Throughout recorded history, humans have been aware of the marked effects of scented plants on their minds, bodies and emotions. Humans have always smelled flowers, and early humans became aware of the changes specific scents created within themselves at an early age.
When civilisation began, humans compiled aromatic knowledge into a body of lore, certain fragrant plants were worn or sniffed to heal the body. The rarest, costliest and most aromatic plants were offered in worship. Though the aim was to please the deities, incense smoke also affected the worshippers as well. The smoke released from burning frankincense, for instance, directly heightened the participants’ spiritual involvement in the rite.
On the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples lost in the desert, one symbol frequently occurs – a half round, handled object with lines representing smoke rising from it. This validates the use of incense in Egypt from the earliest times. They were an extraordinary people and as Egypt grew strong, its rulers imported frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon from far-distant lands to be used in medicine, food preservation, cooking, religion and magic. These fragrant treasures were demanded as tribute from conquered peoples and were even traded for gold. Use of fragrance even extended after death. Embalmed bodies were anointed with scented salve, and jars of perfume were sealed in the tombs for use during the deceased after-life. The Egyptians created their perfumes by soaking plant materials in oils or fats. Olive oil and oil of balanos seem to have been preferred. The oil slowly absorbed the scent, creating the perfume. This was the only type of liquid fragrance used in early times as true essential oils were not available.
Sumerians and Babylonians
From much recorded literature of their forbears the Sumerians and Babylonians both used incense. The Sumerians may have been burning juniper berries to the goddess Inanna before the Egyptians practiced organised religion. Later the Babylonians continued the ritual by burning the sweet perfume on Ishtar’s altars. Juniper seems to have been the commonest incense but other plants were used. Cedarwood, pine, cypress, myrtle, calamus and many others were fumed and offered to the deities
Greeks and Romans
The Greeks believed that the fresh scents rising from living plants maintained physical health. Their homes were constructed with rooms that opened onto herb and flower gardens. Perhaps the best known use of odorous plants among the Greeks was the practice of crowning Olympic victory with chaplets of heavily scented laurel (bay) leaves. Roses, carnations, lilies, myrtle, cardamom, iris, marjoram, spikenard, even quinces and pomegranates were all used for their scents. Oils scented with quince or white violet eased stomach upset. Grape-leaf perfume was used to clear the head. Garlands of roses were worn to relieve headache.
When Greece fell to Rome the Romans continued the use of perfumes with vast quantities of plant materials consumed until 565 when a law was passed which forbade the use of exotic scents by private citizens.
Aromatherapy, in one form or another, has been with us from the earliest great civilisations. It is as old as the moment when a human being first smelled the scent rising from a flower and is increasing in popularity as many experience its effectiveness.
The French doctor and scientist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse is the 20th century father of modern aromatherapy. Gattefosse is credited with coining the name aromatherapy to describe treatments with essential oils. His main achievement was to discover the powerful antiseptic nature of many essential oils. He also discovered that the essential oils are more powerful in their natural state than when their active chemicals are used in isolation.
Hospitals in France regularly utilise aromatherapy to speed healing and reduce the pain of patients. It is a complex art in which essential oils are massaged into the body or inhaled in order to produce the desired physiological, mental or emotional effect. The art of aromatherapy lies in proficiency in massage, wide knowledge of the properties of essential oils and in their use in treating specific conditions.