Essential Oils Through the Ages

Essential Oils Through the Ages

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Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema @kellysikkema

Essential oils have always had an integral and important role in natural (holistic) medicine as well as having played a significant religious role.  History shows that they were sought out in early civilizations to heal and fortify the body. The mind, the body and the spirit were quite significant in religious practices as well, and essential oils enhanced all three.  Essential oils were foundational in commercial trade between cultures, which contributed to economic stability and growth as well as to the sharing of knowledge between cultures.

Knowledge of the properties of the oils virtually placed practitioners in a different class: those who knew the mysteries of plants. Practitioners were almost an elite class consulted by political and religious leaders for religious and medicinal purposes.

Essential oils have a colorful and fascinating story to tell across time. Let’s travel into the past together and discover their story.

Photo credit: Leonardo Ramos @leonardoeron

Ancient Egypt (circa 4,500 B.C)

It is fairly safe to say that ancient Egypt with its fertile Nile valley was the birthplace of aromatherapy and related practices. As far back as 4,500 B.C., the Egyptians were creating ointments, perfumes, aromatic oils, and developing cosmetics using plant oils (cosmetology). They exploited the plants found along the Nile River for medicinal purposes and well being. They also made resins, aromatic vinegar, and spices from plants growing along the river.

One interesting practice was the wearing of a solid cone of perfume on the head. The cone would gradually melt and cover the person with fragrance.

Two oils, myrrh, and frankincense were highly prized.  Myrrh was widely used in rejuvenating facial treatments and frankincense was charred and ground into a powder to make the kohl eyeliner for which the Egyptians were famous. Both of these oils/spices have been traded throughout the Middle East and North Africa for over 5,000 years. And, as the Bible states, myrrh and frankincense were two of the three gifts given as gifts by the Magi from the East.

Religious practices and essential oils were intertwined. Egyptians held the belief that essential oils were needed to be “one with the gods” Each deity had a specific fragrance and, at one point, only high priests could use them; fragrances were used for opening the sub-conscious mind and facilitating communication with the spirit world. The practice of mummification, a strictly religious process, used spices and oils of cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and juniper. Essential oils were used in all aspects of daily life.

Photo credit: Dennys Hess @dennyshess

China (circa 2697-2597 B.C)

Essential oils spread into China during the reign of Huang-Ti and were used primarily for medicinal purposes. Emperor Huang-Ti is famous for having written The Yellow Emporer’s Book of Internal Medicine, which is still referred to today by those practicing essential oil treatments in Eastern medicine.  Shennong’s Herbal ( a study of 365 plants)  is China’s oldest surviving medical text (2,200 B.C.). Today, China is one of the world’s biggest producers of essential oils.

Photo credit: Tim @timvk

India (3,000 years ago)

Essential oils have been the backbone of Ayurvedic medicine (practiced for over 4,000 years) almost from the beginning of their introduction into India. They were used for both religious and therapeutic purposes. Some of the more commonly used oils were: ginger, cinnamon, myrrh, coriander, and sandalwood.

Photo credit: Cristina Gottardi @cristina_gottardi

Ancient Greece (circa 400 – 500 B.C.)

Essential oils were adopted into Greek circles (influenced by the Egyptians). Hypocrites, the most famous of Greek physicians, studied over 300 plant oils and documented each one of their uses. He advocated essential oil perfumed baths and massages for well being and wrote: The Key to Good Health Rests on Having a Daily Aromatic Bath and Scented Massage.

Another Greek physician, Galen, also developed a wide knowledge of plants and their uses and wrote extensively on them. He treated Roman gladiators and, reportedly, even emperor Marcus Aurelius. Roman physicians used the writings of both Hypocrites and Galen as a basis for their practice. Romans were fanatical about aromatic baths and scented massages.

Discondis (the father of pharmacy) was a physician in Emporer Nero’s army and wrote De Materia Medica.

The ancient Greeks believed that the air was toxic and needed to be fumigated. They held that the winds and other elements filled the air with disease-bearing germs. So, they would fumigate the air with scents to clean it.

