Essential oils, sometimes called aromatic oils, has been in existence with many cultures for centuries since man discovered how to extract the liquid from selected plants, herbs, roots, and even bark. Their historical value, depending on the culture, was varied from medicinal purposes to religious or ceremonial use. This is understandable considering that there were no modern pharmaceuticals during ancient times, and essential oils were mostly extracted and mixed by self-trained alchemists.
It was in Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France where the earliest evidence of medicinal plant oils was discovered. Carbon dated to around 18,000 B.C.E., cave paintings showed the use of medicinal plants and oils in daily life.
It was in Egypt as early as 4500 B.C.E. that the first recorded history was discovered in the use of aromatic oils. Egyptian alchemists became renowned across the empire for their knowledge of cosmetology, ointments, and aromatic oils. During this period their most popular herbal preparation was called “Kyphi” that was a mixture of 16 ingredients for use as incense, perfume, or medicine. Egyptians also had widespread use of balsams, perfumed oils, scented bark, resins, spices, aromatic vinegar, aniseed, cedar, onion, garlic, grapes, and watermelon, many being
converted into pills, powders, suppositories, medicinal cakes, and ointments. However, aromatic oils proved to be the most popular in use around the empire and were even used during the embalming process of mummies.
Ancient history seems to record more of China about essential oils since the Chinese actually made essential oils the official healing potion of the empire, thanks to the decree of the Yellow Emperor Huang Ti between 2697 – 2597 B.C.E. and this was continued by other emperors that followed. Many emperors’ internal medicine books are still used by eastern medicinal practitioners today.
Traditional Indian essential oil medicines collectively called “Ayur Veda” were created 3,000 years ago. These “healing potions” used substances such as sandalwood, myrrh, ginger, and cinnamon. During the spread of the Bubonic Plague to Asia from Europe, Indian essential oils were used successfully to medicinally arrest the spread of the deadly sickness, while also being used for religious ceremonies to ward off the plague.
Between 400 – 500 B.C.E., Greek physicians had detailed records of essential oils learned from the Egyptians. Myrrh ointments were used by soldiers in battle to counter infections. The Greek physician Hypocrites (460-377 B.C.E.) is known as the “Father of Medicine” because he studied and documented the effects of over 300 plants such as peppermint, cumin, marjoram, saffron, and thyme. Hypocrites’ extensive knowledge began when Greek soldiers brought back Ayur Vedic from India during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Another Greek physician, Galen, actually became the personal physician to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, because of the use of essential oils and medicinal plants. Roman medicine greatly copied from Greek physicians.
Ali-Ibn Sana or Avicenna the Arab (980-1037 A.D.) was a physician who wrote books on the properties of more than 800 plants and their effects. He is also credited for having invented the method of distilling essential oils, his methods still being used today.