The Historical Scoop on Essential Oils and why they have lasted!

Here’s the truth…I dislike history.  I find it boring.  However, I understand the significance of history and the learning and insight that comes from it.  So, you can imagine my surprise on my path of learning about aromatic plants and the use of essential oils, that I found the history absolutely compelling.  I found significance and relevance and amazing insight in the rich history of the use of aromatic plants, dating back to a time that I can only imagine.  This is just a glimpse into 8,000 years of history and the use of essential oils in healing, perfume, and religious ritual.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years.  Essential oils come from aromatic plants and trees, and the use of these plants can be found dating back 7,500+ years!  Formal records do not exist that far back, but there are historical findings that allude to their use in ancient civilizations and cultures.   Although their usage of plants may have been different than our usage today, understanding some history allows for better understanding of how we got here and their healing power in our usage in wellness today.

It is written by some that the Egyptians used aromatic oils as early as 4,500 B.C, in cosmetics, scents, and embalming.  However, the earliest written recording of usage is in both the Chinese and Indian writings, which lists more than 700 substances.  India’s first document use is in the Indian book of Vedas, which documents the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine and dates back to 2000 B.C. Around that same time, the ancient Chinese also mentioned ginger, cinnamon, myrrh, sandalwood, and more as therapeutic remedies with healing properties.

And, as time passed, the use of plants became more widespread and studied.  Some of the greatest physicians in history, who have had lasting contributions to the world of medicine, are steeped in the tradition of essential oils.  Hippocrates (who was born in 370 B.C. in Greece) was one of the first to believe that disease was a natural occurrence (factors of diet, lifestyle, and environment), versus a religious factor or “punishment” inflicted on the sick. 

Hippocrates was known as the Father of Medicine, and he aligned philosophy with medicine.  His premise was based on “the healing power of nature” and promoting the body’s ability to heal itself through natural methods. He wrote about the medicinal use of plants and herbs in Corpus Hippocraticum, 2,300 years ago.

Many ancient civilizations believed in the healing power of plants and where the plants can grow, is a big factor in how their use grew.  Soil is a meaningful factor, which is meaningful to where the growth of the use in history began.  One example is Egypt.  In Egypt, the soil in the valley around the Nile river was so rich that the fragrant plants and trees, such as frankinscense (Boswellia carteri)and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)grew plentiful. And, due to those and the growth of other aromatic plants, that area became known as the Cradle of Medicine! And, of additional historical significance, in the Bible it was written that Frankincense and Myrrh were gifts brought by the wisemen to the birth of Jesus.

Historical examples in fighting widespread disease can be found in Europe in the 14thcentury. The plague, also known as the Bubonic Plague, ravished Europe.  Frankincense, known for its antiseptic properties was used burned as incense during that time as a religious ritual to ward off the plague and as an oil, due to its antiseptic properties. Both frankincense and myrrh continue to be essential in Eastern medicine and in aromatherapy today.

Many of the ancient civilizations had a role in furthering the use of these plants.  The Greeks, Italians, and Persians also made major contributions to the study of aromatic plants for medicinal use, including the distillation process, which allows for the harvesting of the oil from the plants. 

In the 12thcentury, the first woman, recognized for her accomplishments around the use of essential oils, was St. Hildegard of Bingen, from Germany, who may have been the first to use lavender (Lavandula angustiolia)for therapeutic purposes. She was a Benedictine nun, who was an herbalist and a healer, who used plants in her healing.

Today, essential oils are used therapeutically and their chemical breakdown along with the distillation process has been studied in modern day medicine.  And, as the 12thCentury Benedictine Nun understood the healing properties of lavender, our modern day researchers, including the National Institute of Health, have identified strong antibacterial and antifungal properties. 

This is what all this tells me…that the use of plants for medicinal and therapeutic purposes has survived the test of time.  And, as we venture forward on our paths towards wellness and beauty from the inside out, plant therapy or essential oils, is an integral and time-tested opportunity, which much history and “science” behind it.