The Roman Empire

The Romans were influenced by the knowledge of both the Greeks and the Egyptians in medicinal practices and integrated them in the various aspects of their society. The bathhouses of the Roman empire were famous throughout the empire and beyond. They would infuse the baths with aromatic oils and use them for massages as well, following the teachings of Hippocrates.

Under the Roman empire, Israelites would use oils such as frankincense, cedarwood, hyssop, and fir to enhance spiritual communion.

Photo credit; Hasan Almasi @hassanalmasi

Persia (circa 980 -1037 A.D)

Ali-Ibn Sana (also known as Avicenna the Arab), was a well-known physician and a prodigy at 12 years of age. He wrote extensively on plants and the properties and uses of their oils. His books document the properties and uses of 800 plants. Ali-Ibn Sana is also the one who discovered the method of distilling essential oils, a method that is still used today. He discovered the chemistry behind non-oil-based perfumes and this allowed him to produce rose water which was highly esteemed as a status symbol in Persia (now Iran).

The Dark Ages

Following the fall of the Roman empire and the subsequent rise of the Catholic church and beginning or religious oppression, bathing was considered to be sinful and was strictly prohibited. The use of aromatics became almost obsolete. The prohibition of bathing contributed to the spreading of the plague (the Black Death).

There was also a lot of thievery during the times of the plague. Interestingly, thieves who robbed plague victims were said to have been perfumers and spice traders who regularly bathed in the oils of cinnamon, cloves, and frankincense and were not infected when touching plague victims.

The Holy Crusaders, coming back from the distant lands in the East, brought with them essential oils and perfumes as well as herbal medicines. These became highly popular in Europe. During the 14th century, when the bubonic plague was in full force, these herbal preparations were used extensively to fight off the disease and prevent it from spreading.

The belief of foul scent causing disease continued into the Middle Ages. People believed foul scents were offensive to God and also that they caused illness. They would wear amulets containing oils, incense, and fragrance around their necks to ward off the “evil air”.  Apothecaries ( alchemists who prepared these mixtures) set up shop and began selling their wares in the 16th century. This time period was a transitional period between serfdom on land owned by lords and the rise of free enterprise.

The Rennaissance

The Rennaissance brought people out of darkness and oppression to an awakening to holistic medicine to heal and nourish the body. Old medicinal practices were revived. A new interest in natural medicine was born. Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), a physician and alchemist of outstanding medicinal success is said to have been highly successful at healing leprosy with natural medicine.

By the 1600’s literature on essential oils was spreading around Europe (particularly England, France, and Germany). By the 1800’s, most pharmaceutical books (pharmacopeia) in these three countries were prescribing essential oils for treatment. In France, during the spread of tuberculosis (the 1800’s), those working in the flower fields (exposed to plant oils), remained, for the most part, free from tuberculosis. This discovery led to the first lab test on the antibacterial properties of essential oils (1887).

World War I

During the first world war, Chemist René-Maurice Gattefosse was treating ground soldiers with essential oils and eventually (in 1928) coined the term “aromatherapie” as being ” the treatment of injury and disease by use of essential oils.”

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @anniespratt


Well! We certainly have come a long, long way from the early beginnings of plant oils. Unlike in ancient Egypt, essential oils are not restricted to a certain class of society. And, thankfully, we don’t have to spend time fumigating the air outside with fragrances like they did in ancient Greece and the Roman empire, though it certainly is a good practice to clean the air inside the home. We can burn incense if we like, but it doesn’t have to be a part of a religious ritual.

Knowledge about essential oils is available to everyone as is knowledge about hygiene, so the Bubonic plague or other such diseases can be effectively taken care of with proper understanding of plant properties and use of plant oils. And thank goodness we don’t have to go around town with amulets around our necks to ward off sickness and evil air. That would not be much fun.

Photo credit: Christin Hume @christinhumephoto

My Takeaway

The story of essential oils is fascinating. I hope you enjoyed it as well. I personally use essential oils and have found them to be helpful in many ways. I encourage you to find out more about these versatile oils.

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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, pursuing a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. Diana is a Quebec City girl. who loves living life.  You can connect with her through






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