniques and perfected the essential oil distillation process.
Sadly, the Dark Ages brought with it a disdain for Hippocrates’ holistic approach. However, because the Catholic Church viewed bathing as inappropriate, high esteem was given to aromatics, which coincidently are also antimicrobial, to keep foul odor at bay.2 Little did they know that their perfume was also helping stave off airborne germs!
During this era, it’s believed that Monks continued the tradition of essential oils and secretly kept herbal tradition alive in the halls of their monasteries. Unfortunately, traditional herbalism was viewed as “witchcraft,” and many herbalists were either burned at the stake or persecuted.
Thankfully, the Renaissance resurrected herbalism and physicians such as Paracelsus challenged his medical colleagues with testimonials of successfully using plants in patient protocols.
What we know as modern “aromatherapy” was not introduced formally until French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse first coined the phrase in 1937. Although he wasn’t necessarily a natural health advocate, he became interested in essential oils after a 1910 accident where he badly burned his hand. Gattefosse used the first available salve in his laboratory — a pure, undiluted lavender oil compound that not only immediately eased the pain, but aided in wound healing without infection or scar.
Because of Gattefosse’s work, Dr. Jean Valet used essential oils with injured soldiers in World War II. This led to Marguerite Maury being the first person to “individually recommend” essential oil combinations using a Tibetan technique for back massage applied to nerve endings along the spine.
Today, essential oils are still used by “kings” and “priests” as well as by doctors, nutritionists and other experts along with laypeople all over the world.