Aromatherapy is shamanism for everyone. (Schnaubelt 1999, p. vii). Aromatherapy means different things to different people. Popular conceptions vary, despite the best efforts of professional organizations to promote it as a therapeutic modality. Some associate it with an aromatic massage, while many in spas and the beauty industry consider it to be a relaxing or rejuvenating aesthetic treatment. Many understand that involve the use of fragrant plant extracts — yet to some this simply means the use of naturally perfumed personal care products. Some aroma therapists will insist that aromatherapy is a therapeutic discipline based on the belief that odor affects the state of mind. Many aroma therapists who are attracted to a biomedical approach might view aromatherapy as a branch of herbal medicine or as aromatic medicine in its own right. A growing number of therapists are exploring the energetic aspects of best essential oil diffuser, and using ancient philosophical traditions to provide a new context for their practices.
A look at aromatherapy’s historical roots and evolution will help to explain these anomalies. Aromatherapy’s origins are inseparable from those of perfumery, as aromatic plants were used in both religious ceremonies and for personal use and adornment, long before recorded history. So this is a fitting place to start, before continuing to look at the development of modern aromatherapy from its inception in France in the 1930s.
The use of fragrance certainly dates from pre-Egyptian times, preceding 5000 c. Since antiquity, scented flowers have been used for personal adornment. This long history of use is possibly grounded in the concept that the sense of smell is a form of communication in all species.
Other very early uses of plant aromatics were as incenses — sandalwood, cinnamon bark, calamus root, and resins such as myrrh, frankincense and benzoin were burned to release fragrant smoke and vapors. These aromatic incenses were used in religious ritual and ceremony. The root of the word ‘perfume’ is per fumum, the 1atin expression meaning ‘through smoke’; incense provided a link between the mundane and the divine. At an early stage it would have been recognized that different fragrances would elicit different effects on moods, feelings and states of mind during ritual practices. From this a tradition of using specific aromatics or combinations for specific purposes would have gradually developed.
In 1975 Paolo Rovesti (1902—1983), a chemist and pharmacist who became known as the ‘father of phytocosmetics’, discovered a terracotta distillation apparatus in the Indus valley, West Pakistan, which dates from around 3000 BC. Therefore we do know that the process of distillation was known as early as 3000 BC., and that the art and science of perfumery were well developed in ancient and Dynastic Egypt. A considerable array of aromatic products was available and was used for many purposes other than perfumery, including embalming the dead.
In Ancient Rome, perfumery was based on Greek practice, and further developed. Roman perfumers were afforded great respect, and even entire quarters of towns were populated by perfumery practices. By the time of Nero, aromatics were used extensively and extravagantly. Creativity, innovation and also an element of excess characterised Roman perfumery, and the strong links between scent and eroticism were also exploited. The Romans used many of the aromatic plants whose essential oils play an important role in current aromatherapy practice, including rosemary, sage, peppermint, aniseed, pepper and the more exotic floral oils of neroli, rose and jasmine. Herodotus was the first to write about the process of distilling turpentine from pine resin, and many other matters pertaining to the use of perfumes. After the fall of the Roman Empire the use of perfumes declined.
Islamic culture has a crucial role in the evolution of perfumery and aromatherapy. Circa 600 AD the Muslims were scholars and travelers, assimilating the knowledge of all the cultures they encountered. The eighth-century Persian pharmacist Jabir ibn Hayyan (the westernized name given was Geber) developed distillation processes for the production of aromatic waters, and by the thirteenth century these aromatic waters were widely used as medicines and perfumes. Ironically, the tiny droplets of an oily substance that floated on the surface of the distillation waters were regarded as impurities, and routinely discarded. This was, in fact, the essential oil. In the tenth century the Persian physician lbn Cina (Avicenna) made wide use of distillation and indeed was initially credited as the first to do this. He certainly does appear to have invented steam distillation specifically for the preparation of rosewater and other scented floral waters.
Meanwhile, developments in Europe were taking place that also had an impact on the growth of the essential oil industry. Around 11 50 AD the condenser was developed. As its name suggests, the purpose of the condenser was to condense the hot vapors of distillation, making the entire process more ancient, and the subsequent realization of the nature and value of essential oils was the consequence.
Italy was the first European country to make perfumes with these essential oils, closely followed by Spain and Portugal. The perfume industry grew as new aromatic materials were introduced from newly discovered America. France had a perfumery industry by the thirteenth century. The area in the south, around Grasse, became renowned for the cultivation and extraction of flowers such as rose, tuberose, jasmine, mimosa and jonquil. Other areas of cultivation of aromatic
plants became well established, notably Sicily for its citrus oils, Calabria for bergamot and southern Spain for citrus crops and herbs such as sage, rosemary and thyme.
Perfumery arrived in the British Isles with the Romans. However, the practice was slow to develop, and did not become popular until the time of Queen Elizabeth I, when fragrance became available in the forms of pomanders and incense; rosewater, too, became more widely available. Pharmaceutical chemists in England then began to distil aromatic waters of lavender, elderflower and rosemary. However, perfumery in England was not really established until after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. By 1750, peppermint was being produced commercially in Mitcham, Surrey.
These aromatic materials also had pharmaceutical uses. Animal-derived aromatics, such as moschus (musk), were used as antispasmodics, and ambergris (a secretion of the whale) was used as an antispasmodic for the bowel and bronchial tubes, and as a nervine, narcotic, hypnotic and aphrodisiac. The aromatic lavender plant yielded oleum lavandulac, which was used as a stimulant and nervine in conditions such as headache and hysteria. Other aromatic balsams were used for apoplexy. So it can be seen that, although essential oils were originally produced for perfumery, they also very quickly found their way into pharmaceutical industry.
Modern use of essential oils and aromatic plant extracts for therapeutic purposes is based on long and varied traditional practices. However, this falls short of explaining how the discipline of aromatherapy actually came into being.