The History of Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

The use of aromatic essential oils to unlock the healing powers of scent is far from a new discovery. Although the term “aromatherapy” is new – a 20th century invention first coined by a French chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, to be exact – the actual practice goes back thousands of years. The use of essential oils in particular is around a millennium old.

Although no one knows for sure who was the first to start using aromatic plants, woods, and spices for the promotion of physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, many experts in the field believe that it all started in China. Ancient Chinese were in the habit of burning incense in order to balance the cosmic vibrations of physical spaces and promote spiritual harmony.

Eventually, the ancient civilizations of Egypt, India, and Persia would invent the first distillation mechanisms by which fragrant oils would be extracted from various substances (like cedar wood, nutmeg, myrrh, and cinnamon). The Egyptians in particular were also well known for using aromatic herbs and oil infusions for cosmetic, medicinal, and spiritual purposes.

The ancient Greeks and Romans would be the next to discover the wonders of aromatherapy and essential oils. The Greeks developed fumigation methods for medicinal and aromatic use. The Romans would build on the knowledge of those before them by compiling information on the properties and benefits of over 500 known plants in a book known as De Materia Medica.

The next noteworthy jump forward in the use of aromatics would come in the 11th century when a Persian by the name of Avicenna would invent a coiled pipe that allowed for the optimal cooling and steaming of plant vapors. Avicenna’s discovery would eventually lead to a much greater focus on the true powers of essential oils, as well as the benefits of aromatherapy.

During the 14th and 15th century, herbal preparations and aromatic vapors would be used to help fight the effects of plagues such as the Black Death. As the 15th century in particular progressed, a multitude of additional books on the subject would be produced. The alchemist Paracelcus would also become the first person to officially use the term “essence” in conjunction with the practice of aromatherapy.

Over the following centuries moving forward toward the current one, people would continue to experiment with essential oils and their properties for a variety of purposes. Today, essential oils are not only used medicinally, but also for spiritual, cosmetics, or relaxation purposes.


